The teenage years are some of the toughest years around. There is so much opportunity, yet there are so many tests as well, and one has to tread carefully in order to come out strong.
Our Sages teach us that when a baby is born, they are born with a Yetser Harah – a bad inclination. The Yetser Harah stays with them throughout their life. At the age of Bar/Bat Mitzvah, the child is blessed with a Yetser Hatov.
It says in Kohelet (4:13) “a poor child who is wise is better than an old, foolish king.” Rashi quotes the Midrash that this child refers to the Yetser Hatov, your inner desire to do well, and the old king is the Yetser Harah, your inclination to do badly. Why the Yetser Harah is called an old man and your Yetser Hatov a young child? Because, says the Midrash, you are born with a Yetser Harah and it stays with you for your whole life. The Yetser Hatov only joins at the age of 12/13 and since it isn’t with you for your full life it is called a child.
What does it mean that you are born with a Yetser Harah but only acquire a Yetser Hatov when you reach your bar mitzvah? Certainly young children do perform Mitzvot and good-matured acts of kindness. The Chovot Ha-Levavot explains that the Yetser Harah is your physical desires. A baby is born wanting to eat and sleep, and as you grow older your desires grow with you and expand well beyond their original parameters. In contrast to these physical desires is the Yetser Hatov, your intellect. It is your job to recognise the negative consequences of your actions and rein in your desires, to understand what is good and what is bad and to choose properly.
This complex recognition of right and wrong, this abstract understanding, is something that also grows with you but at a different pace. A major stage of intellectual growth happens at approximately the age of thirteen. This is when you must and do reach a level of understanding of the consequences of your actions. But a person’s appreciation of the abstract reasoning of religion, a comprehension of what is above you and what the future holds for you is something that grows through the years. Thirteen is when your intellect reaches not just a level of maturity but an inflection point, the beginning of the great growth years of teenage hood, high school and yeshiva. These are years of exploration, growth and personal evolution. These are the years when you learn about the world and where you stand in it. Twenty is when you reach maturity. You’ve reached a plateau; you’re an adult with a stable understanding of right and wrong, of what and why.
As it turns out, a Bar mitzvah isn’t the time when you become an adult. It’s the beginning of a wonderful period in which you grow into an adult. It’s a time when you are ready to take on the responsibility of a Jew, to act and to learn like a Jew, and to grow in understanding and ability on your way to adulthood.
The Torah relates regarding the Korban Pesach that it was to be taken from either sheep or goats – “Min hakvasim u’min ha’izim tikachu” (12:5) “From the sheep or goats shall you take it.”
The Gemara Shabbat (77b) notes an interesting phenomenon. Goats normally walk ahead of sheep. Why is that? The Gemara explains that this reflects the creation of the world where the creation of darkness preceded the creation of light. Goats are normally dark-skinned and sheep light.
The Chida z”l, explains (in Kisay David) that this hints at the Yetser Harah being created in a person before the Yetser Hatov. Goats, being dark and tough, represent one’s evil impulses – the Yetser Harah. Sheep which are light and soft represent one’s good impulses -the Yetser Hatov. Hence this hints that Yetser Hara comes to a person before the Yetser Hatov.
What Hashem was telling Moshe was that when it comes to Avodat Hashem – the servitude of Hashem – one should take both his Yetser Harah and Yetser Hatov to serve Hashem.
How is that possible, surely the Yetser Harah is all evil?
The Ben Ish Chai brings an awesome Mashal to explain how we can use both in the service of Hashem.
One day the Yetser Harah came in front of the Yetser Hatov and told him that we are fighting too much, we should make peace. The Yetser Harah pleaded and eventually the Yetser Hatov agreed for one night to allow the person to go to a bar frequented by wicked people. The Yetser Hatov encouraged the person to go on this occasion, but warned him to remain G-d fearing and not to sin. So the man went and observed, staying until very late at night.
At the end of the evening, the Yetser Hara followed the pious man home to discover what wickedness had been planted his heart and what bad would emerge as a result of attending the celebration. The pious man entered his home, went straight to bed and sobbed uncontrollably. His wife, upon hearing him cry, rushed to him and asked what was wrong. He told her that he had a golden vessel which he always believed was very pure and fine. But tonight he tested it and discovered that it was actually two thirds gold and one third impure.
The wife didn’t understand what he was talking about. He explained: The golden vessel which I possess is my heart. I serve Hashem through my heart’s desire to learn His Torah and do His commandments. I used to think that my heart was very pure and that I was completely joyous in learning Torah and keeping its commandments. I was wrong.
However, tonight I witnessed men who played their games with such extreme intensity and excitement; I realised I do not display nor even possess one tenth of their fervour. I observed adults who were so overjoyed and ecstatic at sheer foolishness; I have not one tenth of this sheer joy for my Torah. Tonight I saw people dancing together with such energy that sweat poured from them. They delighted by their exertion whereas I don’t toil a tenth as much as they do, nor delight a tenth as much as they do in my learning and observance. Therefore, I cry. My service to Hashem which I thought was pure is on a low level.
Needless to say, from that day on the pious man served Hashem with extra energy and resolve. He had transformed an evil desire in to a tool of serving Hashem.
At the outset of the Geula, Am Yisrael were like a new-born baby. They had been the most gallant servants Egypt had ever witnessed. They had served Pharaoh with all their strength. Now, Hashem said, I want you to use that same effort in the service of G-d. Of course this time the excitement and happiness will differ, but just as you had strength to serve Pharaoh, so too should you serve Hashem.