|When you go out to war against your enemies… (Deut. 21:10)This week’s Parsha 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), our internal negative voice attempting to have us make choices not beneficial for us. It tells us to be lazy, get angry, stay in a bad relationship, or suggest other bad advice; these are just a few of the battle strategies of our most fearsome enemy – the evil inclination. R. Bahya ibn Paquda, the 11th century author of 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… (Chovot Halevavot, Shaar Yichud Hamaseh).
The evil inclination always has logical arguments for why we should do something that’s not good for us. Stay in bed longer, you need your rest. Indulge or eat fattening foods (even though you are overweight) because you need energy. If someone speeds past you and cuts you off, some people have an inner voice telling them to speed up and pursue–I need to teach him a lesson is an inner voice that has led to road rage. We are all different but each of us has a voice telling us to do things that are not in our best interests. Paying heed to it leads to a place we don’t want to be. The Chassidic Rebbe Simcha Bunim of Peshischa (1765-1827) 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 do we battle against our real enemy, our negative/destructive voice? R. Nosson Tzvi Finkel (1849-1927) was one of the greatest Jewish self-awareness teachers of the last century. He recorded the following observation.
In my youth in Vilna I saw a vendor standing in the marketplace 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 to change a person from one extreme to another and to make her control her stormiest emotions. This is something no amount of wisdom can accomplish. If a penny can do it, so can praise, compliment, smile, or a polite word, win people’s hearts and dispel their negativity.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 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 acting 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 or her attitude changes. The same person who was nasty a few seconds ago is able to pull themselves together and become a charming conversationalist for the person they are now addressing.
When we are at those low moments, those times when our yetzer hara (negative, internal destructive voice) convinces us that our snarky behavior is acceptable, we should take a time out and 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 friend, coworker, child or 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, unfortunately, we find ourselves slipping there from time to time. There are different ways to deal with these emotions; some people make a call to a friend, some journal, some go for therapy. But there are times we are in the middle of the battle with our negative self and none of your usual weapons are available. At those times, when you struggle to smile or be positive, you might attempt the simple technique of taking a small time out–a pensive moment that brings you back to the person you want to be, not the one your impulsive negative inner self wants you to be.
Judaism doesn’t espouse a philosophy of victimhood; throughout the centuries we have learned to succeed amidst much hatred and persecution. Perhaps the reason is because one of the core ideas of Judaism is that the enemy within is far more dangerous than any external threat. In our present day where so many opportunities exist, our self-absorbed thinking leading to fear and lack of self-confidence are bigger reasons than any external force causing us not to live the lives we want and not to have the relationships we know would be 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.May we all identify the enemy and have the strength to react by fighting for ourselves, not our adversary. Good Shabbos
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