There is one force that we love to hate, but it is a crucial part of our lives. I speak, of course, of the yeitzer hara – the evil inclination – which our sages actually referred to as “good” (Bereishis Rabbah 9:7). Rashi there explains that, despite this apparently evil angel’s tendency to get us into trouble, it is also the force behind our drive to get married, build homes, and conduct business and commerce.
Rav Shamshon Raphael Hirsch (Bereishis 6:5) even suggests that the yeitzer hara “represents human glory, since by resisting its wiles, we are activating our free will, the power that makes us the most human.” Since the yeitzer hara often presents as our ally and confidant, “knowing how and when to fight it requires great cunning and wisdom” (Michtav M’Eliyahu 1:262). As the Alter of Kelm concludes (Chochmah Umussar 2:324), “our major work in life is to outsmart the yeitzer hara in multiple ways so that we will eventually serve Hashem with both the good and evil inclinations. The Sefas Emes, too (Vayeishev 5632), sees Yosef Hatzaddik’s greatest moment as when he was tempted and resisted with courage and resolve.
Our contemporary world provides many examples where people willingly join forces with the yeitzer hara to wreak havoc and destruction, yet we sometimes see the light in time to triumph over his machinations. Perhaps we are seeing the beginnings of the era of Moshiach when “the earth will be filled with the wisdom of Hashem…” and truth will start to flourish openly.
Let us examine two of these recent phenomena in this light. Not long ago, there was an asifah to counteract the evil influence of the internet. If we believe in the power of Klal Yisroel’s influence on the world (see, for instance, Yeshayahu 42:6; Rivevos Efraim, Parshas Bo, page 53), let us listen to what has begun to happen in the general populace, not just within our seemingly insular circles.
Newsday, the Long Island newspaper, recently (November 19, 2019, page A-10) reported that 21 students at Adelphi University bade “a bittersweet goodbye” to their smartphones for a week. A professor “required the entire class to surrender their phones for a week.” Some of the students thought she “must be joking,” others were in shock at the very thought. However, at the end of the seemingly interminable week, the students unanimously agreed that they had learned eight lessons about their behavior. I present here only five: 1). “How annoying it is when other people use smartphones.” After a day or two, these 21 were snapping at their friends, “Can you not pause every time you get a text?” They actually began to realize that the rudeness and lack of decency of those in the throes of slavery to the smartphones were untenable. 2). “How their phones disturb their sleep.” Those who suddenly did not sleep with their precious device next to their ear finally got a decent night’s sleep. 3). “How much faster they work without distraction.” One even confessed, “I kind of wish you had just murdered my phone.” 4). “How freeing it can be not to have constant access to social media.” Intensive internet users admitted that the invasive social media “tempts them to look at their phones immediately” upon their making a peep. 5). “How addicted they really were.” One girl heard the truth from the cousins for whom she regularly babysat. The innocent little ones noticed that “she played with them…instead of sitting with her phone.” The young woman finally admitted that “I originally didn’t think I was addicted to my phone, but this class made me realize how much I really am.”
Do we not hear in this remark an echo of the Ramban’s comment (Devarim 31:17) that “sometimes a thought is the beginning of teshuvah, although it remains incomplete”?
The second hirhur teshuvah is paradoxically more subtle and yet more official. For more than half a century, since the famous report of the Surgeon General about the dangers of smoking, society has struggled to deal with its newfound knowledge. Poskim and many sifrei halacha, too, have reacted to the warnings, although perhaps we have not taken heed sufficiently. In recent years, a new plague, named vaping, arose, presented by some companies as a preferred alternative to smoking. However, in a lengthy exposé, the New York Times (November 24, 2019, page 1) reported that companies such as “Juul” have attempted to lure young people in particular into the dangers of nicotine addiction through false and seductive advertising. Amazingly, “six million adults were introduced to nicotine via e-cigarettes. Millions of high school and middle school students began vaping.” Today, after much research, “Juul is facing an ever growing pile of lawsuits from parents and school districts.”
As Rav Tzadok Hakohein (see beginning of Tzidkas Hatzaddik) often reminds us, the world is full of both darkness and light. On the one hand, there is tremendous evil and spiritual danger, yet the ohr chozer – the reflective light of the Moshiach era – is helping us alleviate, if not eliminate, some of the evil.
An example of this (see Maaseh Avos Siman Labonim 1:41) is the fact that the klalah (curse) upon mankind that it will have to earn its “bread by the sweat of the brow” (Bereishis 3:19) has been largely alleviated by technology. The same holds true for the klalah upon women that childbirth will be painful, which has also somewhat been reduced through various medical innovations. Thus, it is not so unusual to see a reduction in some of the more grievous afflictions of mankind, especially when the tikkun comes through Klal Yisroel. Although we, too, are still suffering from the bane of the internet and other vexations of the yeitzer hara, when we ourselves ameliorate the situation, the entire world improves as well following the overall rule that hakol bishvil Yisroel (Devorim 32:8; Medrash Shmuel to Pirkei Avos, page 225).
An interesting analogy to this may be seen in the posuk which states, “I will cause wild beasts to withdraw from the land” (Vayikra 26:6). The Rogatchover Gaon (Tzofnas Paneiach, Chumash) cites many sources for the fact that the word the Torah uses here, vehishbati, can mean to destroy or “withdraw.” Similarly, chometz requires tashbisu, which can be accomplished through destruction or other methods of elimination. The promise of ending the danger of wild beasts has also been nearly terminated through the universal medium of zoos, aquariums, and the training and taming of various hitherto hazardous creatures. The widespread popularity of safaris is something of a testament to belief in the time when “the wolf will indeed live with the sheep and the leopard will down with the goat” (Yeshayahu 11:6). To be sure, this posuk is subject to a well-known disagreement between the Rambam and the Raavad (Hilchos Melachim 12:1). The Rambam states that nature will not change in the era of Moshiach and this posuk is a metaphor for the fact that Klal Yisroel will have nothing to fear from her former enemies who will have begun to see the light of belief in the One and only G-d. However, the Raavad seems to be of the opinion that the words of the Chumash, as opposed to those of the later nevi’im, are never to be understood as metaphorical, only in the literal sense.
In any case, as the Rambam writes elsewhere, we shall discover the truth of these matters when they happen, G-d willing. However, in the meantime let us take note that the more we improve ourselves, the more everyone in the world benefits as well, besides the kiddush Hashem of once again deserving the brocha of Hashem that “I will strengthen your hand; I will protect you; I will set you for a bris to the people, for a light unto the nations” (Yeshayahu 42:6), bimeheirah beyomeinu.