IMAGINE WRESTLING WITH someone for hours and finally overcoming them. Then as you get up to leave, assuming you have triumphed, the other guy hits you on your leg while your back is turned, forcing you to limp away. Would that not be called fighting dirty?
Well, that is what happened to Ya’akov Avinu, except that he didn’t fight someone, but something, an angel, and the fight lasted the entire night. Then he managed to do the impossible, which was to defeat the angel. But even though the angel admitted defeat, he touched Ya’akov on the back of his thigh and injured him, though he was healed shortly after.
Chazal tell us that this was not just any ordinary angel that Ya’akov fought, but the Sar shel Eisav, the Ministering Angel of Eisav, the Sitra Achra…the yetzer hara because, ultimately, that is all we ever fight against. This is why the Torah promises the Jewish people peace for obeying Torah, and war if we don’t. It’s when we stop doing battle with our spiritual enemy that we end up having to doing battle with flesh-and-blood enemies.
The truth is, Ya’akov had been fighting his yetzer hara non-stop. Remember the well at which Ya’akov first met Rachel? The stone he rolled off on his own the Midrash says represented the yetzer hara. Three shepherds could not do it together, but Ya’akov was able to do it single-handedly. So you can be sure that when he kissed Rachel upon meeting her, it had nothing to do with his yetzer hara.
Or can you? Ya’akov also defeated the yetzer hara in this week’s parsha, but it still came after him and injured him. He still had to limp away and be cured. The lesson? Never assume that victory over the yetzer hara is permanent without vigilance against it. As Chazal teach, a person should never trust themself until the day they die, meaning that they must always be on guard against their yetzer hara.
The Gemora speaks about Yochanan Kohen Gadol who, at the age of 80 (some say after 80 years of being Kohen Gadol), became a Hellenist. Until that time he had served faithfully in the Temple until, at a very late age, he fell for the Hellenist way of thinking and lost his portion in the World-to-Come. Talk about tragic.
And talking about tragic, there is the story of Acher, previously known as Elisha ben Abuya. He was Rebi Akiva’s colleague and one of the four rabbis privileged to enter “Pardes” with him. But he erred in judgment and ended up becoming the quintessential heretic. Had it not been for Rebi Meir, Acher would have lost his portion in the World to Come despite all of his years of learning.
I HAVE READ that something similar happened to many previously Orthodox rabbis in the States in the 1950s. At that time there were not many positions for Orthodox rabbis in the nascent Torah world, so some took jobs with Conservative shuls just to make a living. They figured that instead of being pulled in the direction of their shuls, over time they would pull their congregation back in the direction of Torah and halachah.
Some fought valiantly and probably either quit or were later fired for not conforming. Tragically, some either didn’t fight hard enough or long enough, and instead capitulated little by little until they became Conservative rabbis. We all know and have experienced the power of rationalization when it comes to getting what we want against principles we’re supposed to live by.
And we’re not talking just about halachah. We also ignore signs of exiles ending and throw caution to the wind because of our yetzer haras that literally end up killing us. We put up with situations, that halachah and hashkofah say we should fight against, because of our yetzer haras. How many families have fallen apart because of yetzer haras?
Is it any wonder when, the yetzer hara acts like the ba’al habayis? Before we sinned with the Aitz HaDa’as, the yetzer hara was external to man and had to be more convincing to entice a person to sin. But once man absorbed the yetzer hara into his being, it only has had to make it sound as if its suggestions are our own.
The Ramchal put it like this in Derech Hashem:
The Highest Wisdom decreed that man should consist of two opposites. These are his pure spiritual soul and his unenlightened physical body. Each one is drawn toward its nature, so that the body inclines toward the material, while the soul leans toward the spiritual. The two are then in a constant state of battle.
In Mesillas Yesharim, the Ramchal adds that anyone who is not in a constant state of battle with their yetzer hara has more than likely already lost the battle. They have capitulated to their yetzer hara and given it free reign to call all the shots. Their life may seem stress free, but not because they are doing the right thing and have subjugated their yetzer hara. Rather, it is because they have suppressed their yetzer tov when it comes to fulfilling the more controversial aspects of living by truth.
The Gemora says that a person’s yetzer hara gets up each day to kill them (Kiddushin 30b). My Rosh Yeshivah used to emphasize to us that death has many forms. The worst is using your time in this world for ultimately meaningless things.
THE SAME GEMORA also says that if God doesn’t help a person with their yetzer hara, there really is not any way to overcome it. It doesn’t seem to distinguish between tzaddikim and non-tzaddikim, but a different Gemora does:
Rebi Yehudah taught: In the future at the end of days, God will bring the evil inclination and slaughter it in the presence of the righteous and in the presence of the wicked. To the righteous the evil inclination will appear as a high mountain, and for the wicked it will appear as a mere strand of hair. These weep and those weep. The righteous weep and say: “How were we able to overcome so high a mountain?” The wicked weep and say: “How were we unable to overcome this strand of hair?” (Succah 52a)
Is the yetzer hara an optical illusion that changes its appearance based upon who is looking at it? No. The different perspectives are the result of either asking or not asking God for help in fighting back the yetzer hara. It is God’s help that reduces a yetzer hara’s impact, as the Gemora says, “A person who comes to purify themself, they (Heaven) help them” (Yoma 38b). Without God’s help, the yetzer hara is overwhelmingly large and undefeatable.
But when God shows the evil what the yetzer hara could have been been for them had they enlisted His help, they cry because they finally realize what they lost forever for going it alone. Suddenly, the “blast” that life seemed to have been at the time appears like a dud instead.
Here’s how it’s supposed to go:
Rebi Eliezer says: “Repent one day before your death.”
Rebi Eliezer’s students asked him: “But does a person know the day on which they will die?”
He answered them: “All the more so this is a good advice, and one should repent today in case they die tomorrow. By following this advice, one will spend their entire life in a state of repentance.”
Shlomo HaMelech also said in his wisdom: “At all times your clothes should be white, and oil shall not be absent from upon your head” (Koheles 9:8), meaning that a person always needs to be prepared.
Similarly, Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai said the following story as a parable to this lesson: “It is comparable to a king who invited his servants to a feast and did not set a time for them to come. The wise among them adorned themselves and sat at the entrance to the king’s house. They said: ‘Is the king’s house missing anything necessary for the feast?’ Certainly the king could invite them at any moment. The fools among them went to attend to their work and said: ‘Is there such a thing as a feast without the toil of preparing for it? While the feast is being prepared, we will attend to other matters.’ Suddenly, the king requested that his servants come to the feast. The wise among them entered before him adorned in their finest clothes, and the fools entered before him dirty. The king was happy to greet the wise ones and angry to greet the fools. The king said: ‘These wise servants who adorned themselves for the feast shall sit and eat and drink, but these fools who did not adorn themselves for the feast shall stand and watch.’ There is a similar outcome for people who think that their day of death and judgment is far away and do not prepare themselves for it.” (Shabbos 153a)
Ain Od Milvado, Part 29
ABOUT TWO WEEKS ago they started saying Tehillim for the wife of a friend of mine. She had some kind of illness in her brain that also affected her heart and lungs. She was unconscious in the hospital, and though the doctors did everything they could for her, it was clear only a miracle would save her.
Last week she passed away, only in her thirties. She left behind a wonderful husband and human being, and nine children, the oldest I believe being only a year after Bar Mitzvah. One of the most difficult things for me to listen to is small children saying Kaddish for a parent who recently passed away.
The issue of good people dying young stopped being one for me many years after working on Sha’ar HaGilgulim. While it consoles me, it does little for the family going through their own personal Gihenom over the loss. But I know my friend. Despite the struggle now and for years to come, he will accept his loss with complete faith in the goodness of God. He’s one of those rare people for whom Ain Od Milvado is in his heart as well as in his head.
As I sat there at the Shivah and while others talked, I looked around the apartment and imagined the family enjoying happier times. I felt sad that the nifteres barely had time to enjoy it. I felt even sadder that she would not get to stand under the chuppah when the time comes, b’ezras Hashem, to marry off her children. Just another reminder to appreciate every moment of life you have, and every brochah Hashem gives you.
Like so many others in this kind of situation, R”L, this family will need some serious financial assistance to stay on its feet. If you’d like to help, you can do it through my site, www.thirtysix.org. Just tag the donation, “Family.” I’ll make sure it gets to them. If you’d like an alternative means to make a contribution, write me at [email protected].