A paradox of greatness
כׇּל הַגָּדוֹל מֵחֲבֵירוֹ יִצְרוֹ גָּדוֹל הֵימֶנּו
Anyone who is greater than his fellow neighbour, his evil inclination is greater than his.
In what seems to be a typical digression from the actual discussion about the Drawing of the Water ceremony during the Sukkot celebrations in and around the temple the Gemara presents and discusses the concept of the yetzer hara, the evil inclination with which every human being is born.
To what is the evil inclination comparable? “It’s like a strand of a spider’s web and ultimately like ropes of a wagon”, the more you sin, the more you lose to this evil inclination – makes sense. The yetzer hara is associated with impurity (David Hamelech), an enemy (Shlomo Hamelech), a stumbling block (Isaiah) and sexual desires. Traditionally the evil inclination is not understood as inherently evil, rather as a primitive impulse that can lead to outcoming actions considered as “evil”, meaning those that are prohibited by the Torah. Conversely, learning Torah and strengthening ones yetzer hatov, the good inclination, serves as an antidote for the inner struggle one faces every day.
To illustrate the real-life mechanisms of those inclinations, we are given a fascinating case example:
Convinced he will detect and prevent illicit sexual behaviour, the rabbinic sage Abaye follows two people who are not married to each other on their long travel. Soon he realizes that he erred, the two separate after their pleasant journey and no transgression happened whatsoever.
Now one might expect that Abaye is disappointed to have missed the chance to be a good sin-detective but that does not appear to be the case:
"Abaye said: In that situation, if instead of that man it had been one whom I hate, he would not have been able to restrain himself from sinning."
Who is the one Abaye hates? Luckily, Rashi comes to our aid by explaining that this odd expression is an euphemism for himself. Major plot twist! The story was not about the yetzer hara of the two people, it seemed to be a projection of his own desires onto two strangers.
Sad about his own shortcomings, this educating example ends with a concluding morale:
"A certain Elder came and taught him: Anyone who is greater than another, his evil inclination is greater than his."
In other words: The greater the person the greater his evil inclination.
"Therefore, Abaye should not feel regret, as his realization is a consequence of his greatness." Concludes Steinsaltz z”tl in his commentary on this piece.
The message here seems straight forward. Even sagely Rabbis have desires just like anyone else, so do not point your finger at other people, deal with your inclinations first. A message we can all agree on, no problem.
Still, something seems to be missing: What is the chidush, the novelty here? We have more than enough examples of great biblical leaders who gave in to their evil inclinations. Just think about Shlomo Hamelekh who could have been an inspiration for Hugh Hefner's lifestyle.
Considering the overall context in which this story was placed in, it seems unnecessary to put Abaye in the spotlight. Especially since the overarching question was "what is the evil inclination?".
Fine, so which nuance does the Abaye episode show us about the nature of the evil inclination? And if there is one, why do we still need Abaye and not any other sage? Looking for an answer to these questions we can turn to a sage of our times: Probably no one else invested more thoughts about the evil inclination than Rabbi Dr. Abraham Twerski z"tl. As a chassidic Rabbi and medically trained psychiatrist he not only contemplated about the evil inclination as we do, but actively helped people who suffered under addictions and inabilities to control unhealthy impulses.
Could we ask him, he would surely ask us back: Why is a person like Abaye hating himself? Abaye, the head of the Babylonian Academy in Pumpedita! Leaving us pondering upon this shift of focus, he might go on and quote Rav Simcha Zissel Ziev, a foremost mussar authority who pointed out “that in addition to tempting a person to violate the Torah, the yetzer hara may delude a person to think poorly of oneself”. R. Twerski would go even further and say “poor self-image is the source of many evils”.
Where do we have the chuzpe from to assume he would bring in exactly this aspect for our discussion? Well, the link between low self-esteem and the yetzer hara was not only limited to a religious concept but constituted the foundation for his general psychotherapeutic approach. After working for 40 years as a psychiatrist he found that “the majority of psychological problems can be traced to one basic problem and that is a low self-esteem”. While the exact role of self esteem in trajectories of psychiatric problems is not entirely clear, its relevance and fundamental link to mental health remains undisputed in clinical studies.
Considering that I think we are in the clear to try and see how this connection applies to Abaye and what new layer his story contributes to our understanding of how the evil inclination manifests or beyond that – what can amplify many evils.
Maybe, R. Twerski might tell us, maybe Abaye’s realization at the end was not a “consequence of his greatness” but the opposite: Abbaye is the one who has a low self-esteem and therefore talks about himself as the one he hates and whom he does not trust to control himself while at the same time attempting to control others. Here our tradition can also explain the underlying psychological mechanism: “Rabbeinu Yonah says that gaavah, the worst personality trait, is a defense against a poor self-image. The person creates grandiosity to counteract his low self-esteem (Rabbeinu Yonah Al haTorah). The desire to control others is also the same. Having power over others may reduce the feeling of inferiority (…)”
Now we might understand better why we needed Abaye as an example and why he acted the way he did. But what sense do we make then of the punchline of the story, told by the mysterious old man?
Anyone who is greater than another, his evil inclination is greater than his.
This is what R. Twersky called ‘a paradox of low self-esteem’. And as he beautifully explains:
“Highly gifted people may have a lower self-esteem than less-endowed people. Rav Simcha Zissel's insight explains this phenomenon. A person with meager personality strengths is not going to be given a whopper of a yetzer hara, whereas someone with great assets may be given a more powerful challenge. Hence, the more capable person may actually have deeper feelings of inferiority.”
No title, no wealth, no status prevents us from having a poor self-image. Ignoring poor self-esteem opens the door to where “sin is crouching”, where the risk to give in to the yetzer hara rises. The antidote? Learning Tora, enabling ourselves to strengthen our good inclinations by working on a healthy self-esteem!