I got a message on my blog a few months ago that shocked me. It was in response to a fun story that I wrote and shared on the blog on Mother’s Day. The story is a creative spin on the biblical creation story, one that describes how mothers came to possess a special spark created by God. You can read the entire story here.
The shocking message that I received was from a woman who thanked me for my story explaining that it deeply touched her, so much so that it caused her to cancel an appointment she’d made to end her pregnancy. The woman, who was six weeks pregnant, said that my story showed her what she was about to give up. “I want to be a mother and share that spark with my child…I am going to have this child thanks to you.”
The fact that my story had such a life changing impact on this woman made me really uncomfortable. I wanted to share with her that I support a woman’s right to choose. I wanted her to know that I would be happy to speak with her about her decision and wouldn’t look down on her if she chose another path. I tried to reach out to her. But I never heard back.
Today, the woman is at least 6 months into what I hope is a healthy pregnancy. I’m still troubled that my story had the impact that it did and I know that to some this might sound terrible. And so I’ll add the confusing reality that I also feel good that my story will lead to the birth of a baby in a few months and, hopefully, this baby will lead a wonderful life. I feel good and, at the same time, disheartened by the fact that by feeling good, I’m identifying with the other side of what remains a painful issue in our country.
A Jewish legend teaches us that a group of rabbis once captured yetzer hara – often referred to as the evil inclination. The rabbis held yetzer hara in a big pot and tried to figure out how to destroy it. As they did so, however, they began to notice that people were losing their desire to become the unique individuals they were meant to be. Given this, the rabbis had to let yetzer hara go and, so, to this day it’s out there, influencing each of us.
From this legend we learn that yetzer harah isn’t all bad. It’s that urge inside of us to be the most unique people we can be. Yes, this urge can get out of control. It can make us self-righteous and push us to do evil. Therefore, the rabbis teach us to control it and use it to bring about good things.
In addition to learning how to do this, we must learn how to control our yetzer hatov or our good inclination. This is our desire to pursue peace, love and harmony. In the violent, divided world that we live, we might think that we need to crank up yetzer hatov and do whatever we can to get along. But Jewish tradition warns against this. Too much yetzer hatov undermines diversity by encouraging uniformity. It works in opposition to yetzer harah that wants us all to be different. When controlled, our yetzer harah encourages us to embrace diversity. As odd as it might sound, today we need to crank up our yetzer harah while making certain to mix in some powerful yetzer hatov.
Our lives are a constant balancing acts between yetzer harah and yetzer hatov. Sadly, most of the time, we don’t do a great job at this balancing act. Somedays, we hide behind walls and think only about what we want. On other days we knock down the walls, put everyone else first and forget about our own needs. But, every so often, things click and we achieve the right balance between what I want, need and believe and what you want, need and believe.
If you haven’t achieved this balance, you might expect it to be awesome – a moment where the angels sound their trumpets and the sun shines a little brighter. But, this is often not the case. I can say this because I’ve come to appreciate that the conflicting emotions I’m feeling as a result of the woman’s response to my story have given me some balance. My belief that a woman has the right to choose remains strong. At the same time, as uncomfortable as it is, the woman’s response to my story gave me an understanding of the passion that those who believe very differently that I do feel. I’m not letting go of what I believe in, but, this experience has given me some deep insight into what goes on on the other side.
I don’t hear the trumpets and the sun is not shining a little brighter. I feel uncomfortable, but this is what we should feel when our yetzer hatov and our yetzer hara are balanced. It’s what happens when we appreciate that our world is like a bar magnet with two opposing poles. The poles and the magnet are all part of the same thing – just like the opposing points of view that exist in our world. Once we realize that life is filled with opposites that are part of the same whole, we get a glimpse of holiness. And, as I’ve discovered, what we see is often really complicated.
A student who was coming to terms with just how complicated it all is once asked his rabbi – “Life is overwhelming! Can’t we run away from it all and become monks?” The rabbi shook his head. “To withdraw from the world is to withdraw from God. The world is God manifest in time and space.”
God is holiness. God is both sides of the magnet. Yetzer hatov and yetzer harah. Love and strength, wisdom and innocence, diversity and uniformity, all of these things and more in a complicated state of balance. Our job is to try to be like God – to try to achieve this balance. This doesn’t mean that we need stop standing up for what we believe in! That would be allowing our yetzer hatov to take over. At the same time, while we stand up for what we believe in, we must not allow our yetzer harah to strip us of our ability to see that holy sparks like the one I wrote about in my Mother’s Day story shine brightly inside of so many of us today – even within those with whom we don’t see eye to eye. Once we fail to see these spark in others, once we say that our spark is brighter, we lose our spark. And when this happens, yetzer harah strips us of our ability to truly connect with people. It makes us stop caring, stop loving. It divides us. And it makes God and holiness non-existent.
But, when we know with our whole heart that what we believe is true while, at the same time, we allow ourselves to engage uncomfortably yet respectfully with ideas that challenge us, we gain control of our yetzer harah. We let in just the right amount of yetzer hatov and, for a moment, there’s that uneasy balance. The reality that we’re right, but they’re not bad; we can do it better, but, darn it, they can teach us something; we make sense but, yikes, we understand what they’re feeling. This uneasy balance is holiness. Achieving it can be an intense, painful, struggle. But, what we can gain from getting a glimpse of this holiness might just heal the world.
Rabbi Andrew Jacobs has been the spiritual leader of Ramat Shalom Synagogue (www.ramatshalom.org) in Fort Lauderdale, Florida since 2002. He is the founder of ISH (www.findyourish.com), an innovative spiritual source and service that enables all spiritual seekers with opportunities to connect with Jewish wisdom. Ordained by the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, Rabbi Jacobs is a graduate of Vassar College and holds a Masters of Arts in Jewish Art and Material Culture from the Jewish Theological Seminary in consortium with Columbia University and the Jewish Museum of New York. He posts regularly on his blog (rabbiandrewjacobs.org).