The Beautiful Prisoner, The Great War, and the Yetzer Hara – Ki Teitzei 5778

This morning’s Torah portion, Ki Teitzei, contains more mitzvot, more commandments than any other parashah in the Torah.  Many of those mitzvot have direct applications to our lives today.  It is easy to see how these are timeless principles by which we ought to lead our lives.

Other mitzvot seem to be better suited for a different time and place.  In fact, we sometimes encounter mitzvot that seem to run counter to what we understand to be proper, moral behavior.

Before judging too harshly, we must remember to read on multiple levels.  Our first task is to try to understand what this law meant in the time and place in which it was given.  The Torah is a very old book.  Ancient social norms were vastly different.  We cannot judge ancient practices by modern sensibilities.

The second way of reading the text is to see it through the lens of Jewish tradition.  It turns out that our ancestors were also disturbed by some of the same things that disturb us, and they often came up with creative ways to interpret or allegorize difficult texts that made them meaningful and applicable to life in their own day.

Then, we can begin to consider how this difficult mitzvah might have meaning for us today.

The first mitzvah in today’s Torah portion is of this kind.  The opening verses describe the treatment of female captives by victorious Israelite warriors.  At a time when plunder and rape were standard practice in warfare, the Torah places extreme limits on the behavior of Israelites soldiers.

If a soldier takes a beautiful woman captive whom he desires, he cannot touch her.  Instead, he must bring her into his house.  She must shave her head, trim her nails, and go into mourning for thirty days.  Basically, he makes her as unappealing as possible.  Then, if the soldier still desires her, he must marry her.  If not, she goes free.

The Torah’s restriction on the behaviors of Israelite soldiers stands out in the history of human warfare until modern times.  Nowadays, the Geneva Convention includes accepted laws of ethical behavior in war which are agreed to by most nations in the world, including Israel.

The Torah’s regulations, therefore, would seem to be no longer relevant.

Rabbi Isaiah HaLevi Horovitz was a Polish Rabbi who moved to Tzfat in the Israel in 1621.  He was an important Kabbalist who had a great influence on Chasidism.   As is often the case, Rabbi Horovitz is best remembered not by his name, but by the acronym of his major literary work, the Shlah.  The Shlah, Shnei Luchot HaBrit, meaning “Two Tablets of the Covenant,” is a commentary on the Torah that was popular among Ashkenazi Jews.

In discussing the opening theme of Parashat Ki Teitzei, the Shlah acknowledges that the pshat, or plain meaning of the Torah, indeed describes laws and limitations of warfare.

But that is not what interests him.  The text hints at a more personal lesson pertaining to each individual human being.  The law about the woman captured in war is an allegory for an internal war that all of us wage.  It is the greatest war of all, the war against the yetzer hara, the evil inclination.

The Shlah tells a story:

There was once a pious man who encountered some soldiers returning from a war against their enemies.  With puffed up chests, they were carrying spoils that they had captured during the fierce battle.

He said to them: “You have just returned from the small war with your spoils.  Now prepare for the big war!”

“Big war?” they asked, looking around in surprise, as if there was an impending sneak attack.  “What are you talking about?”

To which he responded: “The war of the yetzer and his legions.”

The Shlah explains that when the Torah speaks of the soldier’s desire for the beautiful woman taken captive, it is really presenting an allegory about the pull of our urges.  Those urges are hard to resist.  They lead us down paths of self-destruction.  The Shlah equates committing a sin to losing a battle against our urges.  

In a real war, if one is victorious against one’s enemies over the course of a few battles, the enemies (usually) learn their lesson and surrender.  But the big war against the yetzer hara never ends, whether or not we are victorious in its individual battles.  That is the great war which all of us wage.

The soldier’s feelings of desire for the beautiful woman are a metaphor for our attraction to those urges that tempt us.  We desire many things: good food and drink, honor, wealth, possessions, power, recognition, sex.  The ultimate goal is not to suppress those feelings entirely, but rather to channel them appropriately.  The Shlah suggests that we do so by figuratively paring the nails and trimming the hair.  In other words, by making those desirable things less desirable.

The Torah recognizes that these urges are real, and in some senses are even good.  For without the Yetzer HaRa, the midrash teaches, nobody would ever build a house, get married, have children, or conduct business.  (Genesis Rabbah 9:7)

To this list we can add that the proper channeling of our urges leads to healthy living, meaningful friendships, supportive communities, joy.

Through this channeling of our urges, what might have been a sin is transformed into a merit.

The Talmud teaches that “in the place where those who have repented stand, those who are completely righteous cannot.”  (BT Berachot 34b)  The Shlah explains that because the penitent person has made mistakes, worked on them, and trained himself in the ability to resist temptations, he is thus better equipped to deal with new temptations when they arise.

It is the middle of the month of Elul.  We are just over two weeks from Rosh Hashanah, followed ten days later by Yom Kippur.  This is the time when we are supposed to be focused on cheshbon hanefesh, taking account of our souls.

Where am I in life right now?

Have I wronged anyone and not made amends?

Did I make promises that I have not kept?

Have I gone astray in other ways?

In some way, our yetzer hara is mixed up in every mistake or transgression we have committed.

My wrongdoing, my inability to control my desires, comes from selfishnesss and greed, from putting my own desires ahead of the needs of others.  My yetzer hara was victorious whenever I expressed my anger in ways that were hurtful to others, whenever I allowed my fear to cause inaction or laziness.

Let us use this annual time of introspection and life review to understand those moments when our urges have gotten the better of us.  What can we do to channel those desires into constructive actions that bring us closer to our loved ones, our friends, our community, and God?

Self Absorption – Rosh Hashanah 5777

The story of the Akeidah, the Binding of Isaac, which we read every year on the second day of Rosh Hashanah, is so tantalizingly evocative, inspiring, and troubling.  It is a carefully written literary masterpiece.  Every year, we find new ways to read it.

“Some time afterward, God put Abraham to the test.”

What kind of test is this?  Is it pass/fail?  Is it a test for which God does not know the answer, or a test meant to impart some lesson?

Maybe it is like the test of the emergency broadcast system.  “This is a test of the Emergency Broadcast System.  Had the All-Powerful Supreme Ruler of the Universe actually wanted you to sacrifice your son, more information would have followed.  This is only a test.”

Or, perhaps it is a test for us – the readers.

Of course, we know it is a test from the beginning.  The actors in this drama have no such foreknowledge.

“Abraham.”

“Here I am.”  Hineni.

“Take your son, your favored one, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah.  V’ha’aleihu sham l’olah on one of the heights that I will point out to you.”

Abraham hears this as “offer him there as a burnt offering.”

Before we get too upset, keep in mind that child sacrifice was not such a far-fetched idea in Abraham’s day.  It was a widespread practice throughout the Ancient world, including in the Land of Canaan.  We have biblical and other ancient literary references, as well as archaeological remains.  As far as humans in ancient times knew, the gods liked it when people offered up their children.  It probably did not sound all that strange to Abraham.  So he complies with the request.

Without a word, Abraham gets up early, saddles a donkey, enlists two servants and Isaac, and chops some wood to serve as fuel.

On the third day, Abraham looks up and sees the mountain.  He tells the servants to wait at the bottom with the donkey.  He gives Isaac the wood to carry, and they set off to climb the mountain.  He himself carries the firestone and the cleaver.

Suddenly, we hear Isaac’s voice, the only time that the Torah records father and son speaking together.

“Father.”

“Here I am, my son.”

“Here is the fire and the wood; but where is the sheep for the offering?”

“God will see to the sheep for His offering, my son.”

And the two of them walk on together.

No more words are exchanged.  They reach the top of the mountain.  Abraham, methodically, goes about his business.  He lays out an altar.  He places the wood on it.  He binds Isaac and places him on top of the wood.

He reaches out his hand and takes hold of the cleaver in order to slaughter his son.

And suddenly a voice cries out:  “Abraham!  Abraham!”

It is an angel of the Lord from the heavens.

“Here I am.”  Hineni.

“Do not reach out your hand against the lad, and do nothing to him, for now I know that you fear God and you have not held back your son, your only one, from Me.”

Abraham raises his eyes and he looks and ‘Behold!  A Ram!’

―with its horns caught in the thicket.  And Abraham takes the ram and offers it up as a burnt offering in the place of his son.

Abraham barely speaks throughout this story, and never once to God.  Rashi, citing a midrash, imagines that Abraham might have had a few questions that did not make the final edit.

“I will lay my complaint before you,” he begins.  “You told me, (Genesis 21:12) ‘through Isaac shall your seed be acclaimed,’ and then you changed your mind and said, (Genesis 22:2) ‘Take, pray, your son.’  Now you tell me, ‘Do not reach out your hand against the lad!'”

Abraham is understandably confused.  God has promised that Abraham will be the father of a great nation, descended specifically through Isaac.  We read about in just the previous chapter, and we chanted it yesterday.

Then, God seems to change the plan by asking Abraham to offer Isaac up.

Through it all, Abraham goes along.

Now, having done everything God has asked of him, despite the contradictions, Abraham is told not to follow through!?

The Holy One, blessed be He, says to him, [You misunderstood me.]  When I told you, ‘Take [your son…,] I did not tell you ‘slay him’ but rather ‘bring him up,’ for the sake of love did I say it to you.  You have brought him up, in fulfillment of my words — now take him down.’ (Genesis Rabbah 56)

The miscommunication hinges on the phrase v’ha’aleihu sham l’olahAn olah is a burnt offering.  That is how Abraham hears it.

But it also means “go up” or “ascend.”  A person who moves to Israel makes aliyah.  Someone who is given an honor in synagogue receives an aliyah.  In the midrash, God means for Abraham to bring Isaac up to the top of the mountain as an expression of love, not to be a sacrifice.

How could Abraham have misunderstood?

To answer this, we must identify the role of the angel in this story.

Imagine the critical scene in your mind, when Abraham has grasped the blade in his hand, and the angel comes to intervene.  Picture it.  Where are Isaac, Abraham, and the angel situated?

In almost every work of art depicting the Binding of Isaac, the angel is reaching out a hand and grabbing Abraham to prevent him from slaughtering his son.  That image of physical intervention has entered our consciousness.

But that is not what the text says.  The only intervention that takes place is verbal.  “Abraham.  Abraham.”

“Here I am,” he responds.

It is Abraham who holds back his own hand.

There is a vein within the Jewish mystical tradition extending into mussar thinking that understands angels as inert forces in our world.  They are unable to act.  It is righteous human action, or expressions of will, that activates these inert Divine forces.

Mussar understands the expression of the human will as it acts in the world to be our yetzer.  The yetzer can be tov – good, or it can be ra – evil.

When we allow it to flow out of us, the yetzer is tov.  But when it is stopped up inside, it becomes ra.

To expand on this―when my focus is external; when my concern is for the other; when the question I ask myself about the person before me is “what does this person need from me?”―That is when my soul opens up, and my yetzer flows out.

But when I am self-absorbed; when I am concerned for my own needs; when I am wrapped up in my own suffering― then I am unable to recognize the needs of the person facing me.  My soul is stopped up, and my yetzer works its evil, rotting inside of me.

All that God or the angel can do is speak.  Only Abraham can act to change the course of events in this story.

In the beginning, God calls out to Abraham and asks him to raise up his son in love.  But Abraham, in this moment self-absorbed in his devotion to a god who might just be a projection of his own ego, hears the message differently.  The yetzer hara has taken hold.  Can Abraham break out of his self-absorption and release his yetzer hatov?

Abraham has other moments of greatness, when his yetzer tov flows out into the world.  When he runs out of his tent to welcome three angels disguised as travelers, when he argues with God on behalf of the people of Sodom and Gomorrah―these are moments when Abraham has set aside his own self-concern to serve others, and in so doing, to activate God’s Presence in the world.

In this story, however, Abraham’s yetzer is stopped up.  He is not able to activate the Divine potential that lies dormant.  He does not see the suffering of his son.

Something happens on top of the mountain.  The angel calls out twice.  Abraham looks up.  Not only does he see the ram, he sees his son, perhaps for the first time.  That is the test.  And he passes.  He saves his son, substituting the ram.

Only then does God bless him.

We live in an epidemic of self-absorption.  In former times, people lived in close quarters.  It was not uncommon for three generations to reside under the same roof.  We were thrown against each other in such a way that it was nearly impossible to find privacy, even in our own homes.  Facing each other’s needs was inevitable.

Now, we are so spread out.  Most households today have just one or two generations living under the same roof.  Plus, the distance between our homes has grown, so we are farther away from our neighbors.

The membership of our synagogue is spread out over many square miles.  We’ve gone to the opposite extreme.  We have so much private space that we now find ourselves alone much of the time.  If we want to be with other people, we have to actively do something to make it happen.

The internet offers the promise of connecting with each other across the physical divide.  But how do we use it?

I might snap a selfie, or post the silly thing that my kid said.  I’ll take a picture of my lunch and share it with the world.  And then I’ll check to see how many “likes” I’ve received.  Is this really connecting with other people, or might this perhaps be a manifestation of my self-absorption?

There is an inverse relationship between the amount of time we spend “connecting” online and the amount of time we spend “connecting” in person.  It is getting steadily worse as the number of screen devices in our lives increases.

Our tradition teaches us that holiness is encountered in the relationships between people.  The three dimensional relationships.  God, as a latent force, is activated when we care for another person, placing that other person’s needs before our own.

And believe it or not, quantity matters.

The question is asked―If I have a thousand gold coins to give away, is it better to give all thousand coins to one person, or should I give one coin each to a thousand people?

I might think that it does not make a difference.  What matters is the bottom line.  The tax deduction is the same either way.  Or, I might say that one coin is not going to do anyone any good, but one thousand coins will surely make a difference in someone’s life.

But that is not what our tradition says.  It is better for me to give a thousand coins to a thousand people.  Why?  Because of the impact of one thousand face-to-face interactions on me.

The word v’natnu, meaning “and you shall give” is the longest palindrome in the Torah―vav nun tav nun vav.  This teaches us that the blessings of generosity flow forward to the receiver and backward to the giver.

What are those blessings?  Increased consciousness of the other.  Holiness.  Awareness of God.

What will it take for us to be less self-absorbed?  Deliberate effort.  We have got to train ourselves if we want to be able to resist the forces that drive us towards increased alienation.  And just like the thousand coins, quantity matters.

It is one of the reasons why our synagogue is so important.  Involvement in a religious community offers many ways to break out of self-absorption and see the other:  attending Shabbat services, where we pray side-by-side, and then share a meal together; learning together at a Limmud La-ad, Lifelong Jewish Learning, program; taking time out to comfort a mourner by attending a funeral or a shiva minyan; delivering a meal and visiting with someone in our community who is ill; helping to serve lunch at a homeless shelter.

In this new year, let us each identify individual actions that we can take that will change the question from “what do I want?” to “what does the person before me need?”

The accumulation of many such actions can eventually unstop our hearts, release our yetzer tov, connect us with others in a world of increasing alienation, and activate the Divine Presence in our world.

Like Abraham, who at the critical moment, heard the Divine Voice calling, and woke out of his narrow-minded self focus to see his bound son suffering before him – we too can wake up.

Shanah Tovah.

 

Thanks to Rabbi Ira Stone for providing ideas that went into this D’var Torah.

Feeding the Wolf – Rosh Hashanah 5776

Every year, as I prepare for the High Holidays, I struggle with how to make our experience here together transformational in some way.  Because I know that, for myself, and probably most of us, we come back year after year with mostly the same sets of issues and concerns.  So I ask myself :  What can I, as a Rabbi on Rosh Hashanah, say that will help us to become the human beings we would like to see ourselves as?

The great prayer which the Cantor chants during the repetition of the Musaf Amidah, Unetaneh Tokef, creates an impression of human powerlessness.  We appear before God on Rosh Hashanah, described as Yom Hadin, the Day of Judgment.  God is judge, prosecutor. expert, and witness.  God knows all, every forgotten thing, reading it out of the Book of Remembrance.  The imagery shifts, and now God is a shepherd, and we are sheep, passing underneath the staff.  A final shift, and God is decreeing the fates of every living thing in the coming year.

These three scenes convey an impression of our utter lack of control.  There is nothing whatsoever that we can do to determine our destiny.  Everything is in the hand of God.

As frightening as this imagery might seem to many of us, it does convey a truth of human existence.  So much of who we are, our personality and characteristics, are pre-determined.  Whether by genetics or the family and community into which we were born, i.e. nature or nurture – we do not get to decide our core personalities, our innate strengths and weaknesses.

Even the ability to make choices is something of an illusion.  Much of our mental activity takes place on a subconscious level, determined by neurohormonal loops that regulate our emotions.  While it seems to us that we have free will and are making choices for ourselves, in reality the outcome is predetermined by our biochemical makeup.

Religious language that speaks of our utter lack of control over our fate and our total dependence on God would seem to reinforce this notion.  Drawing upon biblical imagery, our machzor describes human life as insignificant, using terms like “a broken shard, withering grass, a shriveled flower, a passing shadow, a fading cloud, a fleeting breeze, scattered dust, and a vanishing dream,” in contrast to God, who is “the sovereign, living God, ever-present.”  All that we can do is appeal to God to be loving and merciful with us.

We come into the new year wrestling with ourselves.  We have spent the past month inspecting our deeds, focusing on where we have gone off course, and striving to make amends with each other, with ourselves, and with God.  And it is hard work.  To approach someone we have wronged with openness and honesty takes tremendous courage.  Our tradition provides us this annual opportunity to face our imperfections.

However, even when we have bravely performed real teshuvah, there is little we can do to change our core personalities, to affect the neuropathways in our brains that regulate all behavior.  Pathways that we have spent a lifetime establishing.  It is not a simple thing to rewire the brain.

The fact that we return annually to recite the same prayers and make the same confessions would seem to reinforce the notion that from year to year, most of us are the exact same people, struggling with the exact same character flaws.

So how can we make the celebration of the new year personally transformational?

A Cherokee legend teaches of a boy who got in a fight.  His parents send him to go speak with his grandfather.  The two of them go for a walk on a path through the forest.  The leaves of the trees and the soft breeze protect them from the heat of the noonday sun.  The two walk in silence, holding hands.

After a time the grandfather interrupts the silence.  “Grandson, there are two wolves fighting in my heart.  One wolf is good and does no harm.  He lives in harmony with all around him, and does not take offense when no offense was intended.  He will only fight when it is right to do so, and in the right way.  But the other wolf!  Ah!  He is full of anger.  The littlest thing will set him into a fit of temper.  He fights everyone, all the time, for no reason.  He cannot think because his anger and hate are so great.  It is helpless anger, for his anger will change nothing.  Sometimes, it is hard to live with these two wolves inside me, for both of them try to dominate my spirit.”

Hearing the words of his grandfather the grandson is filled with fear.  With a tremor in his voice he asks, “Grandfather, which wolf will win the battle of your heart?”

To which he quietly responded, “The one I feed.”

We have Jewish terms that mirror these two wolves: the yetzer ha-tov and the yetzer ha-ra – the good inclination and the evil inclination.

A Talmudic sage teaches a similar lesson about what happens when we continue to feed our yetzer ha-ra.

Rabbi Yochanan ben Nuri taught:  A person who tears his clothing in anger, or who breaks his utensils in anger or who throws coins in anger – consider him like someone who worships idols, for such is the art of the yetzer ha-ra.  Today it says, “Go do this.”  And tomorrow, it says “Go do that.” until finally it says “Go worship idols,”  And he goes and worships them.  (BT Shabbat 105b)

For the Rabbis, idol worship is the paradigm of evil and immorality.  It is the ultimate sin towards which the yetzer ha-ra drives us.  This midrash draws a causal connection between simple, everyday expressions of anger and the ultimate descent into depravity.

Another midrash teaches that Adam and Eve were created today, on Rosh Hashanah.  The Torah describes this moment using the verb vayyitzer ha-adam.  (Genesis 2:7) “God formed Adam.”   A Rabbi in the Talmud noticed that that the word vayyitzer is written in the Torah with two letter yud‘s.  This hints at the creation of two yetzer‘s.  Two inclinations, one for good and one for evil.  (BT Berachot 61a)

Thus the two inclinations, the two wolves, are part of us.  In both the Cherokee legend and the Jewish concept of two yetzarim, we have outsourced agency.  It is not we who personally direct our behavior.  External forces, which happen to reside within our hearts, are at fault.  But those forces cannot be eliminated, for as soon as we did so, we would cease to be human.

A another midrash teaches that after forming humanity, God looks at all creation and declares v’hinei tov me-od.  “Behold, it is very good.”  “Good” refers to the the good inclination.  “Very good” refers to the evil inclination.  “How can this be?” asks the midrash.  Because without the yetzer ha-ra a person would not build a house, get married, have children, or engage in commerce.  (Genesis Rabbah 9:7)

From a Jewish perspective, our goal must be to harness and control our inclinations, not to destroy them.  We are not expected to deny who we are, to utterly eliminate aspects of ourselves.  Neither are we allowed to complacently say, “this is just how God made me.  There is nothing I can do about it.”

Short of brain damage or a lobotomy, we cannot ever banish parts of our core personality, but we can encourage certain traits and discourage others.  As the grandfather acknowledges, while both wolves are always with us, it is we who feed them.

Let’s carry this metaphor a little further.  For each one of us, our wolves have unique appetites.  Some of our evil wolves feed on anger.  We are quick to lose our temper, to shout at family members or friends, to swear at drivers who do not signal before merging, or to judge others harshly without first pausing to consider their perspectives and motivations.

Some of our wolves feed on jealousy.  We compare our lives to others, and hold ourselves to unrealistic external standards.  We want what our neighbors have: their homes, cars, families, bodies, full heads of hair.

Some of our wolves feed on low self-esteem.  We downplay our successes and dwell on our failures.  We strive too hard to be liked.

Some of our wolves feed on lust, or addiction, or greed.

What do our good wolves like to eat?

In the middle of Unetaneh Tokef, in just seven words, the Mahzor hints that our fates may not be quite as out of our control as we thought.  Uteshuvah, utefilah, utzedakah ma-avirin et roa ha-g’zeirah.  “But repentance, prayer, and tzedakah can turn aside the severity of the decree.”

Although the decree cannot be erased, it can be redirected.  Perhaps therein lies the answer to our quandary – three actions that feed the good wolf, that can encourage our yetzer ha-tov to take control and direct our yetzer ha-ra.

First:  Teshuvah, repentance.  The path of teshuvah begins with being self-reflective, being willing to admit our weaknesses without blaming others and do the work that is necessary to repair our brokenness.  Teshuvah is ultimately an expression of hope that our loves ones can take us back, and that God will allow us to return.

Second:  Tefilah.  Prayer, but I would suggest that it is really about humility.  We are asked to recognize that there is more to existence than our own egos, to acknowledge the typically ignored blessings in our lives with a sense of gratitude, to turn to God with a sense of wonder and awe at a world that is simultaneously both accessible and unfathomable.

Third:  Tzedakah.  Translated alternately as justice, righteousness, and charity.  We act with the knowledge that what we typically consider to be our possessions do not fully belong to us.  Tzedakah asks us to be generous to others with our time and our resources, to accept that we have obligations to one another, a duty to bring justice and righteousness into the world, and ultimately, to place the needs of others ahead of our own.

Teshuvah, Tefilah, and Tzedakah:  three feasts for the good wolf.

So although our personalities and characters may be sealed, our strengths and weaknesses determined for us by some complicated mixture of nature and nurture, even our fate in the coming year out of our control, our tradition teaches us that we have a say in the outcome of the battle taking place in our hearts.

It is about conditioning.  Through the small, seemingly insignificant choices from day to day, we in fact have the ability to train our characters.  We can cultivate qualities that make us better people and redirect qualities that separate us from each other and from God.

So as we celebrate Rosh Hashanah and enter the Aseret Y’mei Teshuvah, the Ten Days of Repentance leading up to Yom Kippur, let’s each ask ourselves: What do my wolves like to eat?  How have I been feeding them?  And what can I do in the year ahead to give the good wolf the upper hand in the battle for my heart?