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Vaetchanan: Using the Yetser haTov for the Good

Published on Thursday September 23th, 2021

Devarim, 6:5: “You shall love HaShem, your G-d, with all our heart, with all your soul, and with all your resources.”

Rashi, 6:5, sv. With all your heart: With both of your inclinations.

Va’etchanan features the first paragraph of the Shema, where we are told to serve Hashem with all our hearts.  The word, heart in hebrew, is leiv, and ‘your heart’ is לבך which is normally with one ‘beis.  However, in the Shema it is spelt with two ‘beitim’- לבבך.  Rashi explains that the phrase, ‘with all your heart’ refers to the two inclinations: the positive and the negative.[1]   The commentaries explain that Rashi is coming to answer why the Torah used two ‘beit’ on this occasion – the ‘beit’ alludes to the heart and the two ‘beitim’ allude to the two forces that determine the heart – the positive and negative inclinations.[2]

Many commentaries discuss what it means that we should serve Hashem with our yetzer hatov, however, Rav Moshe Feinstein zt”l also notes a difficulty with the fact that the Torah exhorts us to serve HaShem with our yetzer hatov.  He asks why it was necessary to tell us to love HaShem with our yetzer hatov; surely that inclination automatically directs a person to doing good deeds.[3]

He answers that in fact this is not the case; were the yetzer hatov left to its own devices it will not necessarily direct a person to perform ratson HaShem.  Without the guidance of the Torah as the ultimate source of morality, one may come to define what is good and evil according to his own logic, and thereby develop a warped sense of right and wrong.  In this way, writes Rav Feinstein, the yetzer hatov can cause a person to do actions that go against the Torah’s definition of right and wrong.  He gives the example of charity; the yetzer hatov directs a person to want to give money to others, however there are occasions when he may want to give to inappropriate causes.  My Rebbe Rav Berkovits shlita, expands on this example, arguing that at times it is not right to give charity to a person.  For example if it will only engender more dependence on others, or if the money will be used for unhealthy purposes, then it may not be correct to give in this form.  In order to accurately perform ratson Hashem in this delicate issue a person must turn to the Torah’s words for guidance.  This often means asking a competent Torah authority who can be trusted to transmit daas Torah.

Another example that Rav Feinstein mentions is misplaced rachmanus (mercy).  This includes feeling remorse for evil people; this is a flaw that has affected great people in Jewish history.  Perhaps the foremost example is the great Shaul HaMelech.  

On HaShem’s command he was commanded to destroy the whole nation of Amalek. including the women, children, and animals.  Shaul defeated the Amalekim in the subsequent battle, and did kill everyone with the exception of the Amalekite King, Agag, and a few animals.[4] The gemara offers an explanation for Shaul's reluctance to kill all the Amalekim.  It tells us that Shaul made a kal v'chomer[5]; he noted the mitzvah of egla arufa[6] - this is a solemn ceremony that takes place upon the murder of a person in between two cities.  It demonstrates the Torah's concern with regard to a single death, and its emphasis on the value of human life.[7]  Shaul reasoned that if a single human life had so much value, all the more so that is the case with regard to a whole nation.[8]   The gemara further tells us that in reaction to Shaul's 'merciful' reasoning, a Bas kol (Heavenly voice) came out, and said, "do not be overly righteous".[9] 

As a result of his failure to listen to Hashem due to his feelings of mercy, he was punished with the loss of his Kingship.  What were the consequences of this mistake?  Agag begot offspring and one of his descendants was Haman.  Thus Shaul’s act of ‘mercy’ nearly led to the destruction of the Jewish nation.

These are just two examples of how even a person’s yetzer hatov can direct him away from ratson HaShem.  A particularly relevant application today is in present day society when many disparate groups within Orthodoxy seem to preach highly different and often opposing messages in a number of areas, such as the roles of Torah learning, working, the use of technology and so on.  How can one know when his particular belief is based on the Torah’s definition of morality or merely the personal leanings of his yetzer hatov[10]?  There is no simple answer to this question, but as we mentioned above, the most sure way of discerning the truth is to turn to those people most well-versed in the Torah outlook – the Gedolim and talmidei chachamim who are most able to follow their guidance and clarify application of such guidance in specific cases.  Without such direction a person is at risk of failing to follow the Torah’s exhortation to use his yetzer hatov in the way that the Torah intended.  May we all merit to use both our inclinations to perform ratson HaShem.

[1] Yetser hatov and yetser hara.

[2] Sifsei Chachamim, Devarim, 6:15, sk.50.

[3] Darash Moshe, Devarim, 6:15.

[4] Shmuel 1, Ch.15.

[5] This is a kind of logical argument, which is best translated as "all the more so".

[6] Literally meaning, the 'calf with the broken neck'.

[7] See Parshas Shoftim, 21:1-9 for the details of this mitzvah.

[8] Yoma, 22b.

[9] This is part of a verse from Kohelel, Ch.7.

[10] Needless to say, these leanings are influenced by a number of factors including one’s society and personal situation.

Rabbi Yehonasan GEFEN - © Torah-Box Account

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