Beit Midrash

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To dedicate this lesson

Underrating Temptation


Rabbi Berel Wein

If there is one lesson that is obvious in studying these few parshiyot that constitute the beginning of our yearly Torah reading it is that temptation and human evil instincts are not easily overcome. They should certainly not be ignored. From the story of Adam and Chava in the Garden of Eden through the stories of Cain and Abel, Noach and his grandson, Canaan, the building of the Tower of Bavel, the fourteen year war of the five kings against the four kings and the behavior of Lot in choosing residence in Sodom over the company of Avraham it seems clear that the evil instinct is usually triumphant in human affairs.

It is clear to parents and teachers how difficult it is to raise moral and gracious children and students. This is not a new problem particular to our times - and iPhones. It has always been difficult to do so. King Solomon taught us that "there is nothing new under the sun." The Torah itself testifies to the fact that "the nature of human beings is evil from the inception of youth."

So the problems that affect the world constantly are personal and not institutional. The problems that arise regarding religious observances and children at risk, etc. are personal and individual – and relate to those children who are tempted obviously by the glitter of the sin that rules the outside world. Though schools and teachers, yeshivot and mentors are far from perfect – they also are only human beings. Changing curriculum, institutions and even personnel is not a guaranteed panacea.

The old saw is "How many psychiatrists does it take to change a light bulb? The answer is: One, but the bulb has to want to be changed!" So, too, is it with humans. Eventually everything is individual and personal.

When Reform became a force in Jewish society in the early nineteenth century Rabbi Yisrael Lipkin of Salant countered with the establishment of the Mussar movement dedicated to improving the ethical and moral behavior of Jews. He pithily remarked, "Reform came to change Judaism. Mussar came to change Jews."

The failure of Reform lies in the fact that it does not change Jews. It does not prevent their assimilation and alienation. It seeks to change the institutions – the official rabbinate, the rabbinic courts, etc. – but it does not make personal demands. The religion has to cater to the individual whether the person is intermarried, completely non-observant, uncommitted to Judaism, given to following one’s own perceived physical desires and blissfully ignorant of the basic tenets and story of Judaism. With Reform, no demands are made upon the person – only on the institutions and the faith itself.

In the Orthodox world, Mussar also failed as a mass movement. Today, externals count for everything while the inner soul is left abandoned in so many instances. But God is not interested, so to speak, in externals. "Humans see superficially with their eyes but the Lord sees the inner heart." There are no easy answers to our ills. New methods of teaching and instruction are valid and necessary but it is the student that has to want to be educated.

The black frock and the white shirt cannot correct a perverse heart. And therefore none of the innovations of our time have met with general success. We are always fiddling with government, schools, institutions, etc. when the real challenge is personal to each individual.

Since the time of the Enlightenment, Western civilization, or at least its academics, has believed history to be a lineal advancement of civilization. The world is getting better always, war will be banished and universal brotherhood and cooperation is just around the corner. The problem is that over the past bloody and oppressive number of centuries that corner has never been turned.

Technology and medicine have certainly advanced in a linear fashion but not human behavior. Because of the gains in technology, wars today are infinitely more destructive and murderous than ever before. Terrorism is more lethal. Crime has not diminished; instead it has become more armed and violent.

Judaism views history as being cyclical. To quote King Solomon again, "What has been will be what will yet be." This is because the battle between good and evil is ultimately personal and individual. An astute American politician once observed: "All politics is local." Well, all morality, goodness and compassion, honesty and true faith are purely personal.

So, we cannot underestimate the forces of evil that are within us and that surround us. They are to be combatted and defeated. But that can only occur if the individual realizes this struggle (called life) is present and is prepared to win that struggle. This will not be accomplished by changing the rules or hoping for panaceas from governments and institutions but by constantly improving one’s self.
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