“Nothing good in the world is without its blemishes” we’re told, which goes for our good character traits and deeds as well. And — unfortunately — nothing amuses the yetzer harah quite as much as confounding us with ethical shades of gray. So we’re often in a bind about what to do. After all, what seems to be good might really be bad (and vice versa).
So it’s vitally important for us to know ourselves and our motivations, and to discern when the time is ripe for this … or for that … if we’re ever to achieve spiritual excellence. Because “if you’re aware of the blemishes affecting your actions, you’ll know how to be on guard against them, while if you only know of the good, you can’t help but lose it” — that is, you can’t help but lose the opportunity to do the right thing.
For as a pious man once told his disciples, Ibn Pakudah records, “You must first learn about evil (i.e., the evil within you) to separate yourself from it. For only then can you learn about the good (within you) and follow it.”
So we’re going to be presented with ways to do good things badly, if you will; and be shown how the yetzer harah tries to persuade us to take something good that we do and spin it on its axis just a bit until it becomes bad.
Now, the sensitive reader will easily catch sight of his or her own inner dialogue in the chapters to follow, and will surely blush; while the less sensitive reader will be quick to deny his or her own chicaneries, and will in fact pick up a trick or two. So the question might be asked — why lay this out in full sight if it could trip up some people?
But as Ibn Pakudah points out, quoting Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai, “Woe is me if I say anything, and woe is me if I say nothing! For if I say anything, dishonest people will learn how to cheat from it; and if I say nothing, cheaters will think the sages aren’t aware of what they do” (Babba Battra 89b).
That’s to say that while the bind is real, it has been determined that revealing the darker side of light is better than keeping us all in the dark.
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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