Tuesday, May 06, 2008

“Knowing is not enough. We must apply,”

I Yam What I Yam.
(Johann Wolfgang von Goethe): 28 August 1749 – 22 March 1832

It is good to know that there is someone who thinks a wee bit the same as
I do.

The following is an extensively revised version of a past edition of Insights.

Sometime during my youth (many, many moons--and even more pounds--ago), a certain slogan became all the rage. It was on bumper stickers and buttons, T-shirts, ashtrays and keychains; it was on the lips of television actors and comedians, like Flip Wilson, Mad Magazine's Alfred E. Newman, and everybody else you happened to converse with. It was The Cool Thing to Say.

The slogan I'm talking about was: "The Devil made me do it!"

Were you caught doing something rude, indecent, crass or anti-social? Just grin wickedly (or innocently), and explain, "The Devil made me do it." End of discussion.

How would the Torah view this particular slogan? Believe it or not, "The Devil" is not the problematic part. Though many people may not realize it, his roots are firmly planted in the Jewish tradition. The word, "Satan," comes from a Hebrew root that means to hinder or denounce; there are many references to him in the Talmud and Midrash--not to mention the Book of Job, where he makes perhaps his most famous appearance.

The Satan is real: he's an angel (malach), that is to say, a spiritual force created by Hashem to play the role of Accuser, and Tempter, of the Jewish people...and of each individual. A manifestation of the Satan exists inside of every human being, in fact. It is the powerful force that our Sages called the "yetzer ha'ra," or "evil inclination." As one great contemporary Torah scholar defines it, the yetzer ha'ra is "the collective name for the drives and attitudes which interfere with [i.e. hinder] man's search for spirituality and closeness to G-d." (Rabbi Aharon Feldman, The Juggler and the King, p. 21) We can spot the footprints of the yetzer ha'ra in our almost insatiable desire for pleasures, honor, wealth, attention. If not kept in check, this desire can swamp that opposite yearning we have inside of us for spiritual growth and holiness, the manifestation of the yetzer ha'tov, or "good inclination."

So there is a Devil inside us, if you will, a force whose very purpose is to challenge us. But he was put there by G-d, the King of All, and reports to HIM (He�s not an independent actor). And the reason G-d put the yetzer ha�ra inside of us is so that we will rise above it'i.e., gain spiritual reward (and fortitude) by following the promptings of the yetzer ha'tov instead. We develop our spiritual muscles by refusing to follow the yetzer ha'ra--however strong the temptation--and by heeding the guidelines of the Torah,and of our own higher selves.

Far from being a tragedy, then, the existence of the Satan/yetzer ha'ra is for our own benefit. It exists in order to help us become better people, and more loyal servants of the Holy One, Blessed be He. (In a sense, we can characterize the struggle against the yetzer ha'ra as the very purpose of our existence on earth!)

So, the problem with the slogan, "The Devil made me do it," ain't the Devil part. It's the "made me do it" business. The Devil doesn't make us do anything. Free will is an absolutely central concept in the Torah. With exceedingly rare exceptions, a human being can always either choose to do good, or choose to do evil. (This fact makes human beings greater than the angels, who lack the element of free will.) In fact, the moral realm is really the only area in which man has such freedom. As the Talmud states, "Everything is in the hands of Heaven, except the fear of Heaven." (Berachos 33b) Ultimately, everything is in G-d's hand,except our decision to either fear (and serve) Him, or not. [Note: The exception alluded to above is discussed by Rambam. He explains that in the case of extremely wicked individuals, like Pharaoh, the ultimate punishment from G-d may be the removal of their ability to repent after a certain point.]

We human beings are always looking for someone, or something, to pin the blame on for our transgressions. If it's not the Devil, then it's our genes or our dysfunctional families or our anger from childhood abuse that made us do it. Something else is always making us do it (hit, hate, curse, turn aside from the stirrings of our conscience, etc.) The Torah, however, teaches that nothing makes you do it...not even your yetzer ha'ra, the most likely culprit of all. Each of us decides whether or not we do it, each of us uses the free choice given by G-d to go in one direction or the other. Certainly, there are parameters that limit our moral choices (both circumstance, and the cumulative effect of our previous choices). But nothing determines them�or compels us to go a certain way.

Though we do have free will, then, it is (admittedly) not always so easy to oppose the yetzer ha'ra. The Talmud tells truly frightening stories about individuals who thought they had whipped theirs, only to find themselves attacked later with an overwhelming force of temptation. The Satan is a formidable opponent. As Rabbi Moshe Chayim Luzzatto puts it in his classic ethical work, Mesilas Yesharim (Path of the Just):

"...[the yetzer ha'ra] is a man of war, and well versed in craftiness. It is impossible to escape from him except with great wisdom and a broad outlook...And it is obvious that even if one watches closely over himself, it is not within his power to save himself without the help of the Holy One, Blessed be He. For the evil inclination is exceedingly tenacious, as Scripture states, 'The wicked one looks to the righteous and seeks to kill him...' (translation taken partly from edition by Rabbi Shraga Silverstein; Feldheim, pp. 31, 33)

Elsewhere in the book, Luzzatto explains that the only way to defeat the yetzer ha'ra is through Torah study (combined with dedicated moral self-reflection resulting from that study), for the Talmud explains that G-d expressly created the Torah as its sole antidote! (Tractate Kiddushin, 30b) By our own efforts alone, we may well NOT be strong enough to choose wisely all the time. We need spiritual fortification from the Torah.

So while it is not true that the Devil made me do it, he certainly does make me offers that are sometimes quite hard to refuse!

Along comes our parsha, and lifts our spirits with the promise of a brighter future when things won't be quite so difficult.

Rabbi Yosef Edelstein.


At Tuesday, May 06, 2008 2:39:00 AM, Anonymous NJWT said...

I can't believe you're quoting the Rav Luzz. I've been trying to get through "The knowing heart" for about four years now!

At Tuesday, May 06, 2008 2:46:00 AM, Anonymous SkyNymph said...

Namaste' dearest Walt, this was an AWESOME post m'dear ;0) and I must admit my mind often goes places it maybe shouldn't, but I blame it on the devil hahahahaha it's too late for me.

I can grin wickedly and innocently all within the same deed. *e-grin* *blush*

Seriously though you are a man with many thought provoking ideas, thoughts and always on the verge of insanity, wonderful post I really enjoyed reading, but then again I always enjoy your writings.

At Tuesday, May 06, 2008 2:50:00 AM, Anonymous SkyNymph said...

psst ... I had no idea there was such a shirt. But now you've given me a wicked sweet idea to make my own!



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