December 7th-8th, 2001
23 Kislev, 5762
PEACE AND QUIET!
Our Sages never tired of expounding on the wiles of the yetzer ha'ra ["evil inclination"], that part of our personality that inclines us towards selfishness and immediate instinctual gratification, and away from the rigors of spiritual growth and challenge. Here is a representative passage from the Talmud on the subject:
Our Rabbis taught: The Evil Inclination is hard [to bear], since even his Creator called him evil, as it is written, for the desire of man's heart is evil from his youth (Genesis: 8, 21). R. Isaac said: Man's Evil Inclination renews itself daily against him, as it is said, [every imagination of the thoughts of his heart] was only evil every day (Genesis: 6, 5). And R. Simeon, the son of Levi, said: Man's Evil Inclination gathers strength against him daily and seeks to slay him, for it is said: The wicked watcheth the righteous, and seeketh to slay him (Psalms: 37, 32); and were not the Holy One, blessed be He, to help him [man], he would not be able to prevail against him, for it is said: The Lord will not leave him in his hand (Ibid., 33).
Personified as a tireless adversary and master of disguises, this inner challenger (also sometimes known as Satan) is ever looking to trip us up.
Annoying as he is, though, he actually plays an indispensable role in the plan of Creation. The
yetzer ha'ra is the opponent against whom we struggle as we strive to develop our true potential through the path of the Torah and its commandments; it is his resistance that enables us to grow spiritually greater. (Just as the tennis partner who is a little faster than you, and already knows your best shots, helps you to become a better player.)
Each time we elect not to follow his advice--whether to light up the cigarette, indulge in the sweet morsel of loshon ha'ra (hurtful gossip), sleep through morning prayers or engage in any other transgression you can think of--and to follow, instead, the advice of the One Who knows better, we elevate ourselves . We thereby fulfill the very purpose of our creation: to exercise our free will, and choose to do good. (And our Sages clearly tell us that Torah study is the indispensable fortifier we need--in daily doses--to give us the strength to defeat the yetzer ha'ra.)
It stands to reason. If we had no "inclination" to stray from what's good, then what great moral accomplishment is it to do good? Indeed, this is why the Torah teaches that we human beings are greater than angels: they lack that inclination to go off the straight path, while we must forever contend with it in our service of G-d.
Now, then, let me share with you one of my own favorite "pick-up lines" of this great seducer, the yetzer ha'ra, and then show you how it relates to this week's Torah portion.
When we encounter difficulties in life, our usual tendency (mine included) is to pray for their speedy removal. Often we do so not on the grounds that they interfere with our secular "peace and quiet," but on the grounds that they interfere with our sacred service of G-d itself! "How can I serve you properly, dear G-d, with all this going on in my life? How can I ever grow in my knowledge and practice of Torah if I am preoccupied with my struggles and difficulties?" We tend to view difficulties as "obstacles" to serving G-d, to be cleared away from the roads of our lives immediately--interruptions on a journey which is supposed to be (and must always only be) SMOOTH.
This reminds me of how I am on an airplane. Whenever we hit bumpy air, I feel terrified…and a bit cheated. This is not how it is supposed to be, I say to myself…as I reach with trembling hand for my book of Psalms (and my Xanax). But whoever told me that flying is "supposed" to be smooth, and that turbulence is an aberration? Maybe I should accept that turbulence is, within reason, a normal and expected part of air travel, and that to think otherwise is immature.
So, too, with our lives. Maybe the bumps are a normal and expected part of the journey--perhaps even the essence of the trip, specifically (and beneficently) sent to make us into heartier travelers! This seems to be the opinion of
Rabbi Moshe Chayim
Luzzatto, great Jewish philosopher and ethicist: "the essence of man's existence in this world," he writes in his classic, The Path of the Just (Mesilas Yesharim), "is solely the fulfilling of the mitzvot (commandments), the serving of G-d and the withstanding of trials." (my emphasis) If the yetzer ha'ra is our internal challenger, the bumps in the road of life are his external counterpart. And both are not at all "beside the point," but absolutely central to life's point (and purpose).
Yet, we tell ourselves (or, better, the deceiver whispers in our ear): If you only had some peace and quiet, then you could really serve G-d…
Our patriarch, Ya'akov, made this mistake as well--on his own lofty spiritual level. The parsha opens: "Ya'akov settled (va'yeishev) in the land of his father's
sojournings…" Rashi cites a famous Midrash on this verse that seeks to explain a deeper idea behind the Torah's using the word, "settled," at the beginning of the verse before changing to a different term for dwelling ("sojourn"):
"Ya'akov sought to dwell in tranquility. So the ordeal of Yosef sprang upon him. The righteous seek to dwell in tranquility, but the Holy One, Blessed be He, said, 'Is not what is prepared in the World to Come enough for them, yet they seek to dwell in tranquility in this world [as well]?!'
As many of the commentaries point out, Ya'akov's idea of tranquility was surely not to read magazines and drink cold beer on the porch (though it sure sounds nice to this writer). He wanted some respite from the almost non-stop tribulations of his adult life up to this point, so he could devote undivided attention to his studies and his family's spiritual development. If anyone in history ever deserved a little "peace and quiet," (right after a stormy couple of decades in the house of Lavan), or could use it more productively, it was Ya'akov.
But no! Even Ya'akov's lofty "tranquility" is not in his best spiritual interests, evidently, and G-d needs to send him another "trial" to perfect him further. Surely, then, the kind of tranquility most of us crave (see above) is not necessarily in our best spiritual interests. We may want our lives to be full of tranquility, or think that this how it is "supposed" to be, but G-d has other plans for us. (And, ultimately, we will be glad He did!)
We are all constantly sent "trials," opportunities for learning and spiritual growth. We are not meant to "settle down" anywhere…in a spiritual sense. Wherever we are, and whatever our situation, and however much "sound and fury" has replaced the peace and quiet we crave (or think we do…it may be that old Deceiver again)--our task is to do our best to serve G-d with joy, always learning and always growing.
Here are wise words on that score from Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, and I pledge to try to take them to heart a bit more than I may have in the past…and try to whine a bit less:
"Will you then…murmur against the trials of your suffering? Is not your
whole life only a task? Is not every manifestation of your outer life, whatever form
your outer life may take, only a different stage for the fulfillment of its
duty to serve G-d? Will you prescribe to your G-d the place at which He should require your service? …if you really understand your life as a task to be
fulfilled, and esteem it only as such, will you know any difference between
joy and sorrow, between good fortune and bad fortune? Will you not face either with equal serenity, discerning in each
only the task which G-d imposes on you?" [my emphasis] (Horeb, Chapter 11)
Not one of us can prescribe the place at which G-d should require our service--not even Ya'akov Avinu. We just have to do our best to focus (with inner serenity) on whatever (important) task G-d has given us.
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