Thursday, September 08, 2011

D'varim 5771: Pt.2 Resistance and the Yetzer Hara

In this week’s portion, Moses gives the people a review of the book Numbers. In this Cliff's Notes version he recounts their leaving Sinai, and the story of the spies. He goes into describe their adventure once getting there and the opposition encountered the Amorite kings of Sihon and Og and their armies, who the Israelites completely rout - men women and little ones all die. Moses then recounts the settling of the land by some of the tribes on the east side of the Jordan, ending with encouragement for their new leader Joshua.

What I read today was bloody -- a practically scorched earth policy. It seems so horrible -- a Genocide on a small scale. Is that what is going on? What is going on here?

Like Moses giving his history this week, I need to look at some personal history. On June 24 1979, I read Shlach Lecha, the original story of the spies that Moses summarizes this week, for my bar mitzvah portion. Oddly I was a lot like the Israelites -- I feared a lot. By the time I got to college I still did. In my sophomore and junior years of college I met and was in the very outer social circles of one of the most beautiful women I have ever met. Between her always dating someone else and with my fear, I was intimidated of even talking to her. My senior year she left for a year abroad in France, and I of course graduated. I never expected to see her again.

In May 2008, I put a pintelach in the Kotel asking to find my mate. In August 2008 I signed up for Facebook. On December 28 2008, I got a happy birthday message from that woman from college-- Sweetie. This time Fear did not grip me. Even going on vacation was not going to stop me, and I kept up communication. We met in late January 2009, flew back and forth between Seattle and Chicago from then until August 2009, and when we moved in together. In December, on my birthday I proposed to her. Next week, two years from moving in together, we will be married.

Looking back on the last quarter century of my life, I would answer that: Sihon v’Og zeh yetzer ha ra. Sihon and Og are the Yetzer ha ra, the evil inclination.

We often think of the evil inclination terms of some little voice on our shoulder telling us to do evil things. For example in terms of lust, as found in the Story of Rabbi Akiba and Rabbi Meir, who even as sages were unable to control sexual urges when Ha Satan tries to tempt them with really beautiful women sitting in trees. We also find another case of greed leading to injustice in the Haftarah this week in a rather strong rebuke from the prophet to the government, one which sounds all too contemporary:
Your princes are rebellious, and companions of thieves; everyone loves bribes, and follows after rewards; they judge not the orphans neither does the cause of the widow reach them. [Isaiah 1:23]

It is easy to succumb to such voices, as we have seen many times in public figures. Yet the yetzer hara is more than just doing evil to others. There is a phrase repeated several times (1:21, 1:29, 3:2) in this portion lo yira -- do not fear. Yet it is clear that in the wilderness hearing the report of the spies the people did fear. They even went into battle fearing their adversary and ended up with their butts handed to them. Sun Tzu’s art of war makes an important point:
If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.

Why does Moses start his farewell speech with this much edited and very personal take on the book of numbers? Why does he spend so much time rebuking everyone, only to conclude this portion with two incredibly big victories that happened only weeks earlier in Torah time?

I believe Moses was telling the story of the wilderness to make a point: know the enemy and know yourself. . The people, we have heard many times before are "stiff-necked." but what does that mean? I believe it means they gave into their own yetzer hara too easily. Moses was starting his speech with a very important point: there is a yetzer hara, an internal enemy. Give in to it and you can live in fear and failure. Alternatively, don’t be afraid knowing God is with you, and beat fear and resistance in the ground, and find yourself at your fullest potential -- the way God wants it.

There were many things standing in the way of bringing us here to this auf ruf -- the 1800 miles between here and Seattle, coming from very different backgrounds, and not least of all, two stubborn-headed independent individuals under the same roof. Each could have derailed us with a word from our Yetzer Ha ra. The fact that they didn’t is a miracle, and I get to marry the woman of my dreams.

We must know the internal enemy, often it is the most dangerous and destructive. IN anything that brings out our fullest potential and God given talent such is true. Knowing the enemy is the first part of strategy. As Steven Pressfield wrote in The War of Art:
To yield to Resistance deforms our spirit. It stunts us and makes us less than we are and were born to be. If you believe in God (and I do) you must declare Resistance evil, for it prevents us from achieving the life God intended when He endowed each of us with our own unique genius

Sihon and Og is that enemy for the people. The people cannot get to the Promised Land without going through them -- and Sihon and Og both want nothing but to stop them. Any remnant left will go back and stop them. I don't want to think of this on terms of political terms, for that too is a form of resistance to what I am going to ask. I want to think of this in terms of our inner selves, our potential for tikkun olam, for changing the world for good, put into each of us. I beat my fears of dating and am getting married next week. I have many fears of success to yet to beat. How can we all find the Sihon and Og in us so we can all get to our promised lands?


  • Are Sihon and Og metaphorically the Yetzer hara of resistance?

  • What is the nature of the Yetzer hara?

  • How do we overcome it?

  • Is it ever completely overcome?

  • What is the role of lo yira and God in overcoming resistance?

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