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Messiah and the Defeat of the Yetzer Ra (Part 1) A Study in Sukkah 52a

Messiah and the Defeat of the Yetzer Ra (Part 1)
A Study in Sukkah 52a
James Scott Trimm

The Talmud records that there was a debate between Rabbi Dosa and other Rabbis concerning the meaning of Zechariah 12:10.  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.
(Sukkah 52a)

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.

Ramban (Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman) (1194-1270 C.E.) wrote one of the most authoritative Torah commentaries in Rabbinic Judaism. In his commentary to Deut. 29:6 he tells us about the destruction of the Yetzer Ra:

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 Torah in their inward parts, and in their heart will I write it.

This is a reference to the annulment of the Yetzer Ra (evil inclination) 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 Yetzer Ra (evil inclination) 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)

Notice that in describing the destruction of the Yetzer Ra, Ramban says that the Yetzer Ra is destroyed in the “days of Messiah”.  This phrase “days of the Messiah” is a reference to the teaching of the school of Elijah the prophet as recorded in the Talmud:

The Tanna debe Eliyyahu teaches: The world is to exist six thousand years. In the first two thousand there was desolation; two thousand years the Torah flourished; and the next two thousand years are the days of Messiah, but through our many iniquities all these years have been lost....
Rab said: All the predestined dates have passed, and the matter [now] depends only on repentance and good deeds.
(b.San. 97a-97b)

This passage of Talmud tells us that the school of the prophet Elijah taught that the ages of this world could be broken down into three ages (each of about 2,000 years).  2,000 years of chaos, 2,000 years of Torah and 2,000 years of the days of Messiah.  This would place Messiah's coming right around the first century.  (The Talmud then continues through page 99a trying to explain why Messiah did not come in the first century after all.)

Is it possible that Rabbi Dosa and the Rabbis are both right?  Could it be that Zechariah 12:10 speaks both of the death of Messiah, and through his death, the destruction of the Yetzer Ra as well?

(To be continued)

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