Well, almost none. I, like every Jew, possessed the spark of Jewish fire called the pintele Yid, which was burned into my neshamah at Mount Sinai, where I stood with my people so many centuries ago.
The Gemara tells us that an angel teaches us the entire Torah in the womb. After that nine-month “chavrusa,” the angel strikes us above the upper lip at birth and, with that shock, we forget all that we learned (Niddah 30b). All the noise and clamor of this world then bombards us, and the voice of the angel is forgotten in the jangle of “civilization.” But perhaps we are unable or unwilling to forget the voice of the malach and that holy Torah we absorbed before we entered this world. Perhaps we are fortunate enough to hear words of Torah during our lifetime. Perhaps we pause and we allow those words to sink in.
“Wait a minute! I have heard those words before!”
That is when we remember the angel who taught us in the womb.
So, though I grew up in a secular world, I knew something was missing. I couldn’t live; I was constantly afraid.
What was I afraid of?
Yes, I was afraid of myself.
Decades later, joined by my wife, I was blessed to find Torah. We had followed countless paths. We rejected them all because each turned out to be a dead end. In 1974, in the city of Newburgh, New York – after all other paths had failed us – we met Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis, who opened the world of Torah to us. Thus, our life began.
We learned about the yetzer hara, the evil inclination – the force within us that tries to steer us in exactly the opposite direction from the Torah. We learned that the yetzer hara is a tireless opponent, lying in wait constantly in order to deflect us, God forbid, from the Path of Life.
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In general, I don’t think we take the yetzer hara too seriously because it is not so clear to us what it is. But perhaps we can use the period of sefirah to come to grips with this opponent that has destroyed so many lives since Adam and Chava fell under its influence in the first days of Creation.
The yetzer hara can be brought under control. As we say every day in davening, “Let the Evil Inclination not dominate us… and compel our Evil Inclination to be subservient to You.” The paradigm for this struggle is the classic encounter between Yaakov Avinu and the malach of Eisav.
Yaakov asked the malach, “What is your name?”
We have to identify our opponent.
I have been thinking lately about the yetzer hara. When I speak publicly about my life, I try constantly to refine my narrative because I want my listeners to identify with my experiences and realize they are not alone; someone has been on this path before. Today many people feel depressed and need to know there is hope.
Why was I constantly afraid as a child?
As I said above, I was afraid of myself. Even as a young child I felt there was some force within me that would compel me to do things against my will, like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
Now I realize that this “force” has a name.
This is amazing. As a “sophisticated” frum adult I tend to regard the yetzer hara as somewhat theoretical, but as a small child – without exposure to Torah – not only did I know what it was, I was face to face with it every second. And I was scared stiff!
That doesn’t mean I could deal with it, but I knew it existed. In fact, my entire life revolved around the struggle against it. I tried and failed to overpower it. But that very failure drove me to search relentlessly for a way to dominate it, and – as I said earlier – that lifelong search finally brought me to the gates of Torah, because everything else had failed.
What does this have to do with Sefiras HaOmer?
I would suggest that we try during these seven weeks to look beyond all our myriad problems to the underlying cause of all our tzouris: the ageless struggle against our inner opponent. Instead of letting it remain nameless and formless, let us follow our Father Jacob’s example and seek to identify it.
“Jacob wrestled with him until the break of dawn…. Then [the malach] said, ‘Let me go, for dawn has broken.’ ” (Bereishis 32:25)
An echo of this theme occurs in the writings of Dovid HaMelech, who speaks about the fate of Yerushalayim in the tumultuous days before Mashiach: “God is in its midst. It shall not totter. God will help it toward morning” (Psalm 46 with ArtScroll commentary).