“When you will go out to war against your enemies, and Hashem will deliver him into your hand …” (Devarim 21:10)
The commentaries tell us that this verse refers to man’s battle with his Evil Inclination, and if he will firmly commit his heart and soul to fight the yetzer hara, Hashem will – as the pasuk concludes – “deliver the enemy into your hand.” Furthermore, Hashem will then wrestle with the Evil Inclination Himself.
How does one go out to war against the Evil Inclination? The Vilna Gaon cites the words in Bereishis (4:7), “Sin rests at the door,” and explains that this alludes to the Evil Inclination, who lurks nearby waiting for the smallest opportunity to gain access. With that insignificant ingress, the Evil Inclination is then able to slowly establish his stronghold, until the person becomes totally entrapped.
A murderer was caught, found guilty, and sentenced to death. His last request before his execution was to be allowed to confess his sins. He then stated before the entire courtroom: I confess that when I was a young boy in school, I stole an eraser that was on the desk of one of my classmates. Who cared about a worthless eraser that this murderer had stolen when he was a child? The murderer explained that his downward spiral began with the theft of that trivial eraser. After that, he stole a pencil box, and then he stole objects of greater value until he advanced to stealing money and eventually murdering people.
Similarly, the yetzer hara makes its initial appearance with the lure of a minor, even debatable, lapse. Once the person errs, the Evil Inclination can gain a toehold and slowly, but ultimately, prevails. The most effective way for the person to avoid such a downfall is to assure that he leaves no chink or aperture where the yetzer hara can enter.
Rabbeinu Yonah writes (Shaarei Teshuvah, Shaar One, Principle 11) that every individual is innately good and wants to do the right thing. The reason the Evil Inclination is nevertheless successful in achieving dominance is that the person did not oppose and reprimand the yetzer hara, the “sea of desire” as the author describes the Evil Inclination, as soon as he made his initial overture.
The baalei mussar (teachers of Jewish ethics) instruct us that Rabbeinu Yonah presents two novel concepts. One is that the Evil Inclination is powerful like an ocean, and the second is that if the individual challenges the yetzer hara and defies him, the sea will immediately “dry up.” A person must be quick to perceive the danger he is encountering and throw down the gauntlet to the yetzer hara. That is how one goes out to war against the Evil Inclination.
We learn in Bereishis (14:23) that when the king of Sodom offered Avraham Avinu great wealth, he rejected it, noting that he would not take so much as a “thread to a shoe strap.” The Talmud (Sotah 17a) tells us that as a reward his children merited two mitzvos – the techeiles thread worn on tzitzis and the strap of tefillin.
The sefer Yechi Reuven asks why the Torah only speaks of Avraham’s outright refusal to take anything, and no mention is made of the great wealth that Avraham Avinu turned down. He explains that this narrative teaches us a very important lesson. Avraham Avinu did not open even the tiniest pinhole for the yetzer hara. He would not take even one thread from the king of Sodom which could possibly lead to accepting a great fortune from him, resulting in the profaning of the Name of Hashem, G-d forbid. The Evil Inclination is an insidious enemy who entraps us by presenting seemingly inconsequential lapses.
This can be understood in the context of the Dubno Maggid’s explanation on the verse in Eichah (1:9), “Her impurity is on her hems, she was not mindful of her end.” A person saw a beautiful tablecloth for sale. The merchant informed him that he could have it in a few days, after the seamstress finished the border so that the cloth did not ravel. The customer insisted that it really made no difference and he wanted it now. After a while, the tablecloth began to slowly come apart, and the customer angrily returned to the shop. “I informed you from the beginning that the border must be reinforced,” explained the shopkeeper.
Likewise, says the Dubno Maggid, when our perimeter is not fortified and we are weak in minor infringements that is when the Evil Inclination is able to unravel one’s entire life.
Even a Fly
The town drunk had become a public laughingstock, the source of amusement for all who crossed his path. Although many tried to help him out of his misery, he could not stop drinking. One day he decided that although he could not totally abstain from drinking, he would try to limit his consumption. Since he always drank in solitude, he resolved not to imbibe without a drinking companion joining him.
This worked for a while until one night he was overcome by a strong desire for a glass of whiskey. It was in the middle of the night; no one was in the street and he would not think of waking someone who was sleeping. The minutes went by and his thirst intensified. Finally, he decided that he would fill up two glasses in anticipation of someone passing by. That way he would be able to immediately quench his thirst. The aroma of the whiskey wafted towards him, and he was going out of his mind. Suddenly a fly alit on one of the glasses. Overjoyed, the drunk reached for his glass. He was no longer alone.
When a person wages war against the yetzer hara he must be zealous and unwavering, and passionate in his commitment. Only then will his resolution remain firm and the “sea of sin” dry up.
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