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Kislev 5759 - November, 1998 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly










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The Power of the Yetzer Hara

By HaRav Sholom Schwadron zt'l

The Key is in the Name

The posuk (Bereishis 32:25), says, "And Yaakov was left alone and a man wrestled with him until dawn broke." Rashi explains that he was left alone because he forgot some small jars and he returned to fetch them (Chullin 91).

Chazal tell us that the `man' who wrestled with Yaakov was Eisav's mal'ach, who is identified by Chazal as none other then Satan, the mal'ach hamoves and the yetzer hora. When the embodyment of these spiritual powers fought with Yaakov, they raised dust that reached Hashem's Throne of Glory. Which idea is expressed by the dust reaching Hashem's Throne?

The struggle between these two mighty fighters embodies the struggle between the powers of holiness, possessed by Yaakov Ovinu, and the power of Satan—yetzer hora. The struggle is so intense that its ramifications reach all the way to Hashem's Throne of Glory.

Yaakov Ovinu bested Eisav's mal'ach and asked him to tell him his name. Our master and teacher [horav Yehudah Leib Chasman] zt'l, explained that usually, when two nations have fought, the victors probe the vanquished about the secret weaponry which their men were using, and the latter are obliged to reply. In the same way, Yaakov Ovinu asked his defeated opponent, the yetzer hora, "What is your name?" for a name indicates the essential nature of a person or thing and the area of his/its particular strength. For example, the first man was called "Odom," because he was created from earth, adomoh.

When Yaakov asked the mal'ach for his name, what he really wanted to know was where the yetzer hora's great strength lies, that causes most of the world's inhabitants to follow him. The posuk (Iyov), says, "He draws nobles with his strength," and Chazal comment, "This refers to the yetzer hora, who draws nobles, great people, such as the generation of the dispersion and the generation of the desert, after him with his strength."

Eisav's mal'ach replied, "Why are you asking for my name?" Our master and teacher said that he saw a sefer which explained that these words actually are the mal'ach's name. How can this be a name? Our master and teacher explained that "Why are you asking for my name?" really means, "Don't question me and don't be too particular about me. Don't investigate me too deeply."

This is in fact the essence of the yetzer hora, all of whose power consists of nothing more than blinding people and leading them astray with illusions. There is nothing more to the yetzer hora than this. He is all hot air and vanity, lacking any substance whatsoever.

The best way to illustrate this is to imagine a person at night watching some beautiful, glittering decorations on a wall that are being illuminated by faraway lights. If he feels that he is unable to view them properly, he may put on a light and bring it up close, in order to see the decorations well and to really enjoy them. But what happens as soon as he brings the light next to the wall? All the beautiful designs and decorations disappear, leaving nothing but a filthy, ugly stone wall!

The decorations correspond to worldy desires, whose apparent beauty raises dust and obscurity, screening a person's vision and obstructing his senses. When the light of the intellect is activated however, all the imaginings and desires vanish.

This was the reply of Eisav's mal'ach to Yaakov, "Why are you asking for my name?" If a person reflects and ignites the powerful light which his mind provides, there is hope that he be able to escape. If on the other hand, a person doesn't "ask the yetzer hora for his name," if he doesn't reflect, but lives his life according to ordinary, wordly routine, then it has the power to mislead him.

The Power of Illusions

Approximately forty years ago, my father-in-law [horav Chaim Yehudah Leib Auerbach] zt'l, told me that when he was once in Yafo, he saw a wayside restaurant with Arabs sitting inside smoking hashish, which was a far less widespread pastime then, than it is today. He watched one of the Arabs climb onto the table and say in Arabic, "I'm the king! I'm the king!" and all the others prostrated themselves in front of him! Afterwards, he discovered that that Arab had taken hashish and was hallucinating that he was a king.

The yetzer hora paints this-wordly desires in glowing, pleasurable hues in order to lure people. Then, when a man wakes up from his drunkenness and fervour for his desires, and especially when he grows old, he realises the extent to which he was seduced by his yetzer hora, R'l. And he will have to give account for everything before the King of kings, Hakodosh Boruch Hu!

I will describe something which happened to me on my first visit to England. Several avreichim were travelling with me and they pointed out the Royal Palace and other sights. At one place they showed me [they said,] "Here is a museum containing the work of a woman who made wax figures of all the kings, from Pharoah to George the fifth, as she imagined every king appeared." They told me that there were a hundred and fifty kings made of wax.

I had to give a shmuess in a yeshiva there and as a result of that experience, a wonderful understanding of a gemoro (Nedorim 32), presented itself to me. The gemoro brings the posuk (Koheles 9:14-15), "A small city, with few people in it, and a great king came upon it and surrounded it and built large fortresses over it. And he found in it a wise, pitiful man and he delivered the city through his wisdom, and nobody remembered that pitiful man." In the gemoro Chazal explain, "A small city — this is the body; with few people in it — these are the limbs; and a great king came upon it — this is the yetzer hora; and built large fortresses over it — these are sins; and he found in it a wise, pitiful man — this is the yetzer hatov; — and he delivered the city through his wisdom — these are teshuvah and good deeds; and nobody remembered that pitiful man — when the yetzer hora controls a person, he does not remember the yetzer hatov."

There are three questions that can be asked about this gemoro. First: If it was only a small city, why was it necessary for a great king to come to conquer it, and why did he have to surround it with large fortresses? It would have been enough to send a single battalion to take it. Why bring in the tanks and heavy artillery? Second: How could a pitiable man, even if was brilliant, save the city single handedly and stand up to a great king? And third: If the pitiable, wise man actually did save the city, how was it that nobody remembered him, which according to Chazal's explanation, means that the yetzer hora could attack a second time. How could he, if the wise man had already vanquished him?

When the avreichim told me about the wax musuem, the meaning of Chazal's explanation became clear to me. And in gaining clarity in the gemoro's words, I felt how trustworthy Dovid Hamelech's words (Tehillim 19:11), are: "More precious than gold and great amounts of fine gold and sweeter than honey and the syrup of honeycombs." What is the Torah's being superlative to gold and fine gold, intended to convey?

The most sought after commodity in the world is gold. However, if a man posseses gold alone, and lacks bread to eat, he will starve from hunger. Dovid Hamelech therefore said that not only are words of Torah more precious than gold, they are also valuable as nourishment and indeed, are sweeter than the sweetest food man knows, honey!

A Tiny Flame of Truth

As to the gemoro, its meaning can be explained using the example of the wax museum. In front of the wax museum stand two policemen in full uniform. As is usual in chutz la'aretz, when a visitor wants to be directed somewhere, he asks a policeman to show him where to go. If one asks the policemen in front of the wax museum though, they don't answer because they themselves are made out of wax!

Such is the great king who comes upon the little city. He is dressed in royal garments and even wears a crown upon his head but . . . he is made out of wax. And nobody recognises him as the "old and stupid king," the yetzer hora, who is nothing but imagination, like a grand king who is made out of wax. As everyone knows, during a war, dummy tanks and planes are stationed as decoys, to mislead the enemy into thinking that they are real.

The "pitiful and wise man" is the man who knows the secret — that the king and all the fortresses are made of wax. And how does the pitiful man deliver the city with his wisdom? He knows that everything is made of wax, so he lights a match and melts it all. All the threats vanish and he saves the city. This is what we said earlier. If a man knows that the yetzer hora only has power over the spurious and worthless illusions, then with his wisdom, he incinerates them and with the light of his intellect, he can illuminate [the truth] and with his yetzer hatov, he can subjugate his heart's desires.

However, the gemoro concludes that when the yetzer hora controls a person, "nobody remembered that pitiful man." Though yesterday, a man may have seen that the yetzer hora is nothing but imagination, the yetzer makes him forget this the very next day and he returns to the yetzer's illusions. For example, when a man wants to get up in the morning, his yetzer hora comes to him and says, how can you think of getting up? Your limbs hurt you and you haven't gotten enough sleep yet!" He has to strengthen the yetzer hatov over the yetzer hora and tell himself, "Get up to serve Hashem. You'll see that it's all a fantasy, an illusion. Hashem will listen to your tefillos and you will be saved with an everlasting salvation!"

The following story is told about one of the Admorim who wanted to rise early. His yetzer hora said to him, "You haven't slept enough. Why are you getting up so early?"

The Admor replied, "I took my cue from you. How come you're up so early to entice me?" and he threw himself off his bed and saw that he in fact had no pains and that it was all the work of his yetzer hora, whose only tactic is to present a person with a fantasy.

In order to recognize the ways of the yetzer hora, Chazal tell us that Hashem says, "I have created the yetzer hora and I have created Torah as an remedy." The Mesilas Yeshorim explains, "I created this illness, the yetzer hora, and no other remedy exists besides Torah!"

May the merciful One save us from the yetzer hora, a salvation that will only come about through Torah!>


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