The Yetzer HaRa

May 1, 2011
Rev. Victoria Weinstein

THE SERMON                             

Today is Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day. The word "shoah" is Hebrew for calamity or destruction.  "Holocaust" is from the Greek "total offering by fire".  Holocaust survivor and Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel said, about the difference between the two terms, "‘Shoah denotes a natural cataclysm, and this was not a natural cataclysm; it was perpetrated by men. An earthquake on a continental scale might called shoah, but that is not what we are talking about here. This was not a rebellion of nature; men were responsible for it. ...from the outset I chose [to use the word] holocaust, which emphasizes the mystical, religious texture of the tragedy, indicating that it was not simply one more pogrom like the many that had gone before, nor was it a mere consequence of war. This catastrophe was redolent of fire above all else." (Evil and Exile, 39)

As I went online to look up that quote, one of the first things I found in the Google search engine was a site dedicating to "proving" that the Holocaust was a hoax. The sick people who run the site refer to Elie Wiesel as "the Pope of Holocaustianity."  That's sickening.  It is not pleasant to look the reality of evil right in the face.  I would rather do almost anything else with you this beautiful morning.  But for one thing, such hateful stupidity highlights the fact that our commitment to memory is not a sentimental one, but connected to justice, a rebellion against revisionist history that bigots will teach if they are allowed to get away with it.  We stand with the witnesses who know the truth of this history. And when there are no more living witnesses, our children will be the living witnesses on their behalf. This is the work of generations. That's why I was so deeply gratified to have such a long table of adults and children at our first all-church Passover Seder recently.

Secondly, because we are a humanist religious community with the highest regard for human nature and human potential, it is imperative that we, from time to time, remember that human nature is both beautiful and inspiring, and most ugly and terrifying. We are both. Who would have ever thought, in the era after the extent of the Nazi atrocities had been revealed, that we would have so many new global events that rightly earn that most terrible name of genocide: the intentional eradication of a people.  There is a Hebrew term for the evil inclination in the human heart, the yetzer haRa.  It was this aspect of human nature that Christian writer Sara Miles acknowledged recently when she wrote last week, "I cannot get to Good Friday if I can't admit that I am capable of crucifying someone."     

It was a powerful thing to say and part of me resonated with it right away. I wanted to say, "Thank you, Sara, for saying that. For reminding us of the necessity to examine with great sincerity, my own capability for violence, hatred and destruction."  To keep our compassion alive, we must always identify with the victim in a story of evil and suffering.  But to keep our integrity sharp, we must also search our souls for the ways we might identify with the perpetrator. The Jewish high holy day of Yom Kippur, which we observe in this church every September, is focused on that very task: where am I fighting the yetzer ha-Ra in myself, and where is it winning? To whom and to what must I make amends, and how may I give my heart to tchuvah, the change of heart necessary to repentance?    But part of me bristled at Sara's quote. Because I grew up in a secular Jewish home and I remember my father telling me that when he was a young man, Jews stayed home on Good Friday.  In the old country, Good Friday was a very dangerous day for Jews, who, although they were always targets for violence, were in particular danger on that day. If you read the Gospel of John, which is the key Scripture chosen to be read in churches that day, you will see why. It is virulently anti-Semitic and much more so than the other accounts of Jesus' life, places the entire blame for Jesus' death on the Jewish community in which he traveled and to which he ministered-- and of course, of which he was a part. On Good Friday in the old country, Jews had their beards pulled out for sport, were beaten and even killed. The authorities, which were generally not very vigilant about protecting Jewish members of their communities, looked the other way.

These ancestral memories live within me. I also experienced my own anti-Semitism on the school playground and school bus, where the bullying definitely got worse around Easter.  I have been called a Christ-killer.  So it was with great discomfort and some anger that I sat in an Episcopal church this past Good Friday and heard the well-meaning priest say in his homily, "Judaism was the religion of the day, the Jews crying ‘Crucify him!' are really you and me."   I wanted to say, "Nice try, but no cigar. Why don't you tell them the historical truth? That Judaism was not ‘the religion of the day,' it was the religion of the occupied religious minority under Roman authority. Tell them that Pontius Pilate was a notorious sadist  -- a savage and brutal ruler who never would have gone out to meet with the Jewish crowd to ask them who he should crucify and who he should pardon! That thousands of Jews were nailed to crosses every year, like it was nothing. It was not, as the priest told that congregation last Friday, a punishment reserved for the ‘worst' criminals." I wanted to say, "Dude, you have a theological education! Tell the congregation that the author of John's gospel was trying to paint the Jews in as negative a light as possible, since his aim in writing his account of the life of Jesus was to convert his Jewish audience!"

But I mostly have pretty good manners, so I did not.  I had a 7-month old baby with me and I told him instead. I want my godson to grow up questioning all the old hatreds. He will be armed with Judaism's greatest and most enduring weapon: education.  Remembering is only part of the moral responsibility of Yom Hashoah.  To honor the victims of this or any other genocide, I am also required to tell the truth to myself and our children about the yetzer haRa, to know that it dwells within all of us, and that it is part of human nature -- not something distant that other people have, but something that all of us are heir to.  To be unconscious of our shadow sides is what allows and encourages us to project that shadow onto another person or people. That's how scape-goating happens. The Jewish people know this all too well, and so it is right and fitting that we appeal to the wisdom of their ancient tradition to teach us about, and to illuminate the reality of the Evil Inclination.

Some Unitarian Universalist friends and I were talking about Donald Trump the other day.  We are disgusted by his racist remarks, and his unbridled ego, his divisive rhetoric.  One of my colleagues said, "He's gone off the rails crazy."  I disagreed.  I said, "No, he's just a garden-variety racist, voicing opinions that millions of Americans share."  When Unitarians and Universalists rejected the Calvinist idea that human beings were lowly creatures, born in sin and randomly destined for Hell, they didn't stop there.  They tended to adopt rosier and rosier opinions of humanity until, in my opinion, you might get the impression that we worship ourselves.  The logical outcome of our sometimes overly-optimistic view of human nature is that we are at a loss when confronted with sin in others and in ourselves.  We have nothing to say about it, no theological language for it, and so we rely on the language of clinical psychology, naming every kind of sin and nastiness as some sort of disorder. "He's crazy" or "She's got narcissistic personality disorder."

I encourage us to call it like we see it. Remember in the "Star Wars" saga, the Jedi knights would identify someone with that noble Jedi quality and say, "The Force is strong with this one?"  We could say of the dangerous, nasty people we know, "The yetzer haRa is strong with that one."  "She (or he) has a real lashon hara" (malicious, gossiping tongue).  There is a balance that we need to strike here, a kind of spiritual art in living with the knowledge of yetzer haRa, being honest about it, and not wallowing in it as the Calvinists did.  Humor is a big help.  There is the story about Rabbi Pinchas of Korets who noticed that his students stopped conversing when he entered the study hall, and then started again.  He asked them what it was they were talking about. They told the Rebbe that they were saying how they were afraid that the Yetzer Hara, the evil inclination, would pursue them. The Rebbe responded "Don't worry. You aren't on such a high level. You're still pursuing him!" (source: internet,

Humor is another Jewish gift, I think, and it comes from having affection for the way things are, for embracing the absurdities of the human condition just as we as individuals embrace the foibles of all those we truly love.  There is also vigilance. It is easy to look around and see evil thoughts and inclinations brewing in other people and in political movements -- in fact, identifying the yetzer haRa in others seems to be the national past time these days, this sort of mutual demonization of ideological opponents.  But really, observe local behavior.  Observe the behavior in our own families.  Observe the lying, manipulation, deception practiced between people you know.  Go to the town meeting next week and see how fast those on opposite sides of issues brand each other as villains and criminals, mutter the most ugly insults, throw around incredibly classist generalizations and act out old tribal loyalties.  (There's a reason I don't go to those things! I have too many friends on all sides).

Observe your own heart.  When I feel sure that I would never act out racial hatred because I am too enlightened and of superior upbringing and character, I need to think again, be on guard, be unflinchingly honest.  I should recognize that it is mostly privilege and relative comfort that inoculates me from racial hatred, not my fine character.  What if I lived near the border in Arizona and could not find a job, could not feed my children?  What if undocumented Latina workers kept getting the kind of jobs I was qualified to do? You can think of your own examples.  Jewish legend teaches us that the yetzer haRa loves to bring down those who believe themselves high and mighty.

I use Howard Thurman's prayer, "Keep before me the moments of my high resolve" often in church because it is not just a series of nice words, it is a spiritual practice.  To keep before us the moments of our high resolve means that we are building strength and resilience against the yetzer haRa.  Our covenantal promise to promote spiritual growth and ethical commitment has its best chance to succeed if we make a regular, "fearless and searching moral inventory" at those times when our evil inclination is being massaged and manipulated, our basest instincts exploited by friends, family, government or media.  Sometimes, you know, I look down and I can imagine a brick in my own hand, ready to smash through someone's window.  And that is when the yetzer haRa laughs with glee, because he's got me.

Honesty, education, vigilance, humor.  These are all things the yetzer haRa hates, and another one is hope. And so we will end there, with a symbol of hope, and beauty and survival and resilience.  We will end at the newly-restored synagogue in Berlin, Germany - Germany's largest synagogue, which was completely destroyed on the terrible night known as Kristallnacht, the night of broken glass, November 9, 1938, when hundreds of Jews were killed, a thousand synagogues destroyed, thousands of Jewish businesses looted and destroyed, and tens of thousands of Jews rounded up for deportation to concentration camps.  The synagogue has been restored to its former glory as of 2007 after decades of pain-staking restoration, and the Torah was returned to the synagogue on March 12, 2011.

Fearful of ending this sermon with some trite or easy statement about the need to renounce the yetzer haRa and cultivate the yetzer hatov, the inclination to goodness and righteousness -- because you know that, and you know it well -- I will bring to you a word from the Hebrew Scriptures, from the book of Lamentations:

       "He put his mouth to the dust: there may yet be hope."