Defeating the Yetzer Hara
- HaRav Avigdor Nebenzahl
- Aug 27, 2009
Parshat Ki Tetze begins with the pasuk: "ki tetze lamilchama al oyvecha" "when you will go out to war against your enemies" (Devarim 21:10). The word oyvecha is written in full form - with a yud after the vav and after the bet, implying that there are two enemies. The pasuk continues: "unetano Hashem Elokecha beyadecha veshavita shivyo" "and Hashem your G-d will deliver him into you hand, and you will capture its people as captives". This time the word beyadecha is written with only one yud, implying that Hashem will only deliver one enemy into your hand. If there are two enemies we are fighting against, why will Hashem only deliver one enemy into our hand?
I would venture to say that the two enemies we are fighting are the physical external enemy and the internal enemy - the yetzer hara. The Torah continues with the concept of the yefat toar: "and you will see among its captivity a woman who is beautiful of form, and you will desire her, and you will take her to yourself for a wife." Although the Torah permits marrying a woman under such circumstances, we must keep in mind that it is only a heter, it is not an ideal situation. As Chazal teach us regarding the yefat toar - "lo dibra Torah ela keneged yetzer hara" "the Torah spoke only against the drive toward evil." (Rashi citing Kiddushin 21b) Had the yetzer hara not been so strong, there would have been no need to permit a person to marry the yefat toar during this period of war.
FREE TO SERVE HASHEM
The world-at-large mistakenly associates freedom with being allowed to follow the dictates of the yetzer hara. Their understanding could not be farther from the truth. What is the true difference between a slave and a free man? A slave is subordinate to the will of his master. Even should the master be kind and considerate and not overburden the slave with hard labor the way Pharaoh did, in the final analysis it is the master who determines the course of the slave's life, not the slave himself. A free man, on the other hand, dictates his own path in life, he does as he wishes and is not subjugated to the wishes of anyone else. According to this, we can say that one who follows the dictates of his yetzer hara is nothing more than a slave. It may appear to him that he is a free man, but in truth he is a slave. Why? Because what my yetzer hara wants is not necessarily what I want. My yetzer hara is not "me", rather another entity - outside of "me". My soul, the G-dliness in me, is the true "me". What my soul wants is the opposite of what my yetzer hara wants. Therefore, if I allow my yetzer hara to dictate my life, I am nothing more than a slave to it, and it is my master. On the other hand, if my actions follow the dictates of my soul and not those of my yetzer hara, then I am not a slave but I am a free man in control of my actions.
THE YETZER HARA IS THE BIGGEST ENEMY
The Chovot Halevavot (Shaar Yichud Hamaase 5) writes that a person must understand that the yetzer hara is his biggest enemy. When you are asleep it is awake (you may not notice him, but he is waiting to trip you up), you may ignore him but he certainly does not ignore you, he dresses up in the garments of friendship (he pretends to be your friend, as if he loves you). The truth is that he is your biggest enemy and he is only masquerading as your friend.
In my humble opinion, the Chovot Halevavot has not carried this idea out fully. We can explain this by means of an analogy - if someone undertakes a mission to spy on another nation (Syria for example), in his attempt to uncover Syrian military secrets, he may disguise himself as a good friend of the Syrian President or Chief of Staff. The spy may succeed in convincing the president that he is indeed his good friend, yet there is one thing he will never succeed in convincing him - that he (the spy) is the real President of Syria.
THE YETZER HARA IS NOT THE TRUE YOU
This is the best a human spy can hope for. The yetzer hara, however, has far more sophisticated methods - it not only disguises itself as someone else who loves you, but disguises himself as YOURSELF. He tries very hard to persuade you that he is YOU! What "he" wants is what "you" want. The truth is, however, that what "he" wants is not at all what "you" want. What does the yetzer hara desire? He wishes to remove you from the world - not only from the Next World but from this world as well. Chazal point out that if we were to leave a goat or a small lamb beside a snake or scorpion, no harm will befall them, for the goat knows to beware of them. If, however, one would, G-d forbid, leave a baby near them, the baby, out of curiosity would try to touch the snake or scorpion and will end up being bitten, G-d forbid. Similarly, leaving a goat or lamb near an open pit will not result in any grave consequences. Should one, however, leave a baby near an open pit, heaven forbid what can result from this!
What accounts for this distinction? Because "man's inclination is evil from his youth" (Bereishit 8:21) - "from the time that he stirs to go out of his mother's insides, the urge to do evil is put in him" (Rashi). At this ripe age, the yetzer hara is already pushing man into acting in a way that places his life in danger. The yetzer hara has no such desire when it comes to the lamb, but the baby it does wish to kill. We see that the yetzer wishes to take us not only from the Next World but from this world as well.
How many people do we know who, fully aware of the associated dangers, continue to smoke? Who is not aware of the damage drugs can cause, yet people continue to use them? Why is this so? This is the yetzer hara's attempt to hasten man's departure from this world. If he does not succeed in removing us from this world, then he tries to at least make sure we do not enter the Next World. The yetzer hara is our biggest enemy, and we should take care not to mistake his identity for our own.
OUR SOULS HAVE NO DESIRE FOR THIS WORLD
While the yetzer hara draws us into sinning, our souls have the opposite aspirations. All souls originate from under the Throne of Glory (see Zohar chelek 3, 29b). This is especially true of Jewish souls which come from a lofty and holy place, and as such have no interests at all in the aspirations of the yetzer hara. Chazal explain the pasuk "yet his wants are never satisfied" (Kohelet 6:7) using the following parable. There was once a simple city dweller who married a princess. He could shower her with all the gifts this world has to offer and it would have no meaning to her. Why? Because as the king's daughter she grew up with whatever she desired. On the same note, if we were to offer our souls all the delicacies of the world, it would have no meaning. Our soul comes from way up above and has no interest in physical things such as food (see Kohelet Rabba 6:1). If a princess were to marry a simple villager, she would derive no pleasure from the country lifestyle. What is in it for her - some onions and garlic? In the king's palace she was accustomed to fatted geese ducks, roasted doves, and other royal delicacies.
This is precisely how the soul feels in this world. The soul was carved from under the Throne of Glory, and is accustomed to spiritual delicacies - Torah and mitzvoth are its source of nourishment. What does it get in this world? Fish and meat! What does a soul need fish and meat for? Nothing! Meat and fish may be eaten in honor of the Shabbat or in order to strengthen one's body to be healthy and better able to serve Hashem. This then is a mitzvah and the soul derives benefit from it. However, eating food for pleasure's sake alone is of no value to the soul. Why? Because it originated in lofty places and is nourished from spiritual things only, not from the physical fish and meat.
MY BODY IS NOT ME
As we mentioned, man's "self" is his soul and not his yetzer hara. We can add that man's body is also not his "self". Cells are being replaced constantly - within a month all the cells have died and new ones are generated in their place. In the space of a month we have a totally new body. Yet, we still feel the same "self". Obviously this points to the fact that my "self" is not my body but my soul. (Based on this, I have difficulty understanding the bracha we recite each morning - "Elokai neshama shenatata bi tehora hee" "My G-d the soul that You placed within me is pure". What does it mean "the soul that You placed within ME" - is the soul itself not "me"? How then can we speak of placing the soul within "me").
If the body is not "me", than how do we view the body? The body is the clothing for the "self", to house the soul that Hashem sent down to this world. The body provides the tools with which to observe mitzvoth and perform good deeds. Had it not been for the body, the soul would have no means with which to carry out its task in this world.
My soul has been given other tools to assist it in fulfilling its mission as well. My mind, for example, is not "me" - it is another tool used to assist the soul in its work. On of the Rishonim defined the mind as "the messenger that is the go-between between man and his G-d". I can use my intellect as a means of better knowing and serving Hashem. This, in no way implies that my mind is "me". The only "self" is my soul.
Our parents, spouses, and children are also tools to aid us in serving Hashem. When a man, G-d forbid, dies without children, the deceased's brother has a mitzvah to perform yibum. This is because the deceased's wife was given to him to enable him to father children. Because he did not merit this, his tikkun is that his brother will father children through her. Similarly, monetary possessions are also tools to assist in serving Hashem. When the daughters of Tzlafchad demanded their father's inheritance they did not claim "why should our share be diminished", but rather "why should the name of our father be omitted from among his family" (Bamidbar 27:4). The next of kin inheriting the father's possessions is a tikkun for his soul, when there is no heir this tikkun is lacking. Their wish was to provide a tikkun for their father's soul by inheriting his share of the Land of Israel and all his other material possessions he had in the desert. We see that material wealth is also a means of assisting us to better serve Hashem. Just as I am fully aware that my material possessions are not "me", and my wife is not "me", so too my body and my mind are not "me" either.
Avraham and Sarah made souls in Haran - what defines one's soul? We recite daily in Kriat Shma "You shall love Hashem, your G-d, with all your heart, with all your soul ('nafshecha')" (Devarim 6:5). Chazal tell us "with all your soul - even if he takes your soul" (Brachot 61b). This explanation is fitting for times when one is required to give up his life in an effort to sanctify Hashem's Name. What about when a person does not need to give his life but can live? How then does he love Hashem "with all his soul ('nefesh')"? The Rishonim (Rashi, Ramban, Sforno) interpret the pasuk "im yesh et NAFSHECHEM likbor et meiti milefanai (Bereishit 23:8), to mean "if it is truly YOUR WILL to bury my dead before me". The "nefesh" is a person's will and desire. We can now explain that loving Hashem "bechol nafshecha" implies with your entire will. When Avraham and Sarah made souls in Haran, they "made their will for them" - they transformed so that their desires were no longer to follow the dictates of their yetzer hara, but their true desire was what their soul wished - to serve Hashem. This is how they "made souls". The people during that time may not have been Jewish, but the internal desire of even a non-Jew is to serve Hashem. When it is possible to convert them, we must do so. When this is not a possibility, we should at least influence them to accept upon themselves the seven Noachide laws.
KILLING THE YETZER HARA
The Gemara writes: "in the future time, Hashem, will bring the evil inclination and slaughter it in the presence of the righteous and in the presence of the wicked" (Sukkah 52a). Whether or not Hashem actually slaughters it, He will at the very least limit its influence, or increase the power of the yetzer tov.
We are not told how Hashem will do so, but we are promised that in the end, the entire nation will repent. What this means is that a person's free choice is within the limits of a particular framework. Pharaoh was given the choice whether or not to enslave the Jewish people, but only within prescribed limits. Later on he is forced to send them free, whether he wishes to or not. On the one hand, it is too late for him to repent, on the other hand he does free the Jewish people - this, however, is regardless of whether he wishes to do so. The same may be said for all evil people - they are given the option of acting in a way contrary to the will of Hashem, this option, however, is not without its limitations. We see that Haman's desired decree was rescinded and within three days he was hanging from a tree fifty amot high! All free choice is within a prescribed framework.
Chazal teach us "The words of Torah are not retained except by one who kills himself over it" (Shabbat 83b). This cannot be taken literally, for even one who is ill, let alone dead, will have difficulty learning. Chazal's intention was to the "killing" of one's yetzer hara, one's desire for the vanities of this world, and the strengthening of one's quest for spiritual greatness. We must do our best to study yet another page of Gemara, to daven more, perform still more mitzvoth and acts of chesed. This is the true way to defeat our yetzer hara.