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Sunday, September 07, 2008

Ki Sei’tzei, Devarim 21:11. The Yefas To'ar

The Torah can never be read only on one level. There is an inherent multiplicity in the meaning of the words in the Torah, and sometimes, the additional meanings are easily accessible. This parsha is one example.

The Ohr Hachaim explains that the Torah is talking about the battle against the Yetzer Hara. Sometimes, the battle against the Yetzer Hara requires that a person use some of the traits that are usually associated with the yetzer hara. As Chazal say on bechal levavcha, ‘bishnei yetzireicha,’ serve Hashem with your good traits and harness your bad traits to serve Hashem as well. Rav Hutner was once learning by himself in Slabodkeh. The Alter asked him, Reb Yitzchok, where is your chavrusa? He answered, I have a chavrusa! I’m learning with my Yeitzer Hara. The Alter responded, Reb Yitzchak, if you’re already learning with a Yeitzer, why don’t you learn with your Yeitzer Hatov? Rav Hutner answered "because the Yeitzer Hara is a bigger masmid and a bigger baal kishron.

R’ Henoch Levovitz always said that character traits are called middos because they need to be applied in measure, and can be sublime or vile, according to how and how much they are used. It’s all in the dosage and the administration. Thus, it is not really accurate to say that any particular middah is only yetzer hara or only yetzer tov– any middah can be used for either side, although certain middos tend to gravitate towards or stimulate the yetzer hara or the yetzer tov. Gaivoh, anivus, rachamim, achzorius, taivoh, prishus, all can be used for the good or for the bad.

When we go to battle the Yetzer Hara, with Hashem’s help we can overcome it, ‘u'nesana Hashem Elokecha beyadecha,’ and after overcoming it, ‘ve'shavisa shivyo,’ we might find a yefas to’ar, i.e., a middah that we see is associated with the yetzer hara that we feel can be used for avodas Hashem. We want to take that middah into our houses and put it to use. But a person must realize that while that middah has its uses, it is dangerous, because using these middos might change the person in a negative way.

This is what the Beis Yoseph says in the beginning of Orach Chayim, where the Tur says "ratz katzvi, ahz kanamer, etc." the Beis Yosef asks, why not start with "ahz kanamer?" He answers, that although the middah of azus is a very important tool, (e.g., to help us to do mitzvos despite the jeering of goyim, like davenning in airports or walking with sneakers and a suit on Yom Kippur, or wearing a yarmulkeh while you’re jogging,) if a person is not careful, this middah might become a "kinyan benafsho." He might become an ahz panim in general. Brazen-ness is a necessary trait that allows us to serve Hashem when surrounded by people who make fun of us. But azus is a vile trait when adopted as a life style. This is something that we actually see all the time: people whose religious beliefs require them to dress in an absurd and laughable manner often adopt, purely as a defense mechanism, azus panim as an approach to everyone around them. So the Tur, while saying that ahzus is an important tool in avodas Hashem, did not put it first, to remind us that ahzus is a dangerous thing, and an abhorrent middah. We use fire, we use radiation, but we are very careful. We hold it with a tongs or isolate it in a place built to contain it from escaping and doing terrible damage. So, when a person takes the yefas to’ar, he must be very careful to remember that it is to be used as a tool only, and not allow it to change him and ruin his life.

(Coincidentally, as I was thinking about this in September ‘05 I got the Johns Hopkins magazine, and the cover article was called "The Seven Deadly Sins and Why They Are Not Always So Bad." They noted that the list has changed over time, with various Christian thinkers assigning top billing to various sins, though Pride usually is at the top, and differing ideas of what belongs on the list to begin with. The most famous list is Lust, Gluttony, Envy, Pride, Sloth, Avarice and Anger, though some exchange Sadness or Despair for Sloth. And the point of the article was that many of the 'deadly sins' can be very helpful.)

My oldest son once said this at a bris; he asked, why would a person want to use the yetzer hara, why can’t he just beat it and ignore it completely. The answer is that it is more powerful, perhaps more intrinsic to the nature and identity of the person. You look at some people, and you see there is peace exuding from them, and you wonder, doesn’t he have a yetzer hara, why isn’t he struggling? The answer is that he incorporated the strengths of the yetzer hara into his Yeitzer Hatov to do avodas Hashem, so there is no tension. He has co-opted his yeitzer harah. He is a shaleim.

R’ Shimon Shkop, in his hakdama, also speaks about "mitoch shelo lishma bah lishma," that it is not just a bedi’eved, and not just a ‘ necessary evil,’ but instead a valuable method of achieving important goals.

The thing to remember is that in our time, we all have brought yefos to’ar into our homes. It used to be that the threshold of the home was a bright line demarcation between kodesh and chol. Now, with the books, televisions, computers, and newspapers, and hashkafos in general, it is impossible to keep the yefas to’ar outside. She might seem beautiful, and we might think that we have made her disheveled and ugly to protect ourselves, we may create walls and bars to isolate her, but the Torah tells us that all the while she has retained her true nature, she misses her avodah zarah and her parents, and it will never be safe to turn your back on her.


3 comments:

Anonymous said...

Wow,this vort is Litvish talk for Chassidus, So you are essentially using the Netizozs of the RAAH and being Malleh them but then again you started with an Ohr HAchaim and (baal shem tov soul Mate of sorts)and Reb Hutner the Lubavitcher Rebbes zatzal Freind and Chavrusah but dont tell the Chaim Berliner's they Know it and they will deny it.

Barzilai said...

Well, I wasn't exactly thinking of being mevarer the tov in the gashmius, or klipos, or things like that. I was more reminded of what George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950) said-- "If you can't get rid of the skeleton in your closet, you'd best teach it to dance."

Yechezkel said...

I posted on my own Blog an interesting vort from HaRav Asher Zelig Weiss, Shlit"a on this Ohr Hachaim.

It is accessible Here .

Yechezkel Hirshman, Author
One Above and Seven Below