Akavia Ben Mehalalel says: Contemplate three things, and you will not come to the hands of sin. Know from where you came, and to where you are going, and before whom you will ultimately give judgment and accounting. From where did you come? From a putrefied drop (of semen). To where are you going? To a place of dirt, maggots and worms. And before whom will you ultimately give a judgment and an accounting? Before the King of Kings, The Holy One, Blessed be He.
(The Maharal brings sources for the thesis that arrogance is what empowers the yetzer harah.)
That man’s yetzer harah exists only as a result of his arrogance is alluded to by the Rabbis in a number of places. In Nedarim (9b) Shimon HaTzaddik said: I have never partaken from a Nazir sacrifice, except for one time. Once, a person came from the south (at the conclusion of his nazir period) and I saw that he was very handsome, with his hair arranged in long curls. I said to him: My son, why did you see fit to destroy such beautiful hair? (A nazir must cut off all his hair at the end of the nazir period. By undertaking to become a nazir, he ensured that all his hair would have to be cut off.) He said to me: “I was a shepherd for my father in my home town, and I once went to draw water from the spring. As I looked at my reflection, my yetzer harah surged forth in an effort to distract me and undermine my existence. (The commentary attributed to Rashi explains that when he saw how handsome he was, his yetzer harah wanted to seduce him to improper behaviours.) I said: ‘Evil one! How can you be arrogant in a world that is not yours, trying to incite one who is destined to become a worm (in the grave). I swear that I will shear you for the sake of Heaven.'” Immediately, I (Shimon HaTzadik) stood up and kissed him on his forehead and said to him “My son, there should be many more Jews like you who commit to a nazir period. It is those like you to whom the Torah refers in the verse ‘A man who will make a nazir oath, for the sake of G-d(Bamidbar 6:2)’.”
We see that when the man saw how handsome he was (leading to a feeling of arrogance) the yetzer harah was immediately aroused, with the intention of distracting him and leading him astray in order to undermine his existence. For this is the goal of the yetzer harah: To destroy a structure which has a stable existence. When the structure is already in a tenuous state, there is no need to undermine it further, and the yetzer harah leaves it alone. This young man recognized how vulnerable he was to the yetzer harah, and in order to remove (and undermine) the source of his arrogance (which he understood as being the breeding ground for the yetzer harah, and caused by a lack of sufficient clarity of his dependency on G-d) he vowed to cut off his hair for the sake of Heaven. (How much of our arrogance is caused by unwarranted attention given to our appearance? How much of that attention is caused by our need to cover up our own feelings of insecurity?) It was for this reason that Shimon HaTzadik praised him with the blessing that there should be more Jews who undertake neziruth for these pure motivations, and applied the phrase “an oath for the sake of Heaven” to this person.
Normally a person vows neziruth out of remorse for a sin that he committed. But as the neziruth drags on, he may come to regret the neziruth itself, as it becomes more difficult than he anticipated. This regret is even more likely when the person began the neziruth out of feelings of remorse for an earlier act, indicating that his decisions are frequently subject to vacillation. Just as he swung from a sinful act to an act of self-denial, it is possible that, as the difficulty of the neziruth weighs on him, he will once again change his mind.
But this young man wasn’t motivated by any regret, making his neziruth purely for the sake of Heaven.
(When the source of activity is reactive, it embodies the potential for regret, and is also built on personal motivations – in this case, the desire to protect himself from damage and to eliminate guilt. So the element of lshaim shamayim, for the sake of Heaven, is lacking. When one’s behaviour is proactive, as it was in the case of the young man in our story, the motivation is to reach beyond the level at which he finds himself, out of an altruistic desire to elevate himself to become closer to G-d. We have discussed in a number of the shiurim the difference between service of G-d out of love and out of fear. Service out of fear includes a dimension of personal motivation. You are afraid of what will happen to you if you don’t do the right thing. Service out of love is purely altruistic, and is therefore on a much higher level. This also has relevance to chumroth, adapting halachic stringencies. The Mahral in Chapter 1 indicates that the proper motivation for these stringencies is an intense love of G-d, with the desire to reach higher spiritual levels in order to come closer to Him. Too often, however, people are motivated to increase stringencies out of fear and self-centered motivations.)
(The Maharal will now elaborate on how each element of the young man’s story reflected the purity of his motivations, and the fact that he was not acting in a way in which future regret was likely.)
The reason it mentions that he “came from the south,” which is a long distance (from Jerusalem, where the nazir sacrifice was brought) is to emphasize that the person knew when he made the vow that he would have to travel that long distance to bring the sacrifices. This diminished the likelihood that the great distance he would have to travel would subsequently cause him to regret that he took the vow. Only unanticipated difficulties, those which a person rarely experiences, such as abstaining from wine for a significant time, raise the possibility of later regret.
The reason that it mentions that he was “a shepherd for his father in his home town” is because the yetzer harah besets a person when he is idle instead of being involved in productive activity. If the young man’s yetzer harah was aroused due to his own idleness, then he would have been responsible for having invited the yetzer harah to entice him. Activities which would then be necessary to neutralize that self-inflicted yetzer harah could not be termed “for the sake of Heaven,” but would have been a protective measure taken for his own welfare, in response to his own negligence. Therefore, it was significant that he had been a shepherd (a productive activity), not wasting his time in an idle way and not making himself vulnerable to the yetzer harah. Furthermore, the work of being a shepherd was being done for his father, so he was involved in a mitzvah (honoring his father) further insulating him from the yetzer harah. In addition, the task was being done in his home town, where he felt subject to the influence and authority of his father (which enhances humility, further insulating him from the yetzer harah) . Had he been far away from his home, he may have felt the desire and the ability to resist the authority his father, creating a sense of independence and arrogance, inviting the control of the yetzer harah. A neziruth made to in response to a feeling of independence and arrogance would not be judged purely “for the sake of Heaven.” (When a person travels away from home, there is a common tendency to lower our inhibitions compared to the way we would behave at home. This is true for young men and women going away to university or camp, and for adults away on vacation or a business trip. This is an important and very relevant insight that we have from the Maharal’s explanation.
But the young man did nothing to induce the yetzer harah. Rather it came upon in an unexpected way, as he unexpectedly saw his reflection in the pond and realized how handsome he was, inducing an urge to show off this beauty. This attack by the yetzer harah was no fault of his, and the response to become a nazir, resulting in his cutting off his hair, was purely “for the sake of Heaven.”
(In order to fully to understand the connections being made by the Maharal, we again need to focus on the difference between serving G-d out of love and out of fear, which we discussed in the first chapter, especially in Mishna 3. Most dependable people will intervene to rectify a situation for which they feel responsible, with an element of ego being one of the motivating forces. So in the case where the individual was responsible for creating his vulnerability to the yetzer harah, the response to neutralize that yetzer harah can be viewed as having a self-centered component. But when someone observes a situation for which he has no responsibility, he will only take action to rectify a problem if he feels a connection to the outcome on a transcendent level. You look to help a loved one without examining how the situation developed, because of your love and commitment to that person. It is an altruistic and giving perspective. When someone finds himself in a situation where he has a legitimate excuse for inaction, the motivation for taking action is on a higher plane than action taken when one will be blamed for a negative outcome. So, when our young man found himself beset by the yetzer harah through no fault of his own, it would have been very easy to succumb to that yetzer harah. His proactive response, not looking for excuses but looking to do what needed to be done to fulfill the will of G-d, is the result of “service out of love,” and is why Shimon HaTzakik referred to this as a nezirut that was purely “for the sake of Heaven,” motivated by something that transcends the individual.)
From every element of this story, we see that the source of the yetzer harah is arrogance, with the goal of distracting man from the purpose of his existence in the world, leading to his ultimate destruction.