The yetzer harah and yetzer hatov, reward and punishment, and free will

Ramchal introduced the idea of morality (as well as free will and the system of reward and punishment) at the beginning of this section, in his very first comments to Petach 14. Explaining the structure of the Sephirot, Ramchal introduces the idea that God granted humankind “an intellect and a yetzer hatov (i.e., an “inclination toward goodness”) and a yetzer harah (i.e., an “inclination toward wrongdoing”) that he could control” with that intellect. He went on to say there that God also granted humankind “a means of serving (Him or not serving Him) as a result of which man would earn (either) merit or punishment (in the Afterlife) until he becomes purified”, and He likewise “granted him an eternal reward (in The World to Come)” once he is purified.

Bringing this all back to the subject of the Sephirot, though, Ramchal then adds that “each one of these things involves many details,” and that we’re obliged to understand “just how many gradations were needed to attain this”, meaning to say that we need to study the makeup and interplay of the Sephirot if we’re ever going to understand how Divine Justice plays itself out in the world.

The point is that were it not for the system of multifarious and sequential Sephirot man wouldn’t have free will, and there’d be neither reward nor punishment. The logic seems to be that if sequence and hierarchy weren’t in place, then all of God’s beneficence would emanate evenly from His single Being without regard to the worth, merit, or standing of the recipients given that everyone would stand on the same moral and spiritual ground [1]. But that couldn’t be, since we’re to be free moral agents and to deserve reward or punishment.

Let’s see how Ramchal put it elsewhere: “God created the world through the (sequential and hierarchal) system of ten Sephirot, and so the world is … (hence to be) governed according the dictates of these ten Sephirot. And (because) God wanted man to have free choice He ‘decreed’ (i.e., decided) that He (Himself) wouldn’t function according to His own full being and will (which is beyond sequence and hierarchy, and is utterly benevolent), but rather according to how His recipients (i.e., according to how we, the recipients of His benevolence, who do indeed function according to sequence and hierarchy) would establish things” through their free will [2].

So we’ll now spend some time explaining the classical ideas of a yetzer harah and yetzer hatov (and their relationship to the intellect which Ramchal alluded to above), of reward and punishment, and of free will, and we’ll compare and contrast them with Ramchal’s understanding of those things.


[1]       See Kinat Hashem Tz’vaot.

[2]       See the work that R’ Friedlander published as “Da’at Tevunot 2”, p. 22.

(c) 2011 Rabbi Yaakov Feldman

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