Letters Sept. 2022

The Mind/Soul Connection

Reader: In an article you identify the “yetzer harah” as the emotions. Doesn’t Maimonides say that it is the imaginative faculty?

Rabbi: Imagination can be used for both good (Torah thought, creativity) and evil (sinful fantasy). Thus, imagination is not evil per se. Even the yetzer hara (evil instincts) can be guided by our minds and souls to be used for God’s will. They too are not inherently evil, they are only “evil from youth” (Gen. 8:21), i.e., they have a head-start over the mind that develops a decade later. Maimonides says the snake (Adam & Eve) had a rider: “The serpent had a rider, the rider was as big as a camel, and it was the rider that enticed Eve: this rider was Samael” (Guide, book II, chap. xxx). Maimonides teaches a primary lesson: instincts alone do not steer our actions, but they are guided by something. That something is fantasy. 

Now the serpent was the shrewdest of all the wild beasts that God had made. It said to the woman, “Did God really say you shall not eat of any tree of the garden?” The woman replied to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the other trees of the garden. It is only about fruit of the tree in the middle of the garden that God said you shall not eat of it or touch it, lest you die.” And the serpent said to the woman, “You are not going to die, but God knows that as soon as you eat of it your eyes will be opened and you will be like divine beings who know good and bad.” When the woman saw that the tree was good for eating and a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was desirable as a source of wisdom, she took of its fruit and ate. She also gave some to her husband, and he ate. (Gen. 3:1-6)

 The snake refers to Eve’s instincts, explaining why it never spoke to Adam (Eve’s internal psychological instincts cannot relate—“speak”—to Adam.) Our instincts can be led to either evil or good by what controls—“rides”—them: the rider is “human fantasy.” While the snake initiate desires, Eve fantasized about the benefit of the fruit, and that fantasy is what coerced her will to follow her instincts and violate God’s command. Thereby she corrupted her soul’s value system. But had she focused more on God’s will, she would not have fantasized about sin, but about God’s will, and that would have led her instincts to desire God’s path. The more we learn about what is true, the more we are inclined to follow truth, and our imagination will guide our instincts to what is true and proper. For God made the intellect more powerful than all other faculties, as it perceives what is real, and reality is most convincing. The rabbis discuss (Brachos 29a) that a person who is righteous from youth will not turn bad. He has become attached to Torah truths, and nothing can break that conviction and value. He will never sin (there are other opinions, [Ibid]).

Torah says, “Love your God with all your heart” (Deut. 6:5) and Rashi teaches that, “all” refers to both faculties: the yetzer hara and the yetzer hatov, the instincts and the intellect. Thus, the yetzer hara is not inherently evil.

The anatomy of the mind includes intelligence (yetzer hatov), fantasy or imagination, instinctual urges (yetzer hara), ego, guilt, and the soul, neshama. To live properly, we must continuously learn Torah to educate our soul on truths and morals, and this will in turn train our instincts to gain satisfaction from wisdom over lusts. Thereby our imagination will engage in higher matters to guide our actions. Our souls—values and the sense of self—then becomes more attached to Torah, and God. 

Reader: You write quoting Ibn Ezra “[But] when one joins the intelligence with one’s ego (ruach) one may succeed over the nefesh: the base drives.” Is this the strategy to defeat the yetzer harah? Can you explain how one defeats the yetzer harah?

Rabbi: Ibn Ezra teaches that at first, the intellect is too weak to conquer the lusts. But ego is powerful, and one can harness his ego to restrain his lusts, for example, retraining lustful acts and speech to retain dignity or one’s community or workplace position. Here, one sacrifices lustful gratification in place of honor. Once the lusts are restrained, and one has his energies under his control, this gives opportunity to the intellect to engage in wisdom, and one can direct his energies to this pursuit. With greater learning, one’s sense of what is real and of value will overcome his lusts.  

Alex Kahgan

New York, NY

Moses’ Sin

Reader: Shalom Rabbi. My question is about the last parasha called “Va-ethanan.” We see that Moshe didn’t reach the Promised Land, although he struggled to get Torah and transmit it to the Children of Israel, what caused Moshe Rabbeinu to not enter the Promised Land of Israel?

Odupa Abraham

Mbale City, Uganda

Rabbi: God instructed Moshe to speak to a rock that would miraculously bring out water for the thirsty Jews (Num. 20:8). Instead, Moshe veered from God’s precise command and hit the rock. Although the rock delivered water, Moshe failed to sanctify God through using speech alone to cause the water to emerge from the rock. Moshe succumbed to an emotional response by not following exactly God’s command.  

God’s very response to Moshe’s act was this:  “Because you did not trust Me enough to affirm My sanctity in the sight of the Israelite people, therefore you shall not lead this congregation into the land that I have given them” (Num. 20:12). Moshe erred in his leadership, and therefore leadership was removed from him. 

God’s punishments are measure-for-measure (midda knegged midda) to indicate to the sinner wherein his flaw lies, so he might identify that flaw, grasp his error, repent, and draw once again towards God. The prophet Micha formulates this very process of repentance: “Let us examine our ways, deliberate, and return to God our governor” (Lamentations 3:40).

A Gentile’s Afterlife

Reader: Dear Rabbi, in an answer to a reader’s question “Am I better off as a gentile or a Jew?” you stated this: 

Torah study is also the greatest command, for in its pursuit, man elevates his highest element, his soul. He attains greater wisdom of God. And this too is open to a gentile; he is to study his laws, and if he takes on more than his minimal 7 laws, which he is allowed to do, he is to study those additional laws too. And he can convert to attain equal status to a Jew, and enjoy the same portion of the afterlife.

Do you mean that only the person who converts will enjoy the same portion of the afterlife? This is very important for me. Thank you for your answer.



Titusville, NJ

Rabbi: Conversion enables a person to follow Torah out of obligation, and the rabbis say, “Greater is one who performs Torah due to obligation than one who is not obligated and performs” (Kiddushin 31a). Rabbi Israel Chait explained the greatness is due to the obligated party overcoming the “rebellious emotion to avoid commands.” One who is not obligated can perform the identical act, but he is not battling any rebelliousness, as he has no obligation. But putting rebellion aside, a gentile and Jew who perform identical acts based on equal appreciation of its benefits, will equally receive the identical perfection, reward and afterlife. Gentiles and Jews are creatures of identical design, as we all descend from the same couple. Jews differ not in design, but in obligation. 

Conversion is not necessary for a gentile perform equal to a Jew. In the capacity of grasping the truths behind Torah, and in performance, gentile and Jew are equal on all counts. The only difference is when the gentile does not convert, and does not encounter the rebellious streak a Jew faces when obligated. 

Nature Proving God

Reader: When you write that God's plan is that man uses reason to discover God, are you saying that by studying the wonderful structure of the universe, in short, “creation,” that creation proves the existence of God? If so, I would agree to this. I also agree that Torah is required for most people unless he is an Abraham. 

Turk Hill

Rabbi: That is correct.

Learning & Earning

Reader: If man will find the greatest pleasure in wisdom, why did Hashem make it that one must work most of his life? My second question is can one still work 9-6 and fulfill “aseh torascha keva; make Torah study the bulk of one’s day”?

Rabbi: Maimonides (Shmitta & Jubilee 13:13) and Pirkei Avos (3:5, 4:9) speak of God’s providence for a person who dedicates his day to Torah study. Most people have difficulty with their need for security, and won’t abandon a 9-6 workday, as they live purely mathematically. But trust in God should override our calculations, as Maimonides says. Maimonides teaches that God will provide sufficient income for one who dedicates himself to Torah, for one who “breaks off the yoke of calculations that the masses seek” (Ibid). 

Making Torah the bulk of one’s day would seem to demand that a majority of daily hours are spent in Torah study.  

Alex Kahgan

New York, NY