August 16, 2013
Heschel on the Spiritual Battlefield
Classic rabbinic tradition understands well the battle waged within every human being between the good inclination (yetzer tov) and the evil inclinations (yetzer hara), a theme upon which Jews particularly focus during the month of Elul leading to the High Holidays.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-1972) wrote eloquently of this dynamic as follows [note: Rabbi Heschel wrote his books before modern feminism influenced many writers to consider alternatives to gender exclusive language. Out of respect for Rabbi Heschel’s original work, I have left the language as he wrote it, though I suspect he would have written it differently so as to be more inclusive had he lived in a later period]:
Life is lived on a spiritual battlefield. Man must constantly struggles with “the evil drive,” “for man is like unto a rope, one end of which is pulled by God and the other end by Satan.” “Woe to me for my yotzer [Creator], woe to me for my yetzer [the evil drive],” says a Talmudic epigram. If a man yield to his lower impulses, he is accountable to his Creator; if he obeys his Creator, then he is plagued by sinful thoughts.
Should we, then, despair because of our being unable to retain perfect purity? We should, if perfection were our goal. However, we are not obliged to be perfect once and for all, but only to rise again and again beyond the level of the self. Perfection is divine, and to make it a goal of man is to call on man to be divine. All we can do is to try to write our hearts clean in contrition. Contrition begins with a feeling of shame at our being incapable of disentanglement from the self. To be contrite at our failures is holier than to be complacent in perfection. (Between Man and God, p. 188)