Monday, October 26, 2009

Vanquishing The Evil Inclination: Eradication or Redirection?

If memory serves, the story of David and Avishag was explained to me in Arie Crown in accordance with the approach of the Yerushalmi. (I believe I learned it with Mrs. Pearl Gross.)

To cite from this source,
    the ARUCH LA'NER suggests a novel approach to explain the Gemara (Sanhedrin 22a). The Yerushalmi explains that in order for David ha'Melech to repent fully from his actions with Bas Sheva, David ha'Melech constantly tried to place himself in the same situation as he was in when the incident with Bas Sheva occurred, and then, in that situation, to act with the utmost righteousness and control. (This is the highest form of Teshuvah, as the RAMBAM states in Hilchos Teshuvah 2:1.) For this purpose, David ha'Melech had beautiful Pilagshim brought to him. For the same reason, David ha'Melech wanted an attendant to be found who would be the most beautiful woman in all of Israel. When Avishag saw that David ha'Melech was already very old, she said, "You no longer have the same desire you had in your youth, and therefore having a beautiful woman around will not serve the purpose for which you intend." This is what she meant by saying that even a thief eventually loses his ability to steal and then claims that he has repented, not out of true repentance but merely out of the inability to steal. David ha'Melech showed her that he was still youthful and thus could still accomplish complete Teshuvah.
The question was: What was King David's attitude toward his yetzer hara, the evil inclination that makes it possible for man to desire and to have intimate relations? Had he conquered it wholly so that he had no desire for Avishag at all, even though she lay next to him, flesh to flesh, or did he desire her but deny himself?

In school we were taught that King David slew his evil inclination, the interpretation being that he had no desire for Avishag at all. To me, this seemed peculiar. Wouldn't it have been much harder for King David to have desired Avishag but nonetheless deny her to himself in order to atone for what happened with Bat-Sheva? It seemed to me that this is what it should mean to conquer the yetzer hara.

Thus, to me it seemed as though there were two approaches:

1. Eradication (to slay the yetzer hara so that it no longer exists within a person- one only has one's yetzer hatov)

2. Redirection (to take the yetzer hara and redirect one's passions and desires into a more appropriate forum or channel in order to serve God- see Shabbat 156a.)

My best friend and I discussed this and he told me there is a machlokes as to which of these two approaches is better. He also suggested that complete redirection may lead to a form of eradication, in that if someone has truly redirected one's yetzer hara to kill into being a butcher, perhaps he no longer has any desire to kill a human being, so that desire was eradicated. I, in contrast, thought there was a possibility that the man still wanted to murder but slaked his thirst by killing cows rather than humans. However, this would never be totally satisfying to him. (Unfortunately, since in the Gemara it merely says the thirst is to 'shed blood' but never stipulates that it is specifically to murder or to shed human blood, I can't really prove my point.) Leaving that discussion aside, I thought it would be nice to offer some sources for both points of view per the simple understanding.

In Maalos HaTorah, Avraham ben Shlomo Zalman seems to prefer the eradication approach. He cites the Vilna Gaon as saying:
    When you are not able to withstand him [the Evil Inclination] because he overpowers you, then, "draw him to the study hall." Tell him that in the study hall you will do his will by learning for selfish motives in order to gain honor. This will put his mind at ease, and he will acquiesce. Thus, "doing not for its own sake leads to doing for its own sake" (Pesachim 50b). In this manner you shall be freed from the Evil Inclination completely. And so we understand the verse, "If your enemy is hungry"- and he desires to make you sin, "feed him the bread of Torah"- fulfill his will by learning for selfish motives, "for you will be heaping coals of fire upon his head" - when you subsequently reach the level of learning for its own sake.

    -pages 47-48
Thus, it seems that Avraham ben Shlomo Zalman is stating that if the Evil Inclination engages you, you may lose at first (having to learn for selfish motivations) but in the end you will prevail by learning solely for the sake of Heaven. This is not redirection but rather simply a way to pursue complete eradication. He makes this even clearer when he later writes,
    "The rabbis also explain (Kiddushin 30b n Bereishis 4:7. The verse recounts God's response to Cain's anger that his inferior offering was not accepted) "If you do good you will prevail." If you are busy in Torah, which is called 'good,' 'you will prevail'- the Evil Inclination shall be removed from you. But if not, you will be given into its hands, as it says, 'Sin crouches at the door' (Bereishis 4:7).

    -pages 48-49
The words he uses, היצר הרע מסולק ממך, do not speak to uplifting, utilizing and redirecting the Evil Inclination in order to serve God but rather of complete removal. This is in complete contrast to the Baal Shem Tov's approach. When I was at home over Sukkos, I saw my father reading Masechet Avot with the commentary of the Baal Shem Tov. Intrigued, I read the book. I have scanned the Baal Shem Tov's approach to the evil inclination to my computer and uploaded it in PDF form here. The Besht, in total contrast to those who think the Yetzer Hara ought to be slaughtered, believes that it must be conquered but not slaughtered or eradicated. See the box I have outlined in red here:

The Besht states that one who breaks and shatters the Yetzer Hara does not practice true gevurah, strength. But to conquer the evil inclination and raise it up so that one uses it for holy things is a much higher and more difficult level. That is what is truly intended when one speaks of kevisha with regard to the evil inclination. This is in line with what he states regarding the adage, "Who is wise? One who learns from every man." Every man, explains the Besht, refers to the Yetzer Hara as well!

He even explains that there are two types of tzadikim, those who kill the evil inclination within themselves and those who use it and simply channel it appropriately. He gives an interesting mashal regarding this. But the part I liked best was when he explained how one answers the yetzer hara in conversation:
    Once upon a time there was a king who desired to test his servants. He sent two men in his employ to speak words of evil and rebellion against him to see whether his servants would join them in their scheme or oppose them. The servants fell into camps: those who answered in kind and spoke words of opposition against the king and those who protested and claimed they loved and supported the king. There was amongst these servants one wise man who realized this was all a test and that the men who were speaking evil of the king were actually in his employ! Thus he rejoined, when they came to persuade him, "Fools! You yourselves are occupied in following the word of the king and you desire me to oppose his word?" The king heard the answer of the wise man and was most pleased by it; he brought him close and loved him and made him the head of his officers.

    The answer of this wise man holds the key to how one may rule his evil inclination when it desires him to sin. All he must do is turn to his Evil Inclination and say, "You yourself are simply doing the word of your Owner (i.e. God), and why should man transgress the commandments of his Owner?!"
I thought that was very clever; it struck a chord with me.

In any case, I am of the camp who is curious about all things and thus must find a way to uplift them and use them for the service of God. There are others who might be better served in truly slaying their yetzer hara, but when it comes to me, I prefer the Besht's approach.


EJB said...

Interesting that Gra writes in Even Sheleyma (1:7):
אף מי שטבעו רע לא ילך נגד הטבע לגמרי כי לא יתקיים בידו. רק צריך לילך בדרך הישר ע"פ טבעו.
למשל מי שנולד במזל מאדים שהוא מוכרח להיות שופך דם. אז יש בידו להתחנך להיות שוחט שהוא בינוני. או מוהל שהוא צדיק. ולא להיות לסטים. וז"ש החוך לנער ע"פ דרכו כי יזקין לא יסור ממנה

Anonymous said...

Back at Gush, R' Lichtenstein once made a fascinating quip, a seemingly offhand comment buried as it was in his usual 2-hour talks.
After mentioning the brief 'existential crisis' of his youth (another idea we would have loved to hear him elaborate on), he noted that one big tool he used to get out of the rut was his ability to 'just use my yetzer to serve G-d.'
I was intrigued, and waited months for the opportunity to ask him to explain this powerful idea. When I did, his answer ended up being less than I expected. But the basic idea stands, that we can indeed harness our carnal/human forces towards the holiest of causes. Amassing Torah knowledge for the sake of 'glory' is certainly an example.
Judaism's embrace of the human in each of us is one of its more inspiring tenets, and we ignore it at our own loss.

Anonymous1:45 said...

The time of Mashiach is when the yetzer hara will be eliminated by God. Until then, there is no such thing as totaly eliminating/eradicating it. Rather, when eradication is spoken of, it is only talking about for a particular trait and up to a particular level and/or redirecting it so that the battle never occurs (marriage, for example, or a person getting old). How do we know this? This can be seen by looking at great tzadikim in the torah. Moshe Rabeinu, for examle; did he not eradicate his yetzer hara to as great extent as possible? Yet he struck the rock. A person may 'eradicate' level by level but then the person is simply held to a higher standard and the yetzer hara is not gone then, but simply works within the confines of the level the person has reached, to trick the person into sinning. Furthermore, no one is gauranteed anything from day to day, month to month, year to year; since just as what has been learned can be unlearned so too what has been unlearned can be relearned and the sin can occur again. Next point, to be curious is wonderful, but a person should not look for tests. David Hamelech states- 'Sur Mera Ve'ase Tov'. He does not say- "Lech Al Yad Hara Vetitgaber". 'Curious' about all things is good and redirecting/'uplifting' it to God is good but this is only true to an extent, or rather, this is only true when done in the proper context and to the correct extent. If you think you can go near anything and withstand anything forever without it having any effect on you. This is your yetzer hara (which I never capitalize because it is sneaky) decieving you. Know that as clever as you are so too is your yetzer hara. Even if in the immediate term you are convinced that you are impervious, you should be aware that subconciously a human being is influenced by things, in ways that they don't even realize; and that this affects the person little by little over time so they don't even notice it. When Bnei Yisrael first saw the actions of cnaan and others, they were repulsed by it. Then they were not repulsed but still saw that it was wrong. And what was the next step? And this happened over time so they didn't even realize. Thus David Hamelech says - 'Sur Mera'-turn away-look in another direction. Don't think that because you are so clever, and so learned, and because you love Hashem so much, that you are impervious to the yetzer hara. After all, the Torah specifically tells the Aveirot of the greatest tzadikim to show that anyone can sin [(and the yetzer hara is never eradicated even in great people(until Mashiach) since how could they have sinned if it was eradicated and if they didn't eradicate can we? rather that they 'eradicated' it to a certain extent)]. To 'uplift' things is good. Nevertheless, be careful that you know what you're doing, because even going near people/things might affect you in subconcious suddle ways that won't even yield any difference in your actions until years later. Just as a 1/2 a degree change in angle trajectory becomes along way off, over time, from where the straight line would have been. When God sends you things, surely you can uplift them, but perhaps it is not the wissest of strategies to go looking for tests, or near temptations or bad influences or people. -continued below-

Anonymous1:45 said...

Only you can know to what extent to involve yourself since only you can best decide for you, how to walk with Hashem in your path. But, here's a quick version of a parable I heard from Rabbi Amnon Yitzchak. A man was brought into court for crashing his car into a tree while going 100 miles per hour. The judge pronounced senntence and the man protested vociferously."This is completely unfair". "Why" said the judge, "after all, you did do this". "Yes" said the man "but it wasn't my fault; I tried my best to stop the car but I just couldn't". The judge replied "your not being punished for not being able to control a car going 100 miles per hour; no one can be expected to do that. Your crime was in allowing yourself to get up to 100mph, and that is why you crashed and that is what you are being punished for". Many times the yetzer hara gradually gets a person to speed up so the person may not realize they are going 100mph. Or, the yetzer hara gets the person to believe that they are skilled enough to control and deal with the car at 100mph. A person should remember what the Gemarah says and what Rabbi Haramati taught me 'Tafasta Merube Lo Tafasta, Tafasta Moet Tafasta'. If a person wants to advance tremendously, for example, if a person wants to move a load of apples from one place to another, then, if the person picks up two armfuls of apples and try to carry it then what will happen? They will all fall. However, if the person takes one by one then the person will succeed and pretty soon all apples will be at the preffered destination.

Shades of Grey said...

From what I've read the view of entirely eradicating the yetzer is a task that will be left for the messianic era. Sort of G-d recalling/doing away with the his appointed agent.

There is a famous story with the Chofetz Chaim (I believe) who once stayed at the inn of a friend where the maid/helper woman was not dressed in a modest fashion. After she left the room, the Chofetz Chaim pulled aside his friend and berated him angrily saying that despite the fact that he was already an elderly man and partially blind - did the friend not think the Chofetz Chaim didn't have a yetzer hara any more?

If the story is true (and even if it isn't), the point is made that the yetzer hara never goes away entirely. Certainly the notion that the greater the righteous level of a person, so too in kind is the power of the yetzer hara to oppose him/her. That seems to be a fairly prevalent motif.