A few months back, I started my article with the following mishna in Pirkei Avos: Rabbi Elazar haKappar said, “Hakin’a vehata’avah vehakavod motzi’im es ha’adam min ha’olam – Envy, inordinate desire, and [the search for] glory remove a man from the world.” (Pirkei Avos 4:28, translation from Bunim’s Ethics from Sinai) This month I would like to focus on another interpretation of “remove a man from the world.” R. Bunim says, “If they [these passions] remove a man from the world, they obviously do not abate as long as the person lives….they will be ‘faithful to the end’ – the bitter end that they hasten.”A strong appetite or desire does not go away. It may be pacified by feeding it one day, but the next day it is back again, a force to deal with and to accompany us throughout our lives. As Rav Yitzchak says (Kiddushin 30b) “A person’s yetzer renews itself daily”.
This is reality. But how do we relate to this appetite and to our yetzer hara? I recently listened to a talk by Rabbi Benzion Twerski of Milwaukee (“Serving Hashem with Gashmiut,”on torahanytime.com) that presented an enlightening approach to this question. Rabbi Twerski brings the well-known saying in the gemara (Kiddushin 30b), “Barasi yetzer hara, barasi Torah tavlin – I (Hashem) created the yetzer hara (evil inclination), I created the Torah as a spice (also translated as an antidote).” Rabbi Twerski asks why Torah is called only a “spice,” which sounds like something accessory or secondary in importance. He says that we have to accept the yetzer hara as a clear part of us, and modify and control it using the Torah. The yetzer hara is not a foreign entity to our souls but an integral part of them, and we have to bring it under the control of Torah and our yetzer hatov (inclination to good), not reject it and try to get rid of it. The yetzer hara provides chamimus, passion, which we can marshal into other areas of our lives.
Rabbi Twerski goes on to present an insight that the Chasam Sofer brings in the name of the Vilna Gaon on a comment in Alshich Hakadosh. There are six sentences in all of Tanach that have a sequence of five consecutive two-letter words. On the surface, they do not seem to be connected, but a tremendous insight can be found related to the concept of accepting the yetzer hara as a part of us. I will discuss the first two sentences, which occur in Chumash. The Torah says “… vayoled Noach es Shem es Cham – Noach gave birth to Shem and Cham.” (Bereishis 5:32). (The two-letter word sequence is in bold.) A person is created with a part which is the neshama (soul, spirituality), represented by Shem, and there is also the yetzer hara, the passionate part of the individual, represented by Cham (chamimus can be translated as warmth or passion). Every person has both parts. The second sentence is said by the midwife at the time that Rachel gives birth to Binyamin: “…ki gam zeh lach bein … this also is a son to you.” (Bereishis 35:17) So the passion, the yetzer hara, is also a part of you, not something to be rejected.
As we discussed in previous articles, Avraham’s unique contribution in serving Hashem was in the realization that the physical part of us can also be elevated and sanctified. Avraham, in gematria, is 248, representing all the different parts of the body. The goal is not to reject the physical but to accept it and elevate it through the Torah and the work of our yetzer hatov.
Rabbi Twerski provides a beautiful addition to this thought, which I believe he quotes in the name of the Divrei Chaim. Hashem’s four-letter name can be broken into two parts of two letters each. The first two letters together, yud heh, represent Hashem’s presence in the physical world. Activities related to this physical world often include these two letters. For example, achila (eating) and shesiyah (drinking) both include the letters yud and heh. The last two letters of Hashem’s name, vav heh, represent the spiritual world, and these letters are included in words dealing with spirituality: for example, Torah and avodah (service) of Hashem.
But then we come to the word mitzva (commandment). This word has a vav heh ending, so it fits into the spiritual realm. But the first two letters, mem tzadi, provide a new insight when transformed using atbash. Atbash is a transformation of Hebrew letters, so that, for each letter, the number of letters from the beginning of the alef bais is assessed, and the letter that is an equal distance from the end of the alef bais is substituted. So, mem, which is the 13th letter from alef, has yud, the 13th letter from tav substituted for it. Tzadi, which is the fifth letter from tav, has heh, the fifth letter from alef, substituted for it. So, the mem tzadi of mitzva becomes yud heh, and the word mitzva becomes the four-letter name of Hashem. The meaning is that physicality hides the presence of Hashem, but through mitzvos we can reveal the spiritual aspect of the physicality and bring it forward to a greater level of sanctity.
So the message is to accept our yetzer hara – accept its capacity to endow our lives with passion – and to learn to use it to elevate our lives further in the spiritual realm.
Janet Sunness is medical director of the Richard E. Hoover Low Vision Rehabilitation Services at the Greater Baltimore Medical Center. She gives lectures on Tanach, Judaism and women, and other topics in the Baltimore area, especially at Cong Shomrei Emunah and the Women’s Institute of Torah. She welcomes your feedback (firstname.lastname@example.org). Some of the earlier articles in this series are available at wherewhatwhen.com © Janet Sunness 2014