My Importance: Writing and the Yetzer Hara

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06 Mar 2008

There’s a story about a revered rabbi on his deathbed, who is asked by his students: “Tell us, what is it like now that you’re about to die, when the yetzer hara has surely freed you from its clutches?”

And the rabbi says something along these lines: “No, the yetzer hara is still bothering me, even now. It’s telling me to recite the final Shema in such a way that after I’m gone, everyone will say how devout I was during my final moments.”

Even though the rabbi is confessing his endless subjugation to his own false pride, his final moments can, from a certain perspective, indeed be considered victorious – not for vanquishing his yetzer hara once and for all, but for trying to keep tabs on it. He must have been familiar with the yetzer hara’s unpredictable cleverness at assuming different identities, and with his inability to get rid of it. But remaining aware of its machinations was still within his power.

I find the story comforting. It reminds us that we’re not expected to conquer the yetzer ha ra once and for all, but rather, to engage in a struggle with it until our dying day. Total victory is impossible against an immortal opponent.

We are eminently capable, however, of winning individual battles. The rabbi’s confession to his students about what his yetzer ha ra was up to – which ruined whatever false images they might have otherwise cherished of him at his deathbed – was one such battle won.

Yet no matter how many times we win, new confrontations arise again instantly, time after time. It’s ceaseless. It’s one definition of being alive. No sooner have we won one battle than another presents itself, providing us with fresh, unwanted evidence that we are not in fact the altruistic beings we wish we were. If we keep our eyes open, it’s impossible to feel proud of ourselves for very long. It’s impossible to feel holy.

And if we do feel holy, watch out! There’s a line that my friend Shifra Atlas told me years ago, that goes like this: “Far is near and near is far.” He who takes prides in being close to G-d may very well be far away, by virtue of his pride. And one who feels cast down and far away, may actually be close.

My own yetzer hara is, of course, working overtime even at this instant, as I write. What’s it doing at this particular moment in time? I’d rather not know. I’d rather you think highly of me. I’d rather think highly of myself. But here goes: Since I am one of those who often feels cast down and far away, I’m taking pride in myself that this must mean I’m actually one of those who are exceptionally close. And having admitted that to you, how can you feel critical of me for my ridiculous vanity? In other words, how can I be found guilty of pride when I’m humble enough to tell you about it? It’s like the man who, upon being praised for being humble, says sincerely (or insincerely), “No, I’m really not humble at all.”

Wow, we think. That guy is really humble!

Furthermore, by mocking myself as I have just done, by sharing honestly with you the impurity of my intentions, I’m hoping to impress both of us with the purity of my intentions.

The false pride is endless! It’s as if there were a tight knot inside that spontaneously keeps on tying and retying itself. If I can just keep untying the string as it reties itself, though, maybe I can become the master of my yetzer hara.

How very proud of myself I’d be!

Then my pride would have to be untied.

Or, to look at it another way: It’s like gazing into the infinite hallway of mirrors that pops up when you place two mirrors opposite each other and look at your image. You hope to come upon the purity of your own soul, but in the very instant of catching sight of it, it’s transformed again into vanity. So you’re far away from your goal, once again.

What’s the answer to the infinite tunnel of self-deception? It must be this: To stop looking in the mirror for the purity we’re seeking. We will always be human, full of pride, full of ego, full of ambition and dissatisfaction and desire for recognition. The desire to find holiness in ourselves is like trying to worship ourselves instead of G-d. Purity is not to be found in me, or you, but in our Creator, and in the rare moments of connection we can find with Him in our prayers.

* * *
Which leads us to…

Writing. My writing, as is the case with a lot of other human occupations, is the monument I build to preserve myself. And again, like most human pursuits, it can be used for good or, G-d forbid, the opposite.

It differs, obviously, from the performance of mitzvos, insofar as we have not been commanded to engage in writing as we have been commanded to visit the sick, or honor our parents, carry out acts of kindness, or do any of the other 613 mitzvos. There’s therefore a risk one runs in spending time with pen in hand, or before a computer: We might be deluding ourselves that we’re doing something useful when actually we are wasting our precious, irreplaceable time on earth in futility and vanity. That risk is especially great since having one’s writing published is such a delicious, filling meal for the ego to feast upon.

The impulse to write, like any other impulse to express oneself to others, to construct one’s own particular version of the world, to assert one’s presence, arises from, and is cultivated by, all sorts of circumstances and influences that obviously vary from person to person. But it seems to me that people who feel this inexplicable desire to write do all share a similar need to define themselves, to stake a claim – not unlike the mountain-climber who sticks a signpost into the snow and ice upon reaching the peak. “I was here,” the mountain-climber is saying. “Look at me, I’m alive!”

For someone like me who as the baby in the family was plagued, growing up, by a sense of unimportance in the world, of powerlessness and smallness, and by jealousy of my big sisters, then getting those words down on the page is like sticking that signpost into the ground, or like setting up a stone monument – (dear me! I almost said “gravestone”!) – to mark the spot where I lived. As the rooster crows and the pony neighs, there’s an inescapable instinct to proclaim to myself and others that what I experience has significance, to declare that my life is not nothing, not nothing, not nothing, but something, something, something. Something! Something! Something!

Does that strike you as a worthwhile way to spend a life?

Don’t bother answering.

If I harbor any hope at all of being able to look back some day and conclude that my life wasn’t wasted, then devoting my days to the goal of proving I’m not nothing is not a good bet. This is especially so because in the grand scheme of things, any individual’s vain efforts to prove himself do, in fact, amount ultimately to nothing if not nothing.

The highest course to take could well be, therefore, to shift gears and spend my time engaged in something of more immediate, verifiably genuine use to myself, to others, and to G-d.

But before throwing my computer out the window and taking pleasure in the sound of its arrival on the sidewalk, I’d have to consider that our Sages note that if not for the yetzer ha ra, human beings wouldn’t do much of anything else, either. No one would learn Torah, or get married, or want children, or build a house. No one would be inclined to lead his country, or to cook dinner and clean up afterwards. If we were capable of ridding ourselves of our egos, it wouldn’t be this pitiful little essay alone that would have to go. Our kitchen floors would also get very, very dirty. Our egos are the self-starting engines that goad each of us on to accomplish all the good things that human beings can do.

All of us are ultimately liberated from our false selves as surely as the snake sheds his skin, with nothing left of us but our souls. But for the time being, it is the wondrously amazing phenomenon of the ego that eggs us on from birth to death.

This isn’t to say that we aren’t also motivated by unselfish motives to do good, to be of help, to spread an awareness of our purpose here in the world. Most of us do share this inborn need to be of real service, to be useful in the eyes of G-d.

It is to say, however, that our purest altruistic impulses are intermixed thoroughly with our desire to be loved, the desire to be recognized: it’s an aspect of human personality that cannot be erased; it’s woven into the fabric of our being. From the time a baby first looks into his parents’ eyes and sees himself mirrored in their smiles, the pattern continues manifesting itself. It has been said that even as the Nobel Prize winner steps up to the podium to collect his check and soak up the accolades, he’ll be glancing out into the audience in search of his mother in the second row. Now she’ll think I’m OK, after all!

But the desire to be free of this desire is equally universal. Wouldn’t we all welcome liberation from this maddeningly craven craving for appreciation, approval, and respect? Wouldn’t it be a relief to attain real humility, whereby one is unduly affected by neither honor nor by insult? Wouldn’t it be nice to have as one’s central relationship the relationship with one’s Creator; to have as one’s greatest ambition to be worthy of G-d’s approval? Such an individual’s self-respect is based less upon pride over his personal achievements than upon an underlying consciousness of himself as an entity created by G-d. He doesn’t consider himself superior or inferior; he is blinded neither by self-abomination nor self-inflation nor self-infatuation; he feels no compulsion to diminish others or exaggerate his own importance at their expense; he doesn’t crave other people’s respect, since he doesn’t look to them for his identity. He is more likely than most to perceive the world around him objectively, because he doesn’t have a vested interest in distorting it. He trusts implicitly that reality (which includes him) is good, no matter what discomforts and ugliness it may entail, because all that G-d does is good. He’s not afraid of what he’ll see by foregoing his pride, because in every direction he perceives evidence of Divine kindness, and he would like to serve as an instrument of that kindness.

Yet as we strive toward lofty dreams of transcendence and selflessness such as these, we can rest assured that Hashem knows all the intricate egotistical machinations of our hearts – all the darkness that’s in there, and all the light. I can trust, as a humble creation of Hakadosh Baruch Hu, that he created me with my particular personality – complete with yetzer hatov and yetzer hara, not with part of a heart and part of a soul but with all my heart, and all my soul – and with the implanted human drive to fulfill my destined mission in life.

Someone once said to me: If you want to find your mission in life, just look around. You’ll see your mission. Is it a pile of dishes? A child needing attention? A neighbor who is alone, a relative in need? Is there something you want to write, or cooking to do? Does the water bill have to be paid this morning?

Perhaps, at this particular moment, it’s attending to that hidden problem in your life – the one not many people know about – which constantly requires that you develop all your powers of self-discipline, kindness, patience and emunah.

So what’s the solution? Perhaps, for me, it’s to have the humility (!) not to expect genuine humility from such a one as I. (Such a one as me?) In other words, not to expect purity from an impure vessel. Purity is G-d’s domain.

The only way out of the eternal knot is to humbly accept that I’m driven by egotistical ambitions, no matter how sincerely I try to make my personal goals consistent with G-d’s purposes.

* * *
Rav Shlomo Wolbe has written that “every person must know he has importance – not illusory importance but very deep and significant importance.”

Even as I keep an eye on my unquenchable appetite for false significance, I can try simultaneously to understand that I’m already in full possession of the truest possible significance. I can trust that my hungry, childish little ego has an appointed role to play in Hashem’s Divine plan, as do we all, as do all living beings He has created in His world.

We don’t have to prove ourselves, even though the yetzer ha ra, for better and for worse, may continue prompting us to do so: to accomplish, to contribute to society, to proclaim that we’re alive, right up to our last moments on earth. Your importance and mine are not at risk, not in question; not subject to jealous comparison with the value of others.

Just as an infant one second after birth is obviously the most precious thing in the world, so are you, and I. Your importance is beyond any possible calculation, as is mine. My infinite value is guaranteed, as is yours.

During these disastrous times, when our continued existence here in our land has been thrown violently into question and there seems to be no place at all anymore for foolishness, I offer up my own little prayer: May writing constitute an acceptable avodah. And the inexplicable desire to spend time absorbed in it not be in conflict with Hashem’s larger plans for Am Yisrael.

(Given my desire to appear devout in the eyes of others, I should probably distrust my desire now to add: And may the Holy Temple be rebuilt, speedily in our days.)

Sarah Shapiro’s most recent books are “Wish I Were Here” [Artscroll], and “The Mother in Our Lives”[Targum/Feldheim]. This article is reprinted from “A Gift Passed Along” [Artscroll] with the author’s permission. Sarah Shapiro teaches writing in Israel and the United States.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.