The Birth of the Good Inclination

In rabbinic texts, the distinction between childhood and young adulthood is the birth of the yetzer hatov, the good inclination.

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R. Kalonymus Kalman Epstein of Cracow, a contemporary of R. Heschel of Apta and a fellow student of the great Hasidic rebbe Elimelekh of Lizhensk, also considered the psychological changes that occur in the early adolescent. R. Epstein, however, identifies the changes as part of a long process.

And it seems from the holy books, that initially, "man is born a wild ass" (Job 11:12), and he has no yetzer hatov, only yetzer hara, until he is 13 and becomes a bar mitzvah. Then the yetzer hatov comes upon him, and he begins with the mitzvah of wearing tefillin [phylacteries]. This causes his heart to be awakened to the worship of God. This happens very, very slowly, but he is still full of self-centeredness and confused thoughts. Therefore the obligation is cast upon all who have a desire to connect to God to uproot evil thoughts from one's heart and mind. Afterwards, as he continues to grow in his worship of God and matures, he is already well rooted in the worship of God. Nevertheless, it is the characteristic of the truly righteous and pious to continue to examine and explore one's acts and find one's own shortcomings... (Sefer Ma'or v'Shemesh, Parashat Lekh-L'kha).

Rashi pointed out how hard it is for the yetzer hatov to overcome the yetzer hara's control over one's sexual urges. R. Epstein extends this to the entirety of one's spiritual being. The birth of the yetzer hatov does not make life easier; it makes life more difficult, at least for those who "desire to connect to God." R. Epstein's realistic description of the process of growth and self-examination as being lengthy provides a valuable lesson for the young adult. Bar and bat mitzvah are significant milestones, but they are not transformative. They mark the beginning of a process that takes place "very, very slowly."

Each year we spend several weeks preparing for Passover, and then we relive the Exodus for a single week. After Passover, we spend six more weeks preparing for the acceptance of the Torah on the festival of Shavuot. Similarly, the young Jew may prepare a long time for the relatively short celebration of the bar or bat mitzvah. The real work, however, comes in the process of becoming the kind of responsible Jewish adult that the community of Israel esteems.

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Jeffrey Spitzer is Chair of the Department of Talmud and Rabbinics at Gann Academy, The New Jewish High School, Waltham, Mass., and a member of the Institute's Tichon Fellows Program.