Berakhot 61

Good, not perfect.

In a central discussion on today’s page, the rabbis imagine that human beings are driven by two opposed internal forces: the yetzer ha-tov or the good inclination, and the yetzer ha-rah, the evil inclination.

Rabbi Yosei HaGelili says: The good inclination rules the righteous, as it is stated: And my heart is pierced within me (Psalms 109:22); the evil inclination has been completely banished from his heart. The evil inclination rules the wicked, as it is stated: Transgression speaks to the wicked, there is no fear of God before his eyes (Psalms 36:2). Middling people are ruled by both the good and evil inclinations, as it is stated: Because He stands at the right hand of the needy, to save him from them that rule his soul (Psalms 109:31).

Rabbi Yosei HaGellili suggests that a righteous person is governed entirely by their yetzer ha-tov. For this kind of person, it’s as if the yetzer ha-rah is just a dead force within them. Conversely, Rabbi Yosei HaGellili also argues that an evil person is ruled entirely by the yetzer ha-rah. But not everyone is fully good or fully wicked. There are some people who fall in the middle, and for these people, both the yetzer ha-rah and the yetzer ha-tov play an important role.

The discussion continues:

Rabba said: People like us are middling. Abaye, his student and nephew, said to him: But the master [Rabba] hasn’t left any room for other creatures to live?!

Rabba responds to Rabbi Yosei HaGelili’s statement by placing himself into this typology — he says that he, and those who are studying and discussing with him, must be somewhere in the middle. This troubles Abaye, his student and nephew. He responds, “But the master [Rabba] hasn’t left any room for other creatures to live?!” In other words, Abaye thinks that the rabbis have set the bar much too high: if being a great sage like Rabba makes one only “middling” then there is little hope for the rest of us.

The rabbis often set a very high moral bar — they expect us to watch our words vigilantly, likening embarrassing another person in public to murder. And, later in this page, we learn that Rabbi Akiva reads the Torah as demanding all of our heart, all of our soul, and all of our might, even in a case where that might cost us our souls themselves. These strong and clear moral imperatives are powerful tools for helping build better people, and stronger, more caring communities, but they can also be overwhelming. Abaye reminds us that we need to keep our expectations realistic, that we need to create room for ourselves, and for other of God’s creations, to live the kinds of lives that can put our hearts, souls, and strengths to good work.

Read all of Berakhot 61 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on March 4, 2020. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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