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Hukkat 5779: Resisting Temptation

07/16/2019 03:22:57 PM


This week, the news was dominated by the arrest of money manager Jeffrey Epstein on charges of sex trafficking. Epstein, who had previously faced and settled similar charges in Florida, has now been indicted by federal prosecutors in New York. They allege that he arranged for dozens of underage women to be brought to his homes, where he then alleged sexually assaulted them. Epstein was known for his connections to wealthy and powerful friends and for his mysterious, luxurious lifestyle. Regardless of the outcome of the criminal case, it appears that Jeffrey Epstein has a tremendous amount of teshuva, of repentance, that he must do. There are a number of issues which this situation raises for us. First, it is an important reminder of the ongoing issue of sex trafficking and human trafficking, a form of modern-day slavery in which some of the most vulnerable people in our society are exploited and abused for their labor or their bodies. Most of those guilty of this crime will never get anything close to the attention this case has received, and I hope some of this media and public attention will be re-directed to the issue in general. This whole situation also got me thinking about what our tradition calls the yetzer ha-ra, which is usually translated as the evil impulse. But might be better understood as the impulse that can lead to evil. The yetzer ha-ra is the shadow side of human nature, the assertive or self-interested aspect of our personalities. It's similar to what Freud called the id. If not carefully controlled, it can lead to evil outcomes. So, for instance, ambition or sexual desire, when controlled and directed within appropriate limits, can have positive outcomes for the individual and society. The Talmud (Yoma 69b) tells a story of a time when some rabbis captured the yetzer ha-ra. They found that three days later, no fresh egg could be found in the entire land of Israel because the chickens stopped engaging in sexual behavior. Elsewhere (Beresheit Rabbah 9:7), the rabbis teach that without the evil impulse, no one would ever build a house, marry, or have children. So, without that so-called “evil” impulse, our world could not stand. At the same time, we have to be extraordinarily careful when controlling this aspect of our souls. Our rabbis make this point many times, including in a teaching connected to this week's Torah portion, Chukkat. In the later part of this portion, we read of the people's journey in the wilderness toward the conclusion of their 40 years of wandering. This includes their successful military campaigns against Amorite king Sichon and King Og of Bashan, who both refused to allow the Israelites to pass through their territory, even for payment. The passage also includes some snippets of poetry that seem to be quoted from some other ancient source to confirm details of the story. One such poem concerns the city of Heshbon, which the Israelites conquer from the Amorites and settle within. The Torah states that Heshbon was not originally an Amorite city, but had belonged to the neighboring kingdom of Moab, until King Sichon of the Amorites captured it. The Torah then quotes a few lines of poetry that discuss Sichon's conquest and dispossession of the Moabites, in order to confirm this detail of the story. As one medieval commentator (Rashbam on Bava Batra 78b) points out, there is no reason for the Torah to include this poetry. Its only purpose is to tell us the backstory of the city of Heshbon, which we already know. It's very unusual for the Torah to state something and then seemingly need to quote another text as evidence. So, this commentator explains, that whole poetic passage is actually in the Torah for homiletical purposes, in order to be interpreted to make a moral and religious point. This is precisely what the Talmud does (Bava Batra 78a), creatively re-reading the Hebrew in order to talk about the need to control the yetzer ha-ra. This is a little bit technical, so please bear with me. The verse (Numbers 21:27) in Hebrew is “al ken yomru hamoshlim bo'u cheshbon” which in context translates as “Therefore the bards would recite: Come to [the city of] Heshbon.” The Talmud creatively re-reads those words: hamoshlim, the bards or poets, is re-read as those who rule over their evil inclination. This works pretty well, actually, because the Hebrew root mem-shin-lamed can mean either to make a poem, a mashal, or to rule over. The passage continues to re-read the verse using alternate meaning of the words. The word heshbon, which in context is the name of the city, is also the Hebrew word for number or account. So, they parse, “Come to Heshbon,” as “Come and let us calculate the account of the world, meaning the expense associated with fulfilling a mitzvah in contrast to its reward, and the reward for committing a transgression in contract to the loss it entails.” In other words, those who can control their evil impulse do so by weighing the long-term consequences of their actions. They compare the relatively small cost of doing a mitzvah now to the great rewards for it in the future, and also the momentary rewards for transgression compared to the great costs that await them later. The Talmudic interpretation continues in this vein, interpreting each phrase as speaking to the rewards for good behavior and the punishment for bad. But the broader point is that those who control their evil impulse, rather than let their evil impulse control them, do so by thinking through the long-term cost/benefit analysis. This allows them to defer gratification of their basest impulses for money or power or sex. Now, of course, this is much easier said than done. It also assumes that people rationally consider their actions and choices, even as we know from experience and research that decision-making is often driven by emotions and, when facing something tempting, even our biology. One psychologist suggests reflecting on why we are doing something, and if we will regret it later, can help resist temptation. She also offer 4 steps to follow when facing temptation: • Step 1: Relabel"making a mental note that we are facing something tempting • Step 2: Reframe: note that our brain has this craving or temptation because we have trained it through habituation that we should want something • Step 3: Refocus: do something else other than what we are tempted to do • Step 4: Revalue: remind ourselves that we are not defined by our cravings and temptations. We can acknowledge their presence without having to succumb. Yet, of course, even this is much easier said than done. It requires presence of mind and willpower. It is a lifelong task of controlling our impulses rather than letting them control us. Religious observance, I would humbly suggest, helps build up the self-discipline necessary to resist temptation. Prayer and other spiritual practices can help us get in touch with who we really are, and can cultivate a relationship with the Holy One that we can rely on in difficult moments. That holy relationship can also help remind us that our actions are significant well beyond whatever we see immediately in front of us. A cultivated awareness of the sacred can offer the presence of mind necessary to resist when we are tempted to do something we know we shouldn't. Together, religion offers us tools to transcend our cravings for pleasure and power. Even still, we know that religious observance is no guarantee that someone won't commit heinous crimes. Yet, I would maintain that it can at least sometimes help both prevent bad behavior and, more importantly, offer a path back to righteous living even after bad behavior has occurred. As the prophet Isaiah (55:7) says, “Let the wicked give up his ways, The sinful man his plans; Let him turn back to the LORD, who will pardon him; To our God, who abundantly forgives.” All of which brings us back to Jeffrey Epstein. It's tempting to look at people like him, who may have committed such terrible abuses, and imagine that we are of a totally different nature, that we are the kind of people who would never commit such evil. And to an extent this is true. Epstein's vast resources and powerful connections allegedly allowed him to fulfill his depraved desires to an extent well beyond what most people could. But, as uncomfortable as the idea might make us, Epstein and people like him are not members of a different species. They are human beings, just like you and me, capable of both tremendous good and tremendous evil. They are responsible for their actions and, correspondingly, capable of repentance and change, as difficult as that might be. The Epstein case, though, reminds us of the same lesson our sages expounded from our Torah portion: the terrible consequences of not controlling our shadow side, our baser impulses that bear tremendous potential for harm. May God bless us with the strength to resist.
Tue, February 7 2023 16 Shevat 5783