Shiur #25: Can We Kill the Evil Inclination?

  • Rav Yitzchak Blau
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Understanding Aggada
Yeshivat Har Etzion

Shiur #25: Can We Kill the Evil Inclination?

By Rav Yitzchak Blau



"And they cried out with a great voice to the Lord, God" (Nechemya 9:4).  What did they say?  Said Rav — some say, Rabbi Yochanan — "Woe, woe. It is the [inclination for idolatry] which destroyed the Temple, burnt the Sanctuary, killed all the righteous and exiled Israel from our land, and it is still dancing among us.  Was it given to us for any reason other than to receive reward [for resisting him]?  We want neither it nor the reward."

A note fell from heaven, upon which was written, "Truth."  Rav Chanina said: "From here we can derive that the seal of the Holy One, Blessed be He, is truth."

They sat fasting for three days and three nights, and it was handed over to them.  It departed from the Holy of Holies as a fiery lion-cub.  The prophet [Zekharya] said to Israel: "This is the inclination for idolatry," as it is written, "And he said: 'This is the wickedness'" (Zekharya 5:8).

As they grabbed hold of it, one of its hairs fell out; it raised its voice and the sound carried four hundred parasangs (1400 miles).

They said: "What should we do?  Perhaps, God forbid, they might have mercy upon him from heaven." 

The prophet said to them: "Cast it into a pot of lead and close its opening with lead — for lead muffles the sound — as it is written, "And he said: 'This is the wickedness.'  And he cast it down into the basket, and he cast the lead weight upon its opening'" (Zekharya 5:8).

They said: "Since this is a time of grace, let us ask for mercy regarding the inclination for [sexual] sins."  They asked for mercy, and it was handed over to them. 

It said to them: "Realize that if you kill me, the world will be finished."           

They imprisoned it for three days, but when they then looked in the entire land of Israel for a fresh egg, they could not find one. 

They said: "What should we do?  Should we kill it?  The world will be finished.  Should we ask for mercy on a portion?  They do not grant halves in heaven."

They blinded its eyes and let it go.  This helped, in that people are no longer tempted by their relatives.

   (Yoma 69b)


On one level, this story points to a historical shift.  The Scriptural narrative tells us that idolatry remained a constant threat during the First Temple period; as we proceed to the time of the Second Temple, the Jewish people seem to cease struggling with the temptation for idolatry.  Many other sins remain a problem, but idolatry does not.  Thus, this gemara has prophets from the time of the return from the Babylonian exile, the beginning of the Second Temple era, involved with the termination of the inclination for idolatry.


Presumably, the Gemara intends to convey some content beyond the historical.  Perhaps a series of questions will help point us in the right direction.  Clearly, we could question: why does the embodiment of this inclination emerge from the Holy of Holies?  Surely, the Gemara does not want to associate something evil with the holiest chamber in our most sanctified place? 


Several Acharonim in the Ein Yaakov suggest answers, but these explanations leave us unsatisfied.  The Etz Yosef argues that God's two major creations are the world and the human being: just as the evil inclination resides in the innermost part of the human being, so too the embodiment of that inclination comes from the center of the world, the Foundation Stone within the holy of Holies.  The Anaf Yosef adds that the fire represents the arrogance found in the heart that leads us towards idolatry.  Alternatively, the fire may simply reflect the power of a given urge.  In other contexts (see Kiddushin 81a), the Gemara utilizes the metaphor of fire to depict a burning temptation.  Perhaps the lion also adds another image of power.  Without denigrating the approaches of these Acharonim, we should still search for some other interpretation of the chosen location.


A few more questions emerge from this tale.  What is the symbolism of the hair that falls from the idolatrous inclination?  Why are they successful at eradicating this temptation, but find it impossible to do away with the urge for sexual transgressions?


The clue to solving these riddles lies in a comment by Rav Mei'ir Simcha Ha-kohen of Dvinsk.  In the Vilna Gaon's commentary on Seder Olam, he connects the end of the inclination for idolatry with the termination of prophecy.  Indeed, both seem to come to an end at the conclusion of the Babylonian exile.  Rav Mei'ir Simcha (Meshekh Chokhma, Bamidbar 11:17) contends that the Gra is commenting on a verse in Zekharya (13:2):


And it will be on that day, says the Lord of hosts, I will cut off the names of the idols from the land and they will not be mentioned again, and I will also remove the prophets and the unclean spirits from the land.


Most commentaries assume that the prophets referred to in this verse are false prophets, associated with pagan temples; therefore, they are removed together with the idols.  According to Rav Mei'ir Simcha, the verse refers to authentic prophets: they come to an end when the idols cease to tempt us. 


Why would the positive institution of prophecy and the negative institution of idolatry be linked?  Perhaps this indicates that all forces and energies in this world have the potential for positive and negative realization.  Getting rid of any force then must, by definition, have both negative and positive effects.


This idea finds support in the latter part of the gemara.  The sages contemplate killing the sexual urge but discover that the world would then be destroyed: the same force that leads many to sin also perpetuates the propagation of the world and helps forge a loving relationship between husbands and wives.  Recall that they consider asking for mercy on a portion; Rashi says this means that they wanted the sexual urge to be present only between spouses.  The answer "They do not grant halves in heaven" now takes on deeper meaning: it means that there is no force in the world that cannot be utilized well, on the one hand, or perverted, on the other.  Our job is not to eliminate particular urges, but to figure out how they can be part of a dignified and holy existence.


The notion that removing any force from the world involves sacrificing something may have been understood on some level even earlier in the story.  The sages offer to give up the reward for overcoming the temptation to idolatry; from that perspective, they do lose something positive when that urge leaves the world.  Yet the negative aspects eradicated are apparently far greater.  The same urge to idolatry helps bring about the phenomenon of prophecy. Therefore, their decision to eradicate the temptation to idolatry comes at a significant spiritual cost.


Rav Mei'ir Simcha does not explain the link between idolatry and prophecy.  I would suggest that both involve an intense feeling of Divine presence.  We may be disgusted by many elements of pagan ritual and nevertheless appreciate that child sacrifice may stem from a feeling of being overwhelmed by the Divine presence; perhaps a similar feeling, in a nobler and more refined form, belongs to the prophetic experience.  It follows that relinquishing one mandates a loss of the other as well. 


It may be that the sages do not destroy this impulse entirely for this very reason.  Rav Ya'akov Emden understands the hair that falls out as symbolic of the fact that a bit of this inclination remains on the Earth.  We may have justifiably removed the inclination for idolatry, but the desire for a religious experience of grand intensity needs to remain part of our world, if only in a reduced form.


As I have argued before, modern man often tries to save the world by manipulating the political, economic and technological forces around him.  This approach often demonstrates a failure to realize that corrupt people can warp any system; the same technology that produces new cures also produces frightening weapons of mass destruction.  Rather than looking for an external panacea, our essential efforts must be directed towards producing finer human beings who will know how to utilize the forces about them in the best way.