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Understanding the Evil Inclination

By: Rabbi Barak Bar-Chaim

Towards the end of Jacob’s struggle with the angel, Jacob says, “Now tell me your name,” and he (the angel) said, “Why is it that you ask for my name?” and he blessed Jacob there. (Genesis 32:30) Both Jacob’s question and the angel’s response require more understanding. Why was Jacob interested in finding out the name of the angel? And, if indeed Jacob had a valid reason for requesting the angel’s name, why does the angel not tell Jacob his name?

The Malbim (Meir Leibush ben Yehiel Michel Wisser), a great 19th century scholar, offers an insightful explanation. The angel with whom Jacob wrestled with was the angel associated with Esau who represents physicality and the evil inclination. Our sages teach us that a name is not a random, arbitrary assignment. A name is the reflection of the essence of the entity being described by that particular name. Jacob wanted to know the angel’s name in his quest to better understand the nature and essence of his opponent. This explains Jacob’s request for the angel’s name.

Rabbi Nachman, in the work Sichot Haran, gives the following analogy to explain the evil inclination. A man approaches people with a closed fist and tells them that he is holding on to something awesome. Each person imagines that what the man holds in his fist will fulfill his/her particular desire, whether it be for physical pleasure, wealth, honor, or power. The man eventually opens his hand and it is revealed that he is holding nothing. It was all just an illusion; he was holding nothing of substance. Evil operates by creating a deceptive smokescreen of illusion and desire which, ultimately, proves to be unsatisfying and empty.

We all live with many illusions created by the evil inclination. One of its favorite illusions relates to future happiness. We believe that when we have achieved a certain amount of wealth or a certain status or a certain level of achievement, we shall finally be at peace and happy. But once we achieve that level, we realize we are still largely empty-handed, and the goal then shifts to attaining a higher level of wealth, honor, or status achievement.

This explains the angel’s reply. The angel answers, “Why is it that you ask for my name?” meaning: “Why do you request to know my essence? My essence changes all the time and is built on emptiness and illusion.” When we truly realize and understand the illusory and transient nature of pleasures of the flesh, honor, and desire, we are able to escape the emptiness and illusion of the evil inclination. Our charge is to be like Jacob and constantly pierce the veil of illusions presented to us in this world of challenge. May we deeply internalize the ultimate emptiness in a life built on the pursuit of material wealth, honor, and desire.