Messiah and the Defeat of the Yetzer Ra
A Study in Sukkah 52a
James Scott Trimm
In tractate Sukkah the Talmud records that there was a debate between Rabbi Dosa and other Rabbis concerning the meaning of Zechariah 12:12. The Talmud says:
What is the cause of the mourning [mentioned in Zech 12:12]?
R. Dosa and the Rabbis differ on the point.
One [Rabbi Dosa] explained, The cause is the slaying of Messiah the son of Joseph,
and the other [the Rabbis] explained, The cause is the slaying of the Evil Inclination.
It is well according to him who explains that the cause is the slaying of Messiah the son of Joseph, since that well agrees with the Scriptural verse, And they shall look upon me whom they have pierced, and they shall mourn for him as one mourns for his only son (Zech. 12:10).
But according to him who explains the cause to be the slaying of the Yetzer Ra (Evil Inclination), is this [it may be objected] an occasion for mourning? Is it not rather an occasion for rejoicing? Why then should they weep? — [The explanation is] as R. Judah expounded: In the time to come the Holy One, blessed be He, will bring the Evil Inclination and slay it in the presence of the righteous and the wicked. To the righteous it will have the appearance of a towering hill, and to the wicked it will have the appearance of a hair thread. Both the former and the latter will weep; the righteous will weep saying, ‘How were we able to overcome such a towering hill!’ The wicked also will weep saying, ‘How is it that we were unable to conquer this hair thread!’ And the Holy One, blessed be He, will also marvel together with them, as it is said, Thus says the Lord of Hosts, If it be marvelous in the eyes of the remnant of this people in those days, it shall also be marvelous in My eyes.
However, when we understand the how the destruction of the Yetzer Ra is achieved, we will see that there is in reality no conflict between the view of Rabbi Dosa (not only Rabbi Dosa, but the Targum Jonathan to Zech. 12:10 which agrees with Dosa's view) and the view of the Rabbis.
Another exposition of the text, ' My beloved is like a gazelle ‘:
Israel, explained R. Isaac, said to the Holy One, blessed be
He: ' Sovereign of the Universe! Thou hast told us that Thou
wilt come to us first.’ ' My beloved is like a gazelle ‘; as the
gazelle appears and then disappears, so the first redeemer
appeared and then disappeared. R. Berekiah in the name of R.
Levi said: Like the first redeemer so will the final redeemer be.
The first redeemer was Moses, who appeared to them and then
disappeared. For how long did he disappear from their sight?
R. Tanhuma said: Three months; accordingly it is written, And
they met Moses and Aaron, etc. (ib. V, 20).2 The final
redeemer will also appear to them and then disappear.
(Midrash Rabbah Bamidbar 11:2)
We read in Exodus:
13 And Moshe said unto the people, Fear you not. Stand still, and see the salvation of YHWH, which He will work for you today! For whereas you have seen the Egyptians today, you shall see them again, no more, forever.
14 YHWH will fight for you, and you shall hold your peace.
(Ex. 14:13-14 HRV)
Therefore we have a picture of the “salvation of YHWH” in Exodus 14:19-29
19 And the angel of Elohim, who went before the camp of Yisra’el, removed, and went behind them. And the pillar of cloud removed from before them, and stood behind them.
20 And it came between the camp of Egypt and the camp of Yisra’el. And there was the cloud and the darkness here, yet gave it light by night there: and the one came not near the other all the night.
21 And Moshe stretched out his hand over the sea. And YHWH caused the sea to go back by a strong east wind all the night, and made the sea dry land, and the waters were divided.
22 And the children of Yisra’el went into the midst of the sea upon the dry earth, and the waters were a wall unto them on their right hand, and on their left.
23 And the Egyptians pursued, and went in after them into the midst of the sea; all
Pharaoh's horses, his chariots, and his horsemen.
24 And it came to pass in the morning watch, that YHWH looked forth upon the host of the Egyptians, through the pillar of fire and of cloud, and discomfited the host of the Egyptians.
25 And He took off their chariot wheels, and made them to drive heavily, so that the Egyptians said, Let us flee from the face of Yisra’el, for YHWH fights for them against the Egyptians.
26 And YHWH said unto Moshe: Stretch out your hand over the sea, that the waters may come back upon the Egyptians; upon their chariots, and upon their horsemen.
27 And Moshe stretched forth his hand over the sea, and the sea returned to its strength when the morning appeared. And the Egyptians fled against it, and YHWH overthrew the Egyptians in the midst of the sea.
28 And the waters returned and covered the chariots, and the horsemen, even all the host of Pharaoh that went in after them into the sea: there remained not so much as one of them.
29 But the children of Yisra’el walked upon dry land, in the midst of the sea, and the waters were a wall unto them on their right hand, and on their left.
(Ex. 14:19-29 HRV)
Philo writes of this:
(2.265) Again, when you see, amid the wars and disasters of life, the merciful hand of God and his favorable power held over you and standing in defense of you, be silent yourself; for that champion stands in no need of any assistance. And there are proofs of this fact recorded in the sacred writings; such, for instance, as the verse, "The Lord will fight for us, and ye shall be Silent." (Ex 14:14.)
(2.266) And if you see the genuine offspring and the firstborn of Egypt destroyed, namely desire, and pleasures, and pain, and fear, and iniquity, and mirth, and intemperance, and all the other qualities which are similar and akin to these, then marvel and be silent, dreading the terrible power of God;
(Philo; Dreams Book 2; 40; 265-266)
So Philo sees an allegory here where the “Egyptians” represent “desire, and pleasures, and pain, and fear, and iniquity, and mirth, and intemperance, and all the other qualities which are similar and akin to these.” In other words Philo sees the Egyptians as representing the sin-nature which the Rabbis call the Yetzer Ra, the Evil inclination.
So Philo sees an allegory here where the “Egyptians” represent “desire, and pleasures, and pain, and fear, and iniquity, and mirth, and intemperance, and all the other qualities which are similar and akin to these.” In other words Philo sees the Egyptians as representing the sin-nature which the Rabbis call the Yetzer Ra, the Evil inclination. The first redeemer (Moses) delivered us from the Egyptians, but the
second redeemer (the Messiah) would deliver us from the Evil Inclination.
Ramban (Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman) (1194-1270 C.E.) wrote one of the most authoritative Torah commentaries in Rabbinic Judaism. He says on this topic:
And YHWH your Elohim will circumcise your heart (Deut.
30:6) It is this which the Rabbis have said, "If someone comes
to purify himself, they assist him" [from on High]. The verse
assures you that you will return to Him with all your heart and
He will help you.
This following subject is very apparent from Scripture: Since
the time of Creation, man has had the power to do as he
pleased, to be righteous or wicked. This [grant of free will]
applies likewise to the entire Torah period, so that people can
gain merit upon choosing the good and punishment for
preferring evil. But in the days of the Messiah, the choice of
their [genuine] good will be natural; the heart will not desire
the improper and it will have no craving whatever for it. This
is the "circumcision" mentioned here, for lust and desire are
the "foreskin" of the heart, and circumcision of the heart
means that it will not covet or desire evil.
Man will return at that time to what he was before the sin of
Adam, when by his nature he did what should properly be
done, and there were no conflicting desires in his will, as I
have explained in Seder Bereshit.
It is this which Scripture states in [the Book of] Jeremiah
31:30], Behold, the days come, says YHWH, that I will make a
new covenant with the house of Israel, and with the house of
Judah; not according to the covenant that I made with their
fathers ..etc. But this is the covenant that I will make with the
house of Israel after those days, says the Eternal, I will put my
Law in their inward parts, and in their heart will I write it.
This is a reference to the annulment of the evil instinct and to
the natural performance by the heart of its proper function.
Therefore Jeremiah said further, and I will be their Elohim,
and they shall be My People; and they shall teach no more
every man his neighbor, and every man his brother, saying:
'Know YHWH; 'for they shall all know Me, from the least of
them to the greatest of them.
Now, it is known that the imagination of man's heart is evil
from his youth and it is necessary to instruct them,
but at that time it will not be necessary to instruct them
[to avoid evil] for their evil instinct will then be completely
abolished. And so it is declared by Ezekiel, A new heart
will I also give you, and a new spirit will I put within you;
and I will cause you to walk in My statutes . (Ezekiel 36:26)
The new heart alludes to man's nature, and the [new] spirit to
the desire and will. It is this which our Rabbis have said : "And
the years draw nigh, when you shall say: I have no pleasure in
them; these are the days of the Messiah, as they will offer
opportunity neither for merit nor for guilt," for in the days of
the Messiah there will be no [evil] desire in man but he will
naturally perform the proper deeds and therefore there will be
neither merit nor guilt in them, for merit and guilt are
dependent upon desire.
(Ramban on Deut. 29:6)
Thus we learn that the death and defeat of the Yetzer Ra is the direct result of the work of Messiah.
Thus the mourning in Zechariah 12:12 is for the the death of the Messiah, but the death of Messiah also results in the death and defeat of the Yetzer Ra, thus Rabbi Dosa and the other Rabbis can actually be understood to agree.
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