Even babies struggle with yetzer hara — evil inclinations
Hi Rabbi Fried,
First of all, Shanah Tovah to you, your family and everyone with DATA.
I am a bit confused about a statement that you made in your column some time ago, as follows: “From the time we are born until the day we die, we are in a struggle with the yetzer hara” (evil inclination).” I noticed too that in the High Holy Day Amidah we say “I have erred, been iniquitous and willfully sinned before you from the day I have existed on earth until this very day … ” Of course, I can understand when children are around 18 months or so, they start to exercise their wills and can be mischievous. They certainly must learn to control the yetzer hara and direct their emotion and inclinations. But a newborn baby? This is hard for me to wrap my brain around.
Thank you for your blessings; I return them to you and yours.
Now, to answer your question, Jewish tradition describes different stages in the soul-body relationship development. The soul first descends in the world when the child is still a fetus in its mother’s womb, according to most, on the 40th day from conception. At this stage, the fetus has a completely pure soul without any desire for evil. According to tradition, an angel teaches the fetus the entirety of Torah at this time. This reflects the Kabbalistic teaching that the Jewish soul and the Torah are actually one entity; the pureness of the soul at that time allows this natural status quo to.
However, for that soul to attain its own perfection, it must be borne into the physical world of illusion and concealment. Through the struggle of free will to allow truth to overcome the falsehood of the surrounding world, the person attains moral greatness.
At the time of birth the yetzer hara, or “evil inclination” enters a person. This means an individual’s soul loses the incredible clarity it had before entering the physical world. The soul’s desires are overshadowed by the physicality of the body and its ego. Selfishness and materialism mutes the yearning for spiritual fulfillment.
The Talmud suggests this yearning is portrayed through a baby’s clenched hands at the time of birth. The clenching of the hands symbolizes taking, whereas open hands represent giving. The baby’s entire existence revolves around taking; being fed, changed and coddled. It is a completely physical life as opposed to the spiritual life in the womb, where all the truths of Torah were taught to its soul. Despite a baby’s apparent “purity,” that baby is a taker of physical things, and is unaware of the struggle necessary to control physical inclinations.
This state continues throughout early childhood. One of my mentors pointed out how this is apparent in the way a young child receives a gift. It is common that when a young child receives candy, he or she will grab the treat and run away. Only when the parents coax will the child utter a half-hearted “thank you.” A child at this stage in life is a taker, and to express thanks for something given would indicate surrender to the child’s belief that he isn’t entitled to that gift.
Only at the time of bar or bat mitzvah does the child’s holy soul become a match for the yetzer hara; at that time life becomes a struggle.
What we refer to in the High Holy Day prayers is the challenge placed upon the soul from the day of birth. The soul, whose intelligence far surpasses the baby’s mind in which it is locked, is fully cognizant of the departure of truth the way it was clear in the secure and comfortable surroundings of the womb. This is a deeper reason the baby cries at the moment of birth. At that time the soul, in a sense, “willfully sins,” not as a matter of free choice, but as a matter of fact. The soul at the time of birth is subservient to other powers within its realm of existence.
In short, our challenge in life is to truly graduate to a higher existence and to take control over our yetzer hara, not just to continue after bar or bat mitzvah to retain the status quo and never “grow up!”
Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried, noted scholar and author of numerous works on Jewish law, philosophy and Talmud, is founder and dean of DATA, the Dallas Kollel. Questions can be sent to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.