Ask The Rabbi

For the week ending 5 February 2011 / 30 Shevat 5771

Yetzer Dilemma

by Rabbi Yirmiyahu Ullman -
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From: Olivia

Dear Rabbi,

I want to educate my children properly, but I am having difficulty with the concept of the “yetzer hara” or evil inclination. On the one hand, attributing bad behavior to the “yetzer hara” avoids giving children the impression that they, in essence, are bad when they do something wrong. But on the other hand, blaming bad behavior on “the yetzer” seems to remove culpability for misbehaving. Please clarify.

Dear Olivia,

Enabling children (and adults for that matter) to identify the inclination to do wrong as something separate from themselves, foreign to their essence, is a very powerful and liberating tool in self-improvement and in service of G-d that should accompany a person for one’s entire life.

Judaism teaches that by virtue of the Divine soul endowed within us, we are basically and essentially good. We aspire for correctness, righteousness and perfection. However, there are forces whose inception was outside ourselves, but became en-coiled within us, which draw and prod us toward the improper, harmful and, ultimately, destructive path. It is this tendency or inclination that must be controlled.

As difficult as it is for adults to overcome this inclination, for obvious reasons, it’s even more difficult for children. Scolding a child every time he does wrong by saying how bad he is, is not only incorrect, it’s also harmful. If a child comes to understand and accept that he’s bad, he’s basically lost much of the incentive to be good. What will it help to try to be good, when, as a child he’s repeatedly told he’s bad.

What’s more, it’s also confusing, because sometimes he’s told he’s good. So, he asks himself, “Am I good or am I bad?” If his parents don’t seem to know for sure, how will he ever gain a clear understanding of himself and confidence in his ability to really be good?

For these reasons, the Jewish way of education is to reinforce to the child at all times, during good behavior or bad, that he, in essence, is good. It’s the evil inclination that is misleading him to behave in a way that is wrong and ultimately harmful. A parent might even add, “The yetzer might be temporarily fooling you into thinking that what you’re doing is fun or good or beneficial, but its intention is to make you fall, and when you do, it will be the first to accuse and make a fool out of you”.

Then a parent should remind the child that despite the difficulty in overcoming this challenge, he has the power to decide to be good. In this way we express our confidence in him and give him the positive encouragement to gain control over himself. After all, he, in essence, is good and wants to do good. When he overcomes the challenge, he should be told how proud we are of him, and that we knew he had it in him. In fact, G-d is proud and knows he has it in him.

But what if he doesn’t overcome the challenge? What if he gives in to the yetzer? Is he to be held unaccountable? Should there be no punishment?

The answer is no. He is to be held accountable and punished commensurately to what he did wrong. But the parent must emphasize that this is not because the child is bad – because both the parent and G-d know that he’s really good – but because he succumbed to the inclination when he could have overcome it. For this he is being held responsible, and the purpose of the punishment is to enable him to appreciate the magnitude of his wrong decision.

In this way, we reinforce the idea that despite his bad behavior he himself is good, but rather was led astray by a force that he must learn to divorce himself from. On the other hand, he is still at fault for not doing so since he could have. This is the formula to give him the strength, confidence and courage to overcome the drive to do wrong. And since children are likely to continue to misbehave, rather than reinforcing the idea that he’s bad (with all of the accompanying pitfalls mentioned above), this approach, precisely when repeated, empowers the child with self-control, and prepares him to exercise his free will responsibly into adulthood.

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