My daily wrestling match

I am embarrassed that a grown man - a rabbi, a teacher, a no-longer-young grandfather - should have so juvenile and silly a passion.

wrestling 311 (photo credit: courtesy)
wrestling 311
(photo credit: courtesy)
Every human being has his temptations.
Let me tell you about mine. As somewhat of a news junkie, each morning I open my computer to catch up on the overnight news. This should be a simple, pleasant, exercise. One click of the button, and everything I need is before me on the monitor.
But I confess to an addiction more serious than news, and that is sports, especially baseball.
Thus, the small matter of turning on my computer and going to the news is not a simple little exercise. On the contrary, it represents a constant, unrelenting, struggle with myself – because my natural instinct is not to visit the News and Opinion columns first, but to turn to Sports first.
Well, you may say, so turn to the sports first. Why should this be a struggle? The answer is that the problem is within me: I am embarrassed that a grown man – a rabbi, a teacher, a no-longer young grandfather – should have so juvenile and silly a passion.
Every morning I get up early, go to the daily minyan and then attend a daily class in Talmud before I come home to have breakfast and catch up on the news scores.
I open the New York Times website. There in front of me is a delectable menu of interesting choices: World News, Editorials, Opinion, Books, Health, Science – and Sports. Invariably my heart directs my finger to click Sports, but my mind says “No, you are a grown man, let the Sports take second place.
Do not surrender to your instincts. Discipline yourself, just as you preached for many years: discipline is the key to being to being a Jew.
Learn to say no to your longings and desires and temptations.”
So chastened by my inner rabbi, I obediently click News and Opinion, and only after dutifully reading David Brooks, Gail Collins, et al, do I click on to Sports and to major league baseball. This has been going on for a long time, and things are usually under control.
But I will confess that when there is a particularly crucial game that I absolutely, positively, unquestionably must know about, I succumb to the weakness and, in a guiltedged click, I turn first to Sports. I am, after all, only dust and ashes.
This daily experience is a paradigm of the struggle within every human being. Each of us is tempted throughout each day to violate some religious, societal, or civic norm. We know it is wrong to cheat in business, but the temptation to make an easy buck is overwhelming.
We know it is wrong to gossip and to destroy someone’s reputation, but the pleasure of gossip is overwhelming. We know it is wrong to tell a lie, but the attraction of it is overwhelming.
The nature of man has not changed very much from the times when the Ten Commandments adjured us to refrain from murder, adultery, theft, false witness and covetousness. It is a natural human instinct to do such things. Temptation long antedates the Ten Commandments: at the very dawn on history, Eve knew that it was wrong to eat the fruit of the Garden but the lure was overwhelming. She struggled a little, but she saw that it “was delicious and delightful to the eyes and desirable” (Genesis 3:6). The serpent of temptation is omnipresent; its venom runs through our veins.
Judaism teaches that one of the basic purposes of Torah is to help us resist the seductive enticements that cross our paths. I created the evil inclination and I created the Torah as antidote, says God in the Talmud. The Torah is designed to help us in our struggle to vanquish the Tempter – by instilling within us a self-discipline.
The serpent wages a relentless war against us, with an unceasing barrage of beguiling reasons to do what makes us feel good regardless of its effect on others.
The Torah in turn declares war on temptation, telling us that what makes us feel good is not the final arbiter, for that which makes us feel good today will frequently come back tomorrow to haunt us, and that each day’s resistance strengthens us and makes the next day’s resistance that much easier. Our liturgy even contains a special prayer about this: we ask God each morning to harhikenu miyetzer hara, to help us distance ourselves from the evil inclination.
And one needs help from above to ward off the very clever Tempter who knows exactly how to insinuate himself into our lives.
A great Jewish teacher once said that once you commit the first violation, the second violation is easier and the third one still easier – and before we know it, we somehow transform the fourth violation into a mitzvah.
Rule #1, then, is: be aware of the lurking temptations all around us. Do not allow them any entrée. This is why Jewish laws against gossip tell us not to talk about anyone at all – not even in a favorable way, because even favorable discussion can ultimately lead to unfavorable gossip.
That is why borrowing someone else’s possession without his knowledge is forbidden, and considered tantamount to stealing. Keep your eyes and heart away from that which is not yours. The key is to refuse entry to the serpent. It is not easy, but that is why the Sages in Avot 4:1 say: Who is mighty? He who overpowers his temptation.
On the face of it, my daily wrestling with the News/Sports dilemma is a relatively minor matter. It is certainly not a crime against God and Torah to read the Sports.
But the truth is that minor temptations are a paradigm of more serious ones that lurk in the shadows, for large temptations from little temptations grow, and even a small battle that is fought and won is a good testing ground for what might loom ahead.
In my case, though I am not yet fully addiction- free, I am a recovering sportsaholic, finding it less and less agonizing to delay my Sports gratification. It is only the first few No’s that are most difficult. And perhaps if my resolve holds, there will yet come a time when I can take the next radical step: I will not start the computer at all. For the truth is that news happens with or without me, and opinion columnists are invariably inaccurate.
As for the baseball scores, it will be painful, but with hard work I can train myself to do without them – although, with the baseball season, this might require some direct help from above.
The writer was a rabbi in Atlanta for 40 years, and is the former editor of Tradition Magazine. He is on the editorial staff of the Encyclopedia of Mitzvot, and has written nine books, most recent of which is Tales Out of Jerusalem.