When the yetzer harah fails to cast you into doubt about G-d and His Torah, it begins to gnaw away at your values. It tries to convince you that the pursuit of spiritual excellence is too demanding, and that it distracts you from some lovely worldly delights. Eventually it presses the issue so much so that you come to envy people with money and power who have access to all those kinds of things, and your being begins to plummet.
You start to develop an out-and-out Machiavellian attitude and to only do things (and brash ones at that) that impress others or feed your reputation, and you spend all of your time chasing after things you’d always thought petty in order to “succeed”.
But how could anyone ever defeat such a pervasive lie? After all, the pressure anyone of depth and content faces day after day to stay his moorings and keep his spiritual goals in mind is often daunting. Ibn Pakudah’s advice is that we always remember that there are two modes of thinking: reason and fantasy. Reason accedes to the facts, while phantasm weaves “facts” out of private wishes and hopes. (There’s a third mode as well, which we’d call “intuitive reason”, that sort of straddles the two; but that’s beyond the subject at hand.) In any event, as he puts it, “if your reasoning is clear and your wisdom secure … you’ll catch the errors in the yetzer harah’s … arguments. The truth will then become clear, (and) you’ll see things for what they are.” After all, fallacious is fallacious and there’s no getting around that, as the heart knows only too well when left to its own devices.
So what we’re to do is depend on reason rather than phantasm, and to remind ourselves that we could very well do without luxuries. And what helps in that, Ibn Pakudah advises us, is to reiterate our trust in G-d’s judgments and tell ourselves that if He were to grant us wealth indeed, that we’d certainly use it to good ends … but if He never does, then we’d easily make do without it. Now, the less Torah you know and the weaker your ties to G-d Almighty, the easier you’ll find it to succumb to visions of the “good life”, as we’d imagine. But don’t think that the learned don’t fall into the same traps we do. It’s just that they’re forced to (and indeed manage to) come up with better rationalizations for slackening off spiritually when they lapse. Torah verses will suddenly come to mind, as well as adages of the Sages, that will serve as stunning “proofs” for fundamental untruths. But once they allow reason to reign once again, they’ll find their way back and reject the yetzer harah’s promptings. So we all have to hone our reasoning abilities, and to learn to look upon ourselves from a dispassioned distance; to see the truth for what it is, and to remind ourselves that our ultimate goal is spiritual excellence and nothing less.
This series is dedicated to the memory of Yitzchak Hehrsh ben Daniel z”l, and Sara Rivka bas Yaakov Dovid, z”l.
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