Friday, December 5, 2014

Use Your Desires

A nice teaching from Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev on this week's Torah portion (Vayishlach)*.

* To my text-loving friends, the playing around he does with Jacob/Esau is really cool, but too convoluted for me to go into right here. But, it's in translation in Green's Speaking Torah if you can't read the original Hebrew. 

He teaches that, when we are trying to do the right thing, our evil urge (or, our baser desires, if you prefer) will get in the way--we'll be tempted to do something else. Go ahead and tell that part of ourself, "Don't worry--we'll get earthly reward for this, too." Basically, bribe our less righteous parts with presents and promises, so that they don't subvert us.

What kinds of rewards? Oh, I guess that depends on what/how we each believe. If you want to believe that doing this or that righteous act will give you good fortune in the lottery--go ahead*! If you want to believe that people will like you more if you are (or just act like) a mensch--go ahead! Anything you can tell yourself, true or not, that gets you to do the right thing--go ahead!

 * Spoiler Alert: it won't.

But, aren't we supposed to do the right things for the right reasons? Isn't it bad to have personal gain and ulterior motives in mind? Well, yes and no. It's not ideal for sure. But, isn't doing the right thing for the wrong reason better than not doing it at all? And, if we do this enough, we might find ourselves finally defeating those lower urges, and then being able to do the right thing for the right reasons!

Many doctors go into medicine, at least in part, to make a lot of money and buy a nice car. You know what--some of them still save lives, no matter why they started doing so. Sometimes I visit a sick person (or lead a service, or teach a class...) not because I want to, but because I have to, and I'll get in trouble if I don't. We can all think of examples--sometimes we just can't do the right thing for the right reasons. But, that doesn't mean that we can't find a way to do it, anyway.

That's the wrestling that we're all doing--pitting our higher selves against the parts of our selves which we're not so proud of. Sometimes, we can trick ourselves into letting those good parts win. And, then we'll find that we don't need to wrestle so hard, after all.

Name It

This week's Torah portion contains the famous episode of Jacob wrestling with--well, it's not clear what, exactly, he was wrestling with. An angel? A man? Something. Anyway, when the fight is more or less over, Jacob asks for the other's name, and the reply is "Why are you asking for my name?" And, Jacob never gets his answer.

But, Rabbi Y.L. Hasman* says that, actually, Jacob did get an answer. That, the angel's name is, in fact, "Why are you asking for my name?"

* This is in Itturei Torah, vol II page. 306 for anyone who wants to see the original

You see, according to many traditions, this man/angel/other was actually the yetzer ra, the inclination to do evil, or the sitra achra, the "other (dark) side" of human nature. Or, Satan*. Basically, this was evil incarnate. And, what he's telling Jacob is that the true name of evil is, "Why are you asking for my name?"

* Yes, Rabbinic tradition includes Satan, but he's nothing like the Satan of Christian tradition.

How does evil thrive? It thrives by people not being willing to deal with it. To look at it, understand it, and name it. By getting people to pay attention to something else, and deny that the evil is real, or important. What evil wants, more than anything, is to be anonymous and unrecognized. That's how it wins.

The first step in fighting any evil is to acknowledge that it's real, and that it needs fighting. When we see injustice, or oppression, or tragedy, we absolutely have to stand up and name it. We have to say that we don't accept it, and that it has no place in our world.

And, that we will fight it until the break of dawn, just like Jacob did, if we have to.