World of the Sages: Two evil inclinations

World of the Sages Two

shofar blackberry  (photo credit: Bloomberg)
shofar blackberry
(photo credit: Bloomberg)
Many of our sages attempted to depict the nature of the evil inclination that constantly attempts to lure us from doing good. In our tractate, one sage compared the evil inclination to a fly that sits between the two gateways of the heart (B. Brachot 61a). The fly buzzes around inside of us trying to putrefy that which is wholesome. Thus a proof text is offered: Flies of death fester and putrefy perfumed oil (Ecclesiastes 10:1). A single dead fly can indeed spoil a canister of perfumed oil and, similarly, the buzzingly annoying evil inclination can damage a good heart as it flies in and out whenever the gateway is opened. In this sense, the evil inclination appears to dwell inside us, a small voice that tries to corrupt from within whenever the opportunity arises. Elsewhere in the Talmud the evil inclination is rendered in terms of an outside force acting upon us (B. Bava Batra 16a). One sage tells us that it appears in different forms: "He is Satan, he is the evil inclination, he is the angel of death." It is the same force that at first descends to this world at the Almighty's behest and seduces people to do wrong. Alas, should he succeed in his mission, he quickly ascends to the heavenly court. There before the Almighty judge, he acts as the prosecutor who seeks to condemn his entrapped victim. If judgment is rendered in his favor, he once again descends, this time in the guise of the angel of death and carries out the verdict by taking the soul of the sinner. The struggle in this illustration is not within us, but with a nemesis fulfilling his divine mission. Perhaps our sages are suggesting that in truth it is of two timbres: On one hand, it is our internal desires with which each of us must contend. This internal urge may be, for instance, a craving for food that should not be consumed (Gra, 18th century, Vilna). On the other hand - and simultaneously - it is an assailant beyond us that we tackle, wrestling this force and hopefully defeating it. This approach may be buttressed by a parable offered elsewhere in the Talmud (B. Sota 21a): A person is walking in the dead of night. A thick blanket of darkness surrounds him and he is afraid. He fears thorns, thistles and holes in the ground that may hinder his journey as he stumbles in the dark. He is also afraid of being attacked by wild animals or bandits. Moreover, he doesn't really know whether he is headed in the right direction. The person chances upon a torch flame that will light up his way. He no longer needs to fear thorns or holes in the ground, for his immediate surroundings are illuminated. The threat of wild animals or bandits, however, continues unabated, and he still is unsure of his path. Finally a new day dawns and his fear of being attacked subsides, though he continues uncertain of his path. His qualms about his destination are only laid to rest, however, once he reaches a signposted intersection. The Talmud explains that the signposted intersection refers to the day of death. Throughout our lives, even if our path is illuminated, we are still unsure whether we travel in the right direction. One wrong turn, even in broad daylight, can lead us astray. What do the different threats represent - the thorns and holes on one hand, and the wild animals and bandits on the other hand? Rabbi Asher Weiss, author of Minhat Asher, suggested that they may refer to the two evil inclinations. The thorns, thistles and holes that hinder our journey mean not to harm us. It is only our own blindness that causes injury. Similarly, our internal evil urge succeeds in harming us only because of our lack of insight in discerning the clear path. The wild animals and bandits - like the external evil inclination - are forces that act of their own volition bent on our destruction. These forces attack because of their nature, irrespective of our own fortitude. The talmudic passage does not leave us with a mere taxonomy, it also suggests elixirs for combating the two evil inclinations - the torch and dawning day. The parable is offered in connection to the biblical verse: For the commandment is light a candle and the Torah is like light (Proverbs 6:23). Doing mitzvot provides a valiant, albeit temporary, measure of protection; as long as the flame burns the path is clear. Studying Torah provides light which continues to illuminate throughout the day, shining forth and bathing the entire surroundings in sunlight. A two-pronged defense of Torah and mitzvot can help us withstand both evil inclinations - the voice inside that urges us from worthy conduct can be subdued by actively performing mitzvot and those who mercilessly attack from without seeking to divert us from the path of righteousness can be restrained by radiating Torah light. The writer is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.