In the words of Stephen Covey; “conscience is the still, small voice within. It is quiet. It is peaceful. Ego is tyrannical, despotic and dictatorial.” This very closely parallels the Jewish view, but there are differences as well.
Jewish tradition teaches that all of us have within us two opposing powers or pulls, known as the “yetzer hatov” and the “yetzer hara”, which loosely means the inclination towards good vs. the “evil inclination”. These two pulls or powers within every person stem from the two very roots of our existence, our physical bodies and our spiritual souls.
Mankind was not, initially, created in a way that we contain within us a proclivity to evil alongside our desire for goodness. The first man and woman created in the Garden of Eden had no internal tug towards negativity. This means that the original bodies of Adam and Eve were barely physical; they were nearly transparent vessels perfectly crafted to hold their elevated souls. Much like the glass case which houses the crown jewels of a monarch; the case itself attracts almost no attention, its value is in its ability to expose the beauty of the gems. Those original bodies were showcases for their brilliantly shining souls.
After the sin, their bodies and souls were poisoned with the consumption of the forbidden fruit. The decree was that from then on mankind would be plagued by evil being mixed together with the good.
At this point the body took on a totally new role; it became an end in itself, demanding its own attention besides that of the soul. This new, very physical body and its inclination would attempt to pull the owner towards itself and away from its soul.
This gives birth to the Ego, which exerts a pull upon each person to make themselves the center of the world, even at the expense of others.
Going back to Covey: “Ego focuses on one’s own survival, pleasure and enhancement to the exclusion of other and is selfishly ambitious…Conscience, on the other hand, both democratizes and elevates ego to a larger sense of the group, the whole, the community, the greater good. It sees life in terms of service and contribution, in terms of others’ security and fulfillment.”
There is, however, a point where the general understanding of these two concepts and that of Judaism part ways. In Judaism, even the penchant towards evil has a positive side. Evil, in of itself, is not an independent force which runs contrary to God’s plan.
The potential for evil was given free rein to proliferate in the world by God Himself – in order to leave room for free will.
The test put before man by the need to choose between good and evil is in order to attain higher levels of morality and closeness to God by making the right choices. In that sense, even the evil itself, deep within the source of its existence, is really rooting for man to overcome its very self and select the good.
Ego, potentially a manifestation of that evil if misused, also has a good side to it by which a person has the urge to accomplish, make a name for him or herself, exposing the hidden greatness within themselves. Character traits, like ego, are not considered absolutely bad or good in Judaism; it depends what you do with them. This concept is implicit in the words of the Shema which says you should serve God with all your “hearts” in the plural, meaning we need to find a way to serve God with our inclination towards good, and with our “evil inclination” as well.
Rabbi Yerachmiel Fried