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Posted on September 2, 2008 (5768) By Rabbi Pinchas Winston | Series: | Level:

Judges and law enforcers you must establish in all your communities, which God, your God gives to you, throughout the tribes; they must judge the people fairly”. (Devarim 11:26-28)

“Do you understand what it means when it says forbidden?” How many children have been asked that question growing up? How many adults need to be asked that question after already having grown up? How many of us will ask ourselves this question on this Yom HaDin, and will be asked this question on THE Yom HaDin Hagadol v’Hanora?

The answer, of course, is simple: it means you cannot do something. The difficult part is in understanding why we do it anyways, and do it, and do it, and do it, etc. Actually, come to think of it, the answer to that question is also quite simple: we are compelled to do that which is forbidden by the yetzer hara, as the Torah states:

God smelled the pleasing odor, and God said, “I will never again curse the land because of mankind, because the inclination of the heart is evil from his youth.” (Bereishis 8:21)

So, there you have it: we are born into our lowly position, as the Talmud declares:

Difficult is the yetzer hara that even its Creator called it “evil,” as it says,

“Because the inclination of the heart of man is evil from his youth” (Bereishis 8:21).

Rav Shimon, the son of Levi said: every day the yetzer of a man strengthens itself seeking to kill him. (Kiddushin 30b)

Whoa! Kill us? Really? If so, then what can we actually do to rectify the situation if we are born behind the spiritual eight ball? If it is over before we even start, the why even bother try? Well, for starters, it says: According to the effort is the reward. (Pirkei Avos 5:26)

In other words, though you may not succeed in this world by trying, you will always succeed in terms of the next world for trying. No effort to do good goes unnoticed by Heaven, or unrewarded by God.

The only problem is that, true as this may be, it does not always suffice as motivation to keep trying; we humans need to see positive results from our positive actions to remain positive about trying. It’s the way God made us, so the question remains: Why keep trying if we can’t succeed? The answer is, it all depends upon what you call “success.”

We can succeed by recognizing our inherent weakness, and then by turning to God for help. We move in the direction of success when we acknowledge that, without God’s help, we don’t stand a chance, but that with God’s help, we stand every chance. We earn reward in the World-to- Come just for trying, but we earn success in this world for enlisting God’s help in our fight against our yetzer hara.

This idea is alluded to by the Talmud, when it says: In the Time-to-Come, The Holy One, Blessed is He, will bring the yetzer hara and slaughter him before the righteous and the evil. To the righteous it will appear like a high mountain, and to the evil it will appear like a thread of hair. Both will cry; the righteous will cry and say, “How were we able to overcome this high mountain?” The evil will cry and say, “How were we not be able to overcome this thread of hair?” (Succah 52a)

Like a lot of the Talmud’s midrashic content, important insights only emerge by meditating on the simple words, by not taking them only for face value. The Talmud is making a very important distinction between righteous people and evil people, and it is far more subtle than most think, especially when we factor in the well-known concept of measure-for-measure (Sanhedrin 90a).

For, when it comes to punishment, God always makes sure that the punishment fits the crime, in order to educate us in this world, and to justly punish people in the next world if they didn’t correct their behavior while still alive. Therefore, it should be that, by looking at what occurs in this Midrash after history has come to a close, we can figure out the mistake made by the evil people during history, and for that matter, what the righteous people did right.

So, how does the yetzer hara appear to the righteous people at the Endof- Days? It appears like a mountain, an intimidatingly high mountain, one that they can’t imagine ever having climbed. And, how does the same yetzer hara appear to the evil at the End-of-Days? As a thread of hair, a shockingly thin, conquerable thread of hair, and they will be aghast at how they hadn’t even tried to do so.

If so, then, it must be that this is how each looked at the yetzer hara during his lifetime. The righteous saw the yetzer hara as a huge mountain, one likely to overcome them before they overcame it. Therefore, in humility, they turned to God for help. As a result, they received tremendous Heavenly help, and were able to tame their yetzer hara, and channel its energies in a holy direction, as if it was subservient to them. Not so the evil people of history. They never took their yetzer hara seriously, treating it instead like it was but a thread of hair, as if they had always been in perfect control of all that they did. Huh! How different things seem on Yom HaDin, after the yetzer hara is history, and life appears as it actually was from God’s vantage point! At that time, the line between Gihenom and Gan Aiden will appear to them as thin as the hair they let overcome them, and they will cry, “Why didn’t we just step over it to the right side of the line!”

With this intrepretation, we can answer an important question. Everyone knows the story of how the wife of Potiphar tried to seduce Yosef, and how he almost fell prey to her scheme. According to one opinion in the Talmud, Yosef actually came to the house of his master that today to acquiesce to her request, and would have, had he not seen an image of the face of his father, which he took as a warning and fled.

For rejecting the wife of his master, Yosef earned the title “tzaddik.” However, the question is, why? First of all, he shouldn’t have even considered accepting his master’s wife’s proposal of adultery, and secondly, the only reason why he succeeded in avoiding sin was because he saw his father’s face in his mind’s eye. Should a tzaddik not be able to resist such temptation on his own, without Divine assistance?

According to what we are saying here, the answer is no. As Shlomo HaMelech wrote:

There is not a righteous man on earth who does only good and never sins. (Koheles 7:20)

What makes a tzaddik a tzaddik, apparently, is how he realizes just how powerful his yetzer hara really is, and how easily he can fall prey to it, sometimes over time, sometimes at a moment’s notice. Aware of this inherent human vulnerability, the tzaddik never takes his yetzer hara for granted, and prays for Heavenly help in the battle against it, as Yosef did that day when he almost lost everything.

And, for doing so, he was answered with a vision from Heaven, which gave him the capability, at the last second, to fight back his yetzer hara, and do the right thing. For recognizing his need for Heavenly help in the battle against his yetzer hara, and for invoking Heavenly help to succeed, Yosef earned the appellation of “tzaddik,” as does anyone who treats his own yetzer hara like a huge mountain, and turns to God for help. Indeed, in one siddur (Tefillah Kol Peh), at the end of Shemonah Esrai, there is a special prayer inserted for this very purpose, which asks God for help against our yetzer hara.

Reciting it regularly serves two very important purpose. First of all, it reminds us that without God’s help, we can’t overcome the yetzer hara, no matter how spiritually strong we may think we are. Secondly, it invokes the necessary Heavenly help to at least stay in the battle, an important first step for making sure that, on Rosh Hashanah, when we consider our accomplishments and failures from the previous year, we have more to rejoice about, and less to regret.


Copyright © by Rabbi Pinchas Winston and Project Genesis, Inc.

Rabbi Winston has authored many books on Jewish philosophy (Hashkofa). If you enjoy Rabbi Winston’s Perceptions on the Parsha, you may enjoy his books. Visit Rabbi Winston’s online book store for more details!