Rabbi O’s Weekly Parsha: Ki Tetzei (Deuteronomy 21:10-25:19) 5776-2016 Know Your Enemy

When you will go out to war against your enemies… (Deut. 21:10)

This week’s portion begins with various laws concerning warfare. However, our sages tell us that the opening verse hints at another type of war; the war we have with our internal selves. In Judaism it’s called the Yetzer Hara (the evil inclination), the voice of negativity inside all of us that leads us to make choices that aren’t good for us. Laziness, anger, bad relationships, and finding comfort in being depressed are just a few of the battle strategies of our most fearsome enemy – the evil inclination. Rabbi Bahya ibn Paquda, the 11th century Jewish author in his classis Chovot Halevavot (“Duties of the Heart”) writes:

Your greatest enemy in the world is your evil inclination. He gives you (bad) advice every step of the way. While you sleep he is awake, plotting against you. He appears to you as a friend, and he becomes one of your most trusted advisors… His greatest weapons against you are confusion and false arguments, which make you forget your true interests and doubt your confirmed goals and beliefs… (Shaar Yichud Hamaaseh).

The evil inclination always has logical argument for why we should do something that’s not good for us. “Stay in bed longer, you need your rest…Indulge in fattening foods (even though you are overweight); you deserve a break” are just two small examples of the lies our internal voice tells us. The Chassidic Rebbe Simcha Bunim from Peshische once remarked that a person should imagine the evil inclination as one who is standing over his head with an axe, waiting for the perfect moment to chop off his head.
How does one do battle against his real enemy, his own negative inclination? Although there are numerous strategies, here’s one that’s simple and practical. Rabbi Nosson Tzvi Finkel was one of the greatest Jewish teachers of self-awareness on the late 19th and early 20th centuries; he recorded the following observation in one of his writings.

In my youth in Vilna I saw a vendor standing in the market place selling beans. For some reason she got angry at her competitor and began to abuse her loudly. Her wrath increased until she foamed at the mouth and became drenched with sweat. At the peak of her rage, a customer approached her table and asked for a penny’s worth of beans. In an instant, the vendor underwent an amazing transformation. Her face beamed. Her lips curled into a smile, and she graciously turned to wait on her customer. “This teaches us a great secret of the human personality. A mere penny has the power has the power to change a person from one extreme to another and to make him control his stormiest emotions. This is something no amount of wisdom can accomplish. If a penny can do it, so can praise, a compliment, even a smile, or a polite word, win people’s hearts and dispel their wickedness. This is not the end of the story…

After the customer had paid the penny for the beans, she started to thank him for his kindness and to heap blessings on him, his wife, children, and grandchildren. “From here we see that not only can a penny cause a person to control his bad midot-character traits, it can transform him into a fountain of love and kindness.

Most people have been in situations in which they were in a bad mood and were irritable to the people around them. It might manifest itself as being cold to a spouse or family member, or perhaps nasty to a coworker or subordinate. But then suddenly a phone call, customer, or other small occurrence comes into the person’s life and his/her attitude changes. The same person who was nasty a few seconds ago is able to pull himself together and become a charming conversationalist for the person s/he is now addressing.

When we are at those low moments, those times when our yetzer hara convinces us that our snarky behavior is acceptable, we should take a pensive minute to realize how easy it would be to instantly come out of our negative behavior. If a new client walked in, we would put on our best face and attitude; shouldn’t we be able to do the same for our spouse? We know that we have the ability to snap out of the funk, it’s just that when we are in the grips of our yetzer hara, we aren’t the people we want to be.

No emotionally healthy person wants to be vindictive, angry, or depressed but most of us slip into these states from time to time. Some people make a call to a friend, some write down their emotions, some go for therapy; each person should find something that works for him or her. But sometimes you are in the middle of the battle with your negative self and none of your usual ‘weapons’ are available. When you struggle to remain positive and present a good countenance, you might attempt the simple technique mentioned above.

Judaism doesn’t espouse the philosophy of victimhood. Even though there is racism, sexism, hatred, and other bad things in society, Jews throughout the centuries have learned to succeed amidst all of the above. Perhaps the reason is because one of the central ideas of Judaism is that the enemy within is far more dangerous the external enemy. In our present day where so many opportunities exist, our self-centered thinking, fears, and lack of self-confidence are bigger reasons than any external force causing us not to live the lives we really want and not to have the relationships that we know would be so meaningful for us. Some people will die having lived a life blaming others for their unfulfilled life but that’s only because they were never taught about the constant battle we all must wage every day to keep our sanity and make the choices we need to make. Our greatest enemy is within, not without.

(Source: Maoros Hagedolim)