Maimonides writes in Mishna Torah (Hilchos De’os 2:1) that physical illness can confuse the sense of taste. To a sick person, sweet food can taste bitter, and bitter food can taste sweet. The same is true, says the Rambam, for “diseases” of the soul. A person who is spiritually sick may be attracted to false ideas and bad middos, and they may hate those that are true and good. They may come to believe, G-d forbid, that good is evil, and evil is good.
This is frightening to think about when we consider that we are all, most likely, spiritually sick to some extent or another. How could we not be? Impurity and moral decadence are all around us. Surely our souls are negatively affected and in need of spiritual healing. This means there’s a good chance we are susceptible to mixing up good and evil, as mentioned by the Rambam.
What can we do to ensure we don’t fall prey to this kind of mistake? Rebbe Nachman of Breslov stresses the great importance of learning halacha (Jewish law) daily, and that a person should not let even a single day pass without learning at least one halacha. By doing this, we are assured that we aren’t confusing good for evil, and evil for good. Even if we are naturally attracted to false ideas due to our spiritual illness, we can reflect on Hashem’s will, as dictated by halacha, and become aware of the errors in our thinking.
I once heard a story that illustrates this point.
A young man who had started keeping Torah and mitzvot wanted to convince his sister, who had studied Buddhism in India, to learn about Judaism. The sister, however, was not interested. She relied on her guru for spiritual guidance.
The brother, however, refused to give up. When his sister came to visit him in Israel, he begged her to attend a rabbi’s Torah class. She agreed, and attended the rabbi’s class where she was taught the laws of returning a lost object to its rightful owner. The class consisted of dry, technical halachic details rather than deep, meaningful revelations.
The young woman was not impressed. She returned to India while her brother continued praying for her. But two weeks later she returned to Israel to register in a women’s yeshiva.
When her brother asked what happened, she told him the following story:
“A few days after I returned to India, I was walking together with the guru when he found a wallet full of cash on the sidewalk. He pocketed it. I asked him what he was going to do with the money, and he told me that since he had found it, the money was now his! I asked, ‘What about the poor man who lost all that money? Shouldn’t you try to find him to give him back his wallet?’
“The guru smiled and said, ‘The universe gave it to me.’
“I was shocked. At that moment I realized that spirituality and high thinking can be used to serve any falsehood or lowly desire if it was without a clear Divine imperative. According to halacha, this was an act of theft, pure and simple. All the beautiful words about the universe were just a bluff. I realized the value of halacha. Although it seems dry, it is the clearly expressed will of G-d. Only through obedience to it can we protect ourselves from delusions such as, ‘the universe gave it to me.’”