This final episode of David Solomon’s series “Unorthodox Episodes of the Talmud” explores the idea of the evil inclination – the yetzer harah – with a particular focus on problems relating to sexual temptation.
The Yetzer Harah
David explains that sages of the Talmud discussed how few things are as powerful as the desire for intimacy. This inclination affects all people, including great spiritual leaders.
Illustrating this point, David examines two stories from the Talmud. The first concerns Rabbi Amrum the Pious, a third-century sage who lived in the Babylonian city of Naharda’ah who fights his evil inclinations. The other looks at a tragi-comic story of Rabbi Hiyya bar Ashi, a student of Rav, who condemned himself in the face of temptation.
Both stories explore moral and ethical considerations concerning intentional, transgression, culpability, and redemption. Other concepts discussed include:
- individual and communal shame – both in this world and the world to come
- mystical manifestations of evil
- the psychology of guilt and self-control
- recognition of human failings
- the power of sexual urges
- whether thinking about a sin carries the same weight as its enactment
- moral karma
- the importance of remembering and respecting human relationships in our quest to do right
- whether suicide is permitted in certain circumstances
- the importance of humility
- an appreciation that we may each fail when our moral will is tested.
In examining these two unorthodox Talmudic episodes, David discusses the notion that individuals are often tested in line with their unique moral parameters; that we should be wary of placing ourselves on moral pedestals because we may be found wanting; we are all responsible for our behaviour; and that we must know our limitations and our weaknesses.
This is the final lecture in a four-part series presented via Zoom for Caulfield Shule in 2020 as part of its scholar-in-residence program.