The truth is that the yetzer hara also uses both of these tactics, but it is more successful when it approaches as a friend. Chovos HaLevavos (Yichud HaMaaseh Ch. 5) describes at length the dangerous power the yetzer hara possesses: “A person must realize that his biggest enemy in this world is his yetzer hara, which is well-connected to his character and is mixed into his personality. It is a partner in all of a person’s spiritual and physical aspirations. It gives advice on all of one’s movements, the revealed ones and the concealed ones, and lies in ambush to persuade one to sin at all times. Even while sleeping, one is not safe: the yetzer hara is always wide awake, seeking to harm. A person may forget about it, but it never forgets. It masquerades as a friend and a close confidant; indeed, with its shrewdness it tries to be considered a most loyal and trusted friend. The yetzer hara is so convincing that a person might think that it is running to fulfill his every wish. But in truth, it is shooting dangerous, deadly arrows, to uproot the person from the World to Come.”
Mussar Thought for the Day
for Monday’s Commentary on Parashas Vayishlach, p.191
A Daily Dose of Torah
“If you do well, will not your countenance be lifted up? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door; and its desire is for you, but you must master it.”
–Genesis 4:7 (NASB)
According to a midrash on the Torah portion for this coming Shabbat, when Jacob is contemplating his upcoming encounter with Esau after many years, he fears two things: being killed by Esau and being befriended by Esau. Rabbinic commentary likens this to how the yetzer hara (evil inclination) operates inside of a human being. Our most basic nature or what a Christian might call our “sin nature” seeks to disobey God and lead us into ruin and exile from the World to Come, the ultimate physical and spiritual harm. In that, it’s easy to see the temptation to sin and resistance to repent as our enemy and something we must actively battle.
But the flip side of the coin is the deceptiveness of our own human natures, and this I think (and the commentary quoted above agrees) is the greater danger. People have a tremendous capacity for self-delusion and often choose to see and hear only what fits into their own dynamic or world view, regardless of the objective facts. We define good and evil by our own human standards and justify any harm we might be doing to ourselves and others in any number of creative ways. This is the yetzer hara as our friend, leading us down the peaceful and attractive path to destruction.
Other commentaries on this Torah portion say these are the twin dangers of the nations toward the Jewish people. History is replete with terrible acts done by non-Jews upon Jews including inquisitions, pogroms, torture, and murder. But the other danger, and this seems strange at first glance, is for the nations (that is, Gentiles) to extend friendship toward the Jews. Why is this a problem? Because it often leads Jewish people away from Torah, away from performing the mitzvot, and away from God. It waters down Jewish distinctiveness and we have a clear record of how Jews have assimilated into secular culture or even converted to other religions including Christianity (this is complicated when you add Messianic Judaism to the mix, but that’s a conversation for another time).
I haven’t come to talk about Jewish distinctiveness, but of a more personal danger:
In working with alcoholics and addicts, I have come to realize that the most absolute slavery does not come from enslavement by another person, but from enslavement by one’s own drives. No slavemaster has ever dominated anyone the way alcohol, heroin, and cocaine dominate the addict, who must lie, steal, and even kill to obey the demands of the addiction.
Such domination is not unique to addiction. We may not realize that passion of any kind may totally control us and ruthlessly terrorize us. We may rationalize and justify behavior that we would otherwise have considered as totally alien to us, but when our passion demands it, we are helpless to resist.
-Rabbi Abraham J. Twersky
“Growing Each Day” for Kislev 11
Little by little, we are guided away from the light with small, even tiny deviations off our original course and by the time we realize it, we are as Rabbi Twersky describes: slaves. When we finally realize the yetzer hara is not our friend, we are totally engulfed by this nature.
But in speaking of the yetzer hara as it if were something separate from the whole person, I’m denying the truth that our nature is who we are or at least part of who we are. That’s why it is so difficult to detach our temptations and our giving in to them, that is, our sin, from the rest of our identity and being.
So when we have fallen and fallen far, what are we to do?
This concept helps us better understand the true power of prayer. We know that, on the one hand, the Gemara says: “one cannot rely on a miracle,” and must do whatever we can to protect himself naturally. On the other hand, the Gemara (Berachos 10a) tells us that even when a sharp sword is placed upon the neck of a person, he should not give up hope, but rather he should pray for mercy from Hashem. How do we reconcile these mixed messages?
A Closer Look at the Siddur
for Monday’s Commentary on Parashas Vayishlach, p.193
A Daily Dose of Torah
I mentioned this Gemara in a previous blog post and it is a critical one, for as I also mentioned, repentance, particularly if we look at it as a set of stages or steps, is hardly linear. We may start out on the path to repentance with high hopes and set a straight course, only to find ourselves being pulled back into the darkness as if we were tethered to it by a large rubber band. We get so far only to snap back into our old habits and patterns.
Many people think they are free, yet they are really pawns in the hands of their drives. Like the addict, they are not at all in control, and do not have the fundamental feature of humanity: freedom.
-R. Twersky, ibid
This first step is to realize that the yetzer hara is not a friend and that we are not free. However, we must realize that we are exercising free will in our behavior, which is confusing when you consider yourself a slave. Does a slave stay with the slave master voluntarily? In our case, the answer is often “yes”.
Our only defense is to become masters over our desires rather than their slaves. We must direct our minds to rule over the passions of our hearts.
R. Twersky offers this as the answer to our slavery, but he’s only got so much room to write and article, and he can’t say everything that may need to be said.
For that matter, all the reading and writing in the world wouldn’t say enough or do enough because once a person recognizes they are a slave, they can only become the master through effort.
But one of those efforts is prayer.
Above, it was suggested that we shouldn’t depend on miracles to get us out of these messes but on the other hand, we should pray to God to help us out of our troubles. Is this a contradiction? The Rabbinic sages don’t think so, and resolve the apparent conflict by stating the power of prayer was built into the nature of Creation when God made the universe. No, that’s not in the Bible, but what it may mean is that when God made a perfect universe and human disobedience broke it, something in the essential nature of our world included a way to fix the world and to fix ourselves by invoking our relationship with God.
While God’s nature is incompatible with sin and human despair, it’s not like God can’t see or hear us when we are in the darkest corners of our own souls.
If at first you don’t succeed,: Try, try, try again.
-attributed to William Edward Hickson (1803-1870)
Just as the yetzer hara can attack us in two ways, we can be defeated in two ways. The first is to simply give up, to say to ourselves that we are weak and worthless and there is no hope. The enemy has won. The second is to never realize that we’re fighting an enemy at all and to believe that nothing is our fault. The yetzer hara is our friend and he/she would never lie to us. If we have problems in life or with other people, someone else is responsible, not us.
Either way is no good, but at least in the first situation, we realize there is an enemy and there is a sharp sword resting on our neck poised to execute us. Then we know to pray and to hope in God. In the second situation, we may never realize our danger and may fail fatally unless we are shocked out of apathy and delusion by the consequences of our folly and by a loving God. But at that point, the fight is just beginning.