Trivializing the Yetzer Hara

A Word with Rabbi Moshe Taub


Parshas Korach

The Helen Thomas Condition


Faiths have always been fascinated by dreams. Today, modern science is just beginning important studies as to their meaning and their need to the human condition. 


The Talmud (Tractate Berachos), as is often the case, was well ahead of the curve. Chazal teach that dreams have, ostensibly, three causes: (a) Nevuah (prophesy); (b) thoughts or worries of the day; (c) repressed thoughts or desires.


(In modern times many of our leading Poskim (masters of Halchik rule) were suspicious if the first reason is applied to the average Jew in our times. Believing otherwise is as if to say that the A-mighty in the Yeshiva Shel Mayla (heavenly Yeshiva), after reaching a decision that affects mankind and about to send out the Seraphim and Melachim to execute His will, declares, “Wait! Before we do this who is going to tell Ploni Almoni in a dream!?”. This, many Poskim explain, is improbable.)


The latter two foundations for dreams, and specifically the last one, remarkably demonstrate(s) that Chazal understood long ago that which Sigmund Feud would discover 1500 years later: repression of wants and thoughts should not be confused with the expunging of them. Suppression, while of course a fundamental tool when dealing with the Yetzer Harah (evil inclination), can, if not dealt with through the tools of our Sifrei Mussar and Machshavuh (books of religious philosophy, thought, and growth), can slowly morph and metastasize from within and may unexpectedly proclaim their presence with brute force in the future.


Rabbi Shimon Schwab, drawing from an earlier idea of Rabbi Yisroel Salnter, has a fascinating insight into the psychology of Korach that picks up on the above theme: How could Korach, a truly righteous man of towering sagacity (see Talmud, Sanhedrin 110) err to such a degree as to publicly shame our leader Moses and even except a religious “duel” where the loser would forfeit their life? 


Beyond these questions is a textual one: if this portion is in its correct chronological order – as Nachmonidies argues – why did it take so long for Korach to protest? Would not his grievances have begun at the appointment of the princes in the opening of the Book of Numbers or when Aaron was first chosen as the High Priest?


In seeking to answer these simple yet fundamental difficulties, Rabbi Schwab turns to a seemingly unrelated segment from the Talmud. Our Rabbis teach (Tractate Sukka, 55) that in the era of Messiah, Gd will slaughter the Yetzer Hara (evil inclination). Before doing so the world will have the opportunity, for the first time, to actually see with their eyes this spirit or force with which they have quarreled throughout their lives. The righteous, says the Talmud, will see a being of such might and size that they will proclaim “who can climb such a mountain!” The wicked, conversely, will see an entity so minuscule as to be compared to a single hair.


How bizarre! This is the exact inverse of what we would have imagined! The righteous, who have indeed overcome their evil inclination should be the ones to see it as a defeated entity, or a single hair; the wicked, who could not find the strength to defeat this foe should be the ones to proclaim, “who can climb this mountain!”


Continues Rabbi Schwab: most people who fail in their existential religious struggles do not set out to be wicked; rather they strive to ignore the evil within. This evil, having never been contended with is seen by them as trivial, like the addict who has yet to even try to quit who confidently proclaims their ability to stop when they so desire. It is than understandable why the Yetzer Hara appears small and defeatable in their eyes.

On the other hand, the righteous, who deal with their vices and desires, who fight selfish wants, who seek to understand their true motives, they, they, see the Yetzer Hara as large and looming. In fact it would only get mightier the deeper they get inside their true selves[1], separating, over a lifetime, their ego from their id.


Neither is lying. They are calling it as they see it.


 Korach was a Tzadik, true, but a unique and dangerously self-assured one. His Torah study and spiritual growth, explains Rabbi Schwab, was used subconsciously as a decoy, a red herring against his own conscience.  As opposed to dealing with his dark-side, his desires and jealousy, he chose to ignore them, covering them up with acts of true virtue. His study of Torah was a habitual self-distraction that both fooled those looking at him and himself when looking within. His righteousness was but an outer shell. It was only now, after the downfall of the generation of the spies, when public opinion against Moses was at an all time low, that there was a possibility of a coup d'état. Suddenly, surprisingly – to even Korach himself – there was stirring within. A desire that he had thought he left behind long ago pushed its way to the fore, and now having been seeping for so long it was uglier, fiercer. Now, now, it was a mountain, and Korach could not climb it.


What an insight!


We saw this principle played out in front of the world this week: For years the Jewish community saw something ugly in the words, the questions, of White House reporter Helen Thomas. This week our fears were confirmed. While her colleagues were shocked, we were not. One can only suppress what lies beneath for so long.


This week I spoke at the Millennium hotel.  Dr. Nehmed Kahn, a Muslim leader in this city, invited me to speak about Judaism. Only later did I find out my presentation would be one of many representing different views about Moshiach, the Messiah and that I would be speaking after two priests and an Imam[2]. One point that I felt had to be made came out of the above model: “Do not fall for the juvenile American canard that all religions are, essentially, the same, and, based on that (false) premise assume that we should get along. How condescending! We are different from one another. Are faith systems are mutually exclusive. What we need is to know and respect our differences. How perilous to fool ourselves otherwise. If we keep shoving what divides us under the rug, we may one-day trip on that lump under the rug and fall on our face. Let us understand that true peace lies in dealing peacefully with what divides us, not with the pretending they do not exist.”[3]


This may also explain why in this week’s Haftara our asking for a king – which after all is a Divine command needed to fulfilled – was viewed, at least partially, as a failing: asking for a king was fine, but convincing ourselves that this was for religious reasons was the error. We should have known our true motivations – to be like other nations – and not have convinced ourselves of our own great inspiration


We must as well, individually, perfect ourselves, knowing that the first step for our growth is in respecting what is innate, our true personalities, and pressing beyond it until we reach the crest of the mountain.

[1] See Talmud Sukka 52a where we are taught that the greater the individual the greater the evil inclination.

[2] The Halachik implications of this B’dieved situation is beyond the scope of the essay. Suffice it to say, nothing was done without deep investigation to the Halachick, Hashkofik and historical implications in mind.

[3] See Mishnas Reb Aarhron where Rabbi Kotler explains the word Shalom’s etymology as from Shaleim, completeness of understanding.

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