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Coping with the evil inclination

The sages in Berachot (5a) deal with the ways one may cope with the evil inclination

  1. A.       Four stages

The sages in Berachot (5a) deal with the ways one may cope with the evil inclination:

“R. Levi b. Chama said R. Shimon b. Lakish said: A man should always incite the good inclination to fight against the evil inclination, for it is written ‘Tremble and sin not’.  If he subdues it, well and good.  If not, let him study the Torah, as it is written ‘Commune with your own heart’.  If he subdues it, well and good.  If not, let him recite the Shema, as it is written ‘Upon your bed’.  If he subdues it, well and good.  If not, let him remind himself of the day of death.  For it is written ‘And be still, Selah’.”

The first stage – “A man should always incite the good inclination to fight against the evil inclination”- describes the simple and endless struggle of the individual against the excessive demands of his impulses.  Yet the continuation – “If he subdues it… If not…”- is hard to understand:  If one’s behavior is dependent upon his will alone, and he decided to subdue the evil inclination, why does he fail?  Perhaps he fails because he is unsuccessful in identifying what is good and what is evil.  He has the will to do good, yet he does not know how to mark the border between good and evil.  Therefore, he must advance to the second stage:  “Let him study the Torah”.  By studying the Torah one learns the exact boundary between good and evil, and he can then struggle with the evil that has been properly identified.  But then a deeper problem may arise, because of which he cannot subdue it.  When one becomes aware of the existence of evil, he begins to recognize the legitimacy of evil; for is not evil, too, a part of G-d’s world?  Where is our justification for fighting and imposing one part of Creation on another?  If we accept the definition demonstrated in another of these articles, that the ‘evil inclination’ is ‘love of this world’, the struggle becomes even more problematic.  Not only is the reality of the evil inclination legitimate, its reality is affixed to the life-forces of the individual himself.  Man is asked to fight against his own life-forces, and occasionally even to get rid of aspects of his life that are dear to him.  In such a situation, one must advance to the third stage: “Let him recite the Shema“.  The recital of the Shema (which states, ‘Hear O Israel, the Lord is our G-d, the Lord is One’) is the ultimate expression of monotheism.  The moment it becomes clear to one that all forces in the world find their source in G-d, the struggle against evil becomes legitimate.  If both good and evil play a part in a common Divine plan put in place by the one G-d, it is legitimate that the good should vanquish the evil.

Even if after all these stages one still finds it difficult to subdue evil, it is possible that one has a more fundamental problem.  Such a person is apparently entrapped in a kind of existential indifference towards the struggle of good with evil.  He might be of the sort that says, “This is the truth, but I don’t feel that it affects me”, and thus he does not join the struggle.  In such a situation the Talmud says, “If not, let him remind himself of the day of death.”  The fourth stage, mentioning death, is not intended to scare one, but rather says that if one is judged on a matter, this is a sign that the matter has relevance for him.  He is connected in a very real way to this struggle.

It seems that the Talmud should have continued to say, “If he subdued it, good and well.  If not…”  The fact that the Talmud did not continue to another stage after the mention of death leads us to conclude that the day of death is the most powerful weapon in the struggle against evil impulses, and that after using this weapon man will certainly prevail.  If so, we might ask the question –  why did the Talmud not begin with this solution?  Why did it not say, “Let one forever remember the day of death”, and skip over the stages?  This is because it is not good to live in constant awareness of the day of death.  The moment one constantly stands opposite death, his life-forces wane, and he may fall into sorrow and despair.

  1. B.      What is the proper kind of desire?  The ‘conqueror’ versus the chassid

The Sages of Israel dealt not only with the proper behavior, but also with the proper kind of desire.  A person who demonstrates proper behavior is called a tzaddik, ‘righteous’, for the definition of the tzaddik is one who does good and does not do evil.  This is a practical definition that does not say anything about the individual’s inner world, but simply testifies to the fact that he acts as is required of him.

Maimonides, in his Introduction to the Ethics of the Fathers (Ch. 6), differentiates between two types of tzaddikim:  The first kind of tzaddik is he who yearns for forbidden things, but ‘conquers’ his inclination and does not do evil, while the second type of tzaddik is the ‘pious one’, the chassid, who does not yearn for forbidden things at all.  The question is, which situation is better, which tzaddik is more perfect?

Maimonides states that at first glance the issue seems to be a source of dispute between the philosophers and the sages of Israel.  According to the opinion of the philosophers, the pious one, the chassid, is greater than the one who merely conquers his urges, for if one yearns for evil then he must have a serious corruption in his soul.  Yet in the opinion of the sages of Israel, the ‘conquerer’ is greater than the chassid.  For example, in the tractate Sukkah (52a) it is said: “The greater the man, the greater his evil inclination”.  That is, it is definite that the greater a man is, the greater his evil inclination will be.  This statement is in accord with what was said above in the name of the sages, that the yearning for forbidden things is a part of a healthy man’s psyche, for great men have greater and stronger life-forces.

Maimonides brings an even more striking example (Sifra Kedoshim 11, 22):

“Rabban Shimon b. Gamliel says, let one never say ‘I do not desire to eat meat and milk’, ‘I do not desire to wear sha’atnez [wool and linen together]’, ‘I do not desire forbidden relations’, rather ‘I desire, but what can I do for my Father in Heaven has so decreed…'”

That is to say, our Sages guided man not to break his urge for transgression, but rather to avoid acting upon it.  One may continue to yearn to eat meat and milk, and only refrain from doing so in practice.  If so, it is the individual who has great urges yet succeeds in overcoming them by way of struggle that is the more perfect man in the eyes of our Sages.

Maimonides explains that in fact there is no contradiction between the approaches, since we must differentiate between two types of evil.  The philosophers deal with natural morality, and therefore the evil that they are speaking of is the evil in this category.  If one desires to perform acts which are immoral with respect to natural moral principles, such as murder or theft, he does indeed have some deficiency.  Our sages certainly did not claim with respect to such situations that, “The greater the man, the greater his evil inclination”.  It is better not to have an inclination towards such things at all.  On the other hand, the type of evil that the sages saw no shame in desiring is the type of evil defined by way of Divine decree alone.  Certain prohibitions appear in the Torah that, if not for the Torah, would never be known to us as bad.  It is not to be expected that the normal person would naturally think there is any shame, for instance, in eating the flesh of certain animals or drinking their blood.  Therefore, even after the giving of the Torah there is no reason to change the way people feel about such prohibitions.  On these deeds the Sages said that one can say, ‘I desire it, and yet I will not do it.’

  1. C.      Chassidut: Submission, Differentiation, Sweetening

According to R. Israel Ba’al Shem Tov (the founder of the Chassidic movement, who lived in the years 1698 – 1760), the war against the evil inclination can be divided into three stages, which he names in his unique way of expression: submission, differentiation, and sweetening.

Submission is the action explained by the mussar (ethics) literature –  war against the evil inclination until it is defeated.  At the start of the process there is no other way than to subdue the evil forces, for it is sin is prohibited.  However, the act of submission holds two main problems: First, the powers necessary to subdue the urges demand great effort on the part of the individual.  Second, the desire for evil still exists in the heart, while the individual simply pushes it aside so that it does not burst forth.

The second stage is differentiation –  the individual separates from his evil inclination.  Sin simply does not appeal to him anymore, he does not desire it.  On the surface this seems to be a very high moral level, yet the price here too is very high:  the individual has reduced the powers of his soul.  Someone who was once very much alive is now much less alive: “He went back to G-d, he is now studying Torah, and along with him his wife and children, but now a year has passed and nothing has changed…”  Sometimes people look at this weakening and say: “Is this a return to G-d? The process is not worth it”.

The third stage is sweetening.  The individual utilizes all of the powers that in the past caused him to do evil in order to now do good.  If he was a movie star, he will now do kosher films…  After the stage of differentiating the powers of the soul, the individual will be able to act in a more balanced way.  Thus, there will be no need to use coercion to subdue the forces and it is even possible to use them for positive goals.

Rabbi Eliyahu de Vidas (among the Kabbalists of Tzfat in the 16th century) wrote a book on ethics for men of virtue called “The Beginning of Wisdom”.  In the Gate of Love (Ch. 4) he describes the virtue of he who loves G-d, and towards the end of his words he brings a story written by Rabbi Yitzchak d’min Akko.  The story is about a simple man who one day saw the daughter of the king and fell in love with her.  He approached her and asked when they might meet.  Her reply was: In the cemetery.  She meant to say that they would never meet except after death, yet the man thought that she was being literal and went and sat in the cemetery.  He waited for her a long time with great anticipation, and his heart was filled with love.  As time passed and the king’s daughter did not appear, his love became more and more abstract, more and more pure, until it become love for G-d.  Rabbi Eliyahu de Vidas ends the story with the following declaration by Rabbi Yitzchak d’min Akko: “He who never desired a woman is like a mule or less, and the reason is that it is from our sensations that we learn to discern our divine service.”  In other words: One who does not know what love for a woman is can never know what love of G-d is. 

From these words can lead us to a meaningful insight:  Love of G-d begins from those forces, which include love for a woman.  Only with the healthy use of such powers can one advance in his divine service. 

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About Rabbi Oury Cherki

Rabbi Oury Cherki
Rav Oury Cherki was born in Algeria in 1959 and grew up in France, and he made Aliyah in 1972. He studied at Merkaz Harav Yeshiva, which was founded by Rav Avraham Yitzchak Kook. He performed his military service in the artillery branch of the IDF. He studied with Rav Tzvi Yehuda Kook, Rav Yehuda Leon Ashkenazi (Manitou), Rav Shlomo Binyamin and Achlag. Rav Cherki heads the Israeli department of Machon Meir, and he is the Director of Brit Olam - the Noahide World Center.He teaches in many places throughout Israel. Rav Cherki is the spiritual leader of the "Beth Yehuda" community in Kiryat Moshe (Jerusalem). He has written many books on Jewish thought and philosophy.

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