The Pious Fraud

In a reply to a yechidus query in the winter of 5635 (1874-75), my grandfather said to my father: The yetzer hara, (the evil impulse), is called “animal soul,” not because it is necessarily a brute animal. At times it may be a fox, the most cunning of beasts, and great wisdom is needed to perceive its machinations. At other times it may clothe itself in the garb of an earnest, straightforward, humble tzadik, possessing fine traits of character.

The animal soul manifests itself in each person according to his individual character. One person may suddenly experience a powerful longing to study Chassidus or to meditate deeply on some chassidic concept. The truth is, however, that this is nothing more than the yetzer hara’s counsel and the animal soul’s machinations to prevent him from engaging in the avoda of davening or a similar activity.

Take this as a general principle and remember it always: Any matter that is effective towards or actually leads to active avoda, and is confronted with opposition of any sort, even the most noble, that opposition is the scheming of the animal soul. My father concluded: Until then I had not known that there can be a “pious” animal soul, let alone a “chassidic” animal soul.

“Today’s Day”
Shabbat * Sivan 23, 5703
Compiled and arranged by the Lubavitcher Rebbe
Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, of righteous memory, in 5703 (1943)
from the talks and letters of the sixth Chabad Rebbe
Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, of righteous memory
Translated by Yitschak Meir Kagan

The nature of good vs. evil and the nature of the human soul is somewhat more complicated in Judaism than it is in Christianity. I’m not going to spend any time trying to delve into these explanations, since there are people much more knowledgable and wiser than I am who have already made those distinctions. I do want to talk about how as human beings, we tend to fool ourselves, though. I know a lot about that.

It’s interesting to consider that even a very righteous person who desires to study Chassidus (If you’re Christian, think of it as studying the Bible, though that is a woefully inadequate comparison) could actually be caving into his “evil impulse.” I mean, what’s wrong with studying the Bible, folks? Or, what’s wrong with praying, or going to your local house of worship?

According to the commentary, even the desire to do something praiseworthy may be masking something else we’re trying to avoid, including our own awareness that we’re not being forthright in our motivations.


Think about this.

I want to read and study the Bible or some online commentary on the Torah. Being who I am, I’ll probably start writing a blog about it just because it’s in my nature to turn Bible study into blogs. But the floor needs to be vacuumed. Or my daughter needs a ride to work. Or my grandson is visiting and wants me to play with him. Or something is bothering my wife and she wants to talk with me about it. Or…

Well, you get the idea.

There’s nothing wrong with studying. There’s nothing wrong with blogging about Biblical or faith-based topics…unless they get in the way of “the weightier matters of the Torah,” which almost always involves actually doing some sort of good deed for another human being.

Imagine an extreme case where a person studied the Torah to the exclusion of all other considerations, including earning a living and supporting his family.

For even when we were with you, we would give you this command: If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat. –2 Thessalonians 3:10 (ESV)

But if anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever. –1 Timothy 5:8 (ESV)

But most of us aren’t that extreme. We do however, know how to appear pious and holy to the outside world and still have defective motives though.

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness. So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness. –Matthew 23:27-28 (ESV)

Jesus was addressing people who knew they were being hypocrites and they didn’t mind behaving that way. What about those of us who truly believe we’re doing the right thing, but are really serving our own interests? We may really tell ourselves that studying Torah is more important than getting a job or getting a better job so we can support our families. We may tell ourselves that studying the Bible is more important than doing the vacuuming, washing the dishes, making dinner for the kids, or helping our neighbor with her yard work. I suppose, on a certain level, we can make a convincing case for it, too. After all, what’s wrong with studying the Word of God? What’s wrong with being immersed in the Bible? What’s wrong with being consumed and even obsessed with a life of faith?

What? But doesn’t a life of faith involve actually doing something about it? Doesn’t mowing your neighbor’s yard override praying, at least sometimes? Should we always ignore people for the sake of something we consider a higher ideal?

It’s probably not clear-cut in every single situation, but often we are so clever, we convince ourselves to do what we want to do, something that is indeed praiseworthy, so we can get out of doing something we don’t want to do that is equally praiseworthy.

The ego of man is cannibalistic in essence. At worst, it destroys everyone and everything in its path in order to attain its selfish goals. At best, as in the case of a civilized, refined and tolerant individual, it acknowledges its status as one among many, avows its support of the “human rights” of its fellows and concedes the legitimacy of pursuits other than its own. But even the most liberal-minded of men cannot escape the trappings of the ego: he will always see his fellow through the prism of self. His (seemingly) objective mind will point out that he shares the planet with billions of others, that there exist countless perspectives and callings in addition to his own. Deep down, however, the self will remain the gravitational center of reality, its ultimate point of reference. He will see others as necessary, perhaps crucial, but always secondary cogs to the kingpin of self.

Commentary on Ethics of Our Fathers
“The Contemporary Cannibal”
Sivan 23, 5772 * June 13, 2012

This is part of a direct commentary on the following:

Rabbi Chaninah, deputy to the kohanim, would say: Pray for the integrity of the sovereignty, for were it not for the fear of its authority a man would swallow his neighbor alive. Rabbi Chaninah son of Tradyon would say: … Two who sit and exchange words of Torah, the Divine Presence rests amongst them…

-Ethics of the Fathers, 3:2

On the surface, it doesn’t seem as if there’s a connection between our need for a sovereign in order to curb man’s aggressive nature and studying words of Torah, but with just a little thought, the link becomes apparent.

So anyone who views the universe as an ownerless, arbitrary existence will never transcend the moral and intellectual cannibalism of the ego. For without a supreme authority that creates, defines and gives direction to all of creation, the self and its perceptions are the sole judge of right and wrong; inevitably, one’s vision of others will be tinted with the color of self.

It is only through the fear of G-d, only through the acceptance of the sovereignty of the King Of All Kings, that man can grow beyond the prejudice and anarchy of the ego. It is only by sensing an Absolute Truth before which all are equally insignificant, but which grants significance to the countless individual roles that fulfill the Divine purpose in creation, that an individual can genuinely see his fellow as his equal.

And because the naturally self-centered consciousness of man is, by definition, incapable of truly seeing beyond itself, this truth it is not something that one can understand and feel with the contemporary tools of his mind and heart. One must therefore “pray for the integrity of the sovereignty” in his life. One must concede that the transcendence of self is beyond his humanly natural capabilities, and humbly request that he be granted a higher, ego-free vision of his fellow.

It is only by acknowledging the absolute sovereign of the universe and submitting to His will that we can stop, look at what we’re doing, and realize what is really important in our lives and in the lives of those around us. Studying the Bible is important. Praying is important. Playing with your three-year old grandson is more important. God’s Bible is always there and is vital in helping us understand the importance of our roles, but once a moment in a child’s life has passed, you never get it back again.

You need to decide what you are. If you believe yourself to be angel, be prepared for some disappointment. If you think of yourself as a beast, you may well become depressed.

Best to know you are human. Stay away from situations you can’t handle, and face up to the mess when you fall down. That’s even higher than the angels.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson

2 thoughts on “The Pious Fraud”

  1. I think about this subject a lot because I can so easily get self-righteous (stupidity on my part). At any rate, I have discovered that the most important thing isn’t doing something religious, but focusing on the relationship I have with Christ and with others.

    The older I get, the more it seems to be about love and the less it seems to be about any religious duty I might perform.

    And the hard part is that sometimes, the “religious” thing is exactly what I need in order to further my relationship with God, but if I’m doing it because it’s my religious duty, then it will have exactly the wrong effect.

    I have to remember, the goal is always love, love the Lord your God, and love your neighbor as yourself. But more than that it’s living each day in Christ, with Christ, because of Christ.

  2. Hi Dree,

    I don’t think there’s anything wrong with various religious practices such as studying, praying, liturgy, and ceremony, as long as we’re not performing those duties for their own sake. It’s a service to God. That said, even those services to God can get in the way of expressing our love for other people in practical, tangible ways. Anyone who helps disadvantaged kids ride horses and who runs a ranch much know all about helping with her hands and her heart.


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