Tag Archives: temptation

The Enemy Within Us

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
Aish.com

Infinite darknessLittle 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.

sword on neckAbove, 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.

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Repentance and Negativity

The Torah teaches us that it is never too late to change.

Changing for the better is called doing teshuva. The Hebrew word teshuva, which is often translated as repentance, actually means to “return.” Return to God. Return to our pure self.

How do people become interested in self-improvement?

People have faults. The faults they have cause them to suffer in some way or another. This suffering limits an individual’s freedom and is often painful. Hence, people want to change… to improve. To be free once again.

How does one change for the better? How does one do teshuva?

There are four steps of teshuva.

-Rabbi Mordechai Rottman
“Four Steps to Change”
Aish.com

Leaving Negativity Behind

This is the second step in making teshuva (we covered the first step, regret last week).

Here’s Rabbi Rottman’s description of this step.

Imagine a drug addict who arrives at a rehab center for detox treatment. His parents leave him at the entrance and wish him luck after a tearful but hopeful goodbye. Little do they know that their addict son’s suitcase is lined with enough cocaine to send a hippo to heaven.

It’s not that our addict does not want to change. He really does! He just has not “let go” of the very things that have brought him to the negative state he is now in.

Did you ever learn bad habits from a particular roommate and decide that you want to stop being like that? Did you ever try doing it without changing roommates? It’s nearly impossible.

“Leaving the negativity behind” means staying away from all of the paths that lead to that negativity. This includes crafting your environment to prevent temptation. And it means staying away from even mere thoughts, which can lead to the obvious next step — action.

That’s not really what I expected. I expected what he wrote as a much shorter definition on the Aish.com page:

Leaving the negativity behind. To stop dwelling on the transgression in thought and action.

To me, leaving negativity behind means to stop beating yourself up over your sins and struggles with temptation. It’s pretty easy to keep clobbering yourself, especially when trying to break a long-term cycle of sin. It’s probably an all too familiar pattern to “throw the book at yourself,” so to speak, to say how no good you are, how hopeless the situation is, and if you’ve gone this far down in sinning, you might as well go the whole way.

Following that line of thought only leads to self-destruction and totally abandoning any relationship with God.

In reading the longer explanation, it seems to me that the Rabbi is saying to make a complete break with anything that connects back to the sin or sins in question. It’s like you are a smoker and so is your spouse. You decide to stop smoking but (s)he continues with the habit. How long do you think you’ll be able to keep your resolve as long as your spouse continues to smoke?

flightSo leaving negativity behind means completely changing your flight pattern as it relates to your sin. If your sin is associated with specific places, you have to avoid those places. If your sin is associated with certain people, then you have to avoid those people.

But the one person you can’t get away from is yourself and your own thoughts and feelings. If you keep telling yourself that you are a person who does this sin, then you’ll identify with that definition. That’s who you are. In this case, you are what you think. Even if you soar away, leaving all other negative people and circumstances behind you, you always have to take yourself on the journey.

Unfortunately, many people are not yet committed to the idea of refraining from negative speech. If you are in the presence of someone as they malign or slander someone, come to the rescue. Have the courage to speak up in defense of the person being spoken against.

This isn’t always easy. Build up the strength of character and courage to stop negative speech.

-Rabbi Zelig Pliskin
“Stop Negative Speech”
Aish.com

Rabbi Pliskin is referring to a person who is witnessing another individual verbally insult someone. The recommendation from the Rabbi is for you to come to the victim’s rescue by stopping the offending party from making further negative comments. But what if the person making the negative comments is you and what if you are making them about yourself?

You have to come to your own rescue. You have to see what you are doing, recognize it for what it is, and then stop your behavior. That’s going to be tough because it’s tied to your habitual sin. It’s a habit, both the sin and what you tell yourself about the sin. It’s a habit to tell yourself that you are worthy of being condemned and unable to pull yourself out of the mud.

To leave negativity behind, you have to repeatedly rescue yourself from your own negative speech. Rescuing yourself, and finding a new way to talk to and identify yourself has to be the new habit that replaces the old habit of sinning and then slamming yourself (metaphorically) against a brick wall because of the sin.

But what about God?

My own worst enemyIt’s not just what we tell ourselves about our sin and our character defects, it’s what we believe God thinks of us, too. The Bible is full of God hating sin, smiting sinners, exiling whole populations, exterminating whole populations, all because of their sin. God isn’t soft on sinners and we have to believe that He punishes sin, if not in this world, then in the next one.

Who can stand before His indignation? Who can endure the burning of His anger? His wrath is poured out like fire And the rocks are broken up by Him.

Nahum 1:6 (NASB)

But the LORD is the true God; He is the living God and the everlasting King. At His wrath the earth quakes, And the nations cannot endure His indignation.

Jeremiah 10:10 (NASB)

So if you tell yourself that you are a hopeless, low life, scum ball sinner and that God hates your guts and can’t wait to send you to hell without and electric fan and pitcher of ice water, then that takes away any hope of repentance, atonement, forgiveness, and reconciliation. If God hates you, you might as well hate yourself.

But while the Westboro Baptist Church may think God is a “hater,” there are other opinions:

To the prophets, sin is not an ultimate, irreducible or independent condition, but rather a disturbance in the relationship between God and man; it is an adverb not a noun, a condition that can be surmounted by man’s return and God’s forgiveness.

The divine pathos is like a bridge over the abyss that separates man from God.

Abraham Joshua Heschel
“The Theology of Pathos” (The Prophets II), pg 9
The Prophets

Man in covenant with God is in relationship with God. Heschel believed that what we do affects God and that God deeply, personally cares not only about humanity in general, but about each and every individual human being. For Rabbi Heschel, being Jewish and observing the mitzvot wasn’t being part of a “religion of dead works,” but rather, participating in a loving and intimate interaction between himself and His Creator, as a wife might dance with her husband.

chuppahChristianity calls itself “a relationship, not a religion,” but when God embraced Israel under the Sinai covenant, they entered that intimate relationship together just as a Jewish man and women enter marriage under the Chuppah. I say all this to illustrate that even if you denigrate yourself in every conceivable manner, God does not and will not.

“For a brief moment I forsook you, but with great compassion I will gather you. In an outburst of anger I hid My face from you for a moment, but with everlasting lovingkindness I will have compassion on you.”

Isaiah 54:7-8 (NASB)

Of course this is God addressing Israel through the prophet Isaiah, so I have to be careful in taking a statement out of one context and pasting it in another, but I’m confident that God not only turns away from Israel for just the briefest of moments, but He also is just as brief when (it seems) He turns away from us as well.

The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance.

2 Peter 3:9 (NASB)

This is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.

1 Timothy 2:3-4 (NASB)

Sin is a barrier that inhibits a close relationship between you and God. Even in sin, the relationship exists, but it’s strained and distant. Even when the Israelites were exiled by God, He was still with them. He was with them in Egypt, He was with them in Babylonia, and He was with the Jewish people, even in their deepest suffering and despair.

I believe that even when we “fall off the wagon,” so to speak, and we lead a life that takes us away from God, He is still there waiting “anxiously” for us to repent and turn back to Him. Luke 15:11-32 chronicles the parable of the Prodigal Son which is a wonderful example of how sin takes us away from our Father but when we’re ready and return in repentance, the Father does not shun us or shame us for our mistakes and willful sins, but joyously welcomes us back home, in great celebration.

So the only one “badmouthing” you is you.

Well, that’s not quite true. If others are aware of your sins, especially family, it’s very possible that the pain of enduring your sins is affecting them and their response could be anger.

That’s a tough one. Instead of living with a spouse who is smoking while you’re trying to quit smoking, you are living with a spouse who constantly nags you for smoking while you’re trying to quit. Your loved one may be the person saying how lousy you are and how you’ll never change, and what a hopeless jerk you are.

Hopefully that doesn’t describe your situation, but if it does, you’re not alone.

separationAs unpleasant as it is to endure, it’s a consequence of your sinful behavior and how it has hurt others. That kind of negativity is difficult to escape and in the case of a marriage, something like couples counseling might be necessary to support you in leaving negativity behind and to make teshuva, and by helping both you and your spouse to find alternatives to “negative talk.”

I know I mentioned this last time, but as you can see, making teshuva is incredibly involved. Even a single step in the process may require weeks or months. Even if you are convinced that God loves you and wants a closer relationship, and even if you can remake your negative comments and thoughts about yourself into positives, you may never be able to contain literally every single environmental factor (especially other people) in your life.

In that case, when you encounter someone or something you can’t avoid and that threatens to drag your soul into the darkness again, returning to God through the Bible and prayer may help balance the scales. If you know for certain that God loves you and you can read that in the Bible and meditate on those words, making them your new habit to replace negativity can be your shield against what you otherwise must endure.

Successfully eliminating negativity leads to the next step in teshuva. Continuing to live with negativity in thought and word leads to negativity in action: back to sin.

This isn’t an easy choice, but it is a choice that you can and must make.