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Friday, October 28, 2005

Bereshit - A Constant Challenger

ויאמר ה' אל קין: למה חרה לך ולמה נפלו פניך? לוא אם תיטיב, שאת, ואם לא תיטיב, לפתח חטאת רבץ; ואליך תשוקתו ואתה תמשל בו.

(בראשית ד', ו'-ז')

With Bereshit we start the Torah from the beginning. This parasha has a lot of beginnings, the obvious one being the creation of the world. But this is also a first for many other things: the first sin, the first murder, the first excuse. In many ways Bereshit is the foundation for many of our traits as human beings. One of these is our propensity to sin.

The two sons of Adam make an offering to God. Abel brings the firstlings of his flock and Cain brings the fruit of the ground. After God rejects Cain's offering He tells him:

Why are you angry and why is your countenance fallen? If you improve yourself, shall it not be lifted up? And if you do not improve yourself, sin crouches at the doorstep, and its desire is towards you, but you may rule over it.

(Bereshit 4, 6-7)

So our yetzer ha'ra, our evil inclination, is always there, always lurking. It is at the doorstep, willing us to fulfill our desires and commit a sin. But it does not have full control over us, we may yet "rule over it" if we only so desire. There is an evil force blocking the doorway, but we may conquer it and get past it.

Here is a story that may help us understand the meaning of yetzer ha'ra and the significance of overcoming its desire. The head of a yeshiva noticed that one of the students missed classes on Sunday and Monday. This was a very good student who never missed class, so the rabbi approached him on Tuesday asking what happened. After some hesitation, the student replied that the rabbi would not understand. "Try me", said the rabbi. So the student explained that he went to watch the finals of an important soccer tournament and that, in fact, he would probably be away also tomorrow as it was the final day of the tournament.

The rabbi smiled and asked the student to explain more about this soccer game. "How does one win this game?", he enquired. The student explained that there are 11 players and the idea is to kick the ball into a large goal. The rabbi frowned and said: "So what's the problem? Kick the ball into the goal and come back to study!". The student laughed and explained that there is an opposing team of 11 players, and they have a goalkeeper that stops the ball from going into the goal. The rabbi asked: "Surely the other team does not sleep at the soccer grounds. So why don't you just slip out at night, put the ball into their goal, and declare victory the next morning?". The student, perplexed at this bizarre suggestion, answered: "But that wouldn't be a challenge. If there's no goalkeeper trying to stop you, then there's no point in winning!".

At this point the rabbi gave the student a large smile and said: "Listen to yourself. You're a good student and it's no big deal for you to come to yeshiva when there is nothing holding you back. But when the urge to skip class is there, when the yetzer ha'ra is the goalkeeper keeping you from entering the classroom, then it becomes a real challenge. This is when you score the real points in the game."

The Torah tells us not only about the nature of the yetzer ha'ra as an adversary, but also as a challenger. It challenges us to overcome our desire and to do the right thing. It is always crouching at the doorstep, ready to block us. Our job is to realize that we must overcome it at the point when the urge is the greatest. When it is difficult to do the right thing, it is up to us to make the effort to score the goal.

The idea for this week's Torah thought is from R. Mordechai Kamenetzky.

Monday, October 03, 2005

A Ray of Hope

Tonight it is Rosh HaShana and we enter a new year, 5766. Time for teshuva, time for collecting one's thoughts about the past and making new resolutions for the future.

Rosh HaShana is the day on which we make God king over the world. It is also Yom HaDin, the day of judgement, the day when all creation passes before God and is judged for the coming year. In ten days' time it will be Yom Kippur, the day of repentance and atonement, the day on which we confess our sins before God and ask for forgiveness.

One wonders about the order of things here. Surely the order needs to be reversed: we should first detail our sins and ask for forgiveness and only then be judged and accept God's rule as king. How dare we we come before God and make him our king while still not being purified from our sins?

The reason for this requires a look into the human psyche and may be illustrated using the following story. One important gentleman was a source of pride to his family and his community. He was intelligent and wealthy and dedicated his time and money to help others. But he had one fault: he was an alcoholic. Every now and then he would get completely drunk and bring disgrace upon himself and his family. To try and make him realise his bad ways, his sons took him for a ride in the street and showed him a homeless drunk who was sprawled on the sidewalk, knocked out from too much alcohol. They told their father: see, this is what you look like when you get drunk. The man looked at the drunk, got off the car, approached him and whispered a few words in his ear. The drunk looked up and answered. Upon returning to the car, the man's sons were curious about this exchange. Their father smiled and said: I asked him where he got the good stuff that made him this superbly drunk...

The morale from this story is the following. For us to be able to repent for our sins in a serious manner we need first to have a ray of light, a beacon of hope. One cannot fight against a bad reality without any hope, when still mired and lost in sin. If we are not shown an alternative of good, it is difficult for us to extricate ourselves from the bad. The man was not shown an alternative; he was shown only bad, therefore he was unable to pull himself up and improve.

In Rosh HaShana we are shown the alternative. God is made king and we see the light of his kingdom. After this uplifting experience, after we are shown the alternative of good, we are more prepared to come before Him and ask for forgiveness on Yom Kippur. God, in His infinite wisdom, understands that for us human beings to be able to help ourselves, we need to have some hope in order to be able to truly repent and mend our ways. This hope is given to us in the form of Rosh HaShana.

Shana Tova to all.