reflecting pool

My good friend put up a picture on his blog that disturbed me. It felt somehow a little sinister, and so I didn't look any further. There is discussion about how some Avodah Zarah (idolatry) was meant for people to gaze upon and (i guess) eventually adore and worship. I mentioned it to him and he asked me if I thought he should take it down. I told him he should ask a real Rebbe, who knows what is right for him.

And this is the real point. It might have been Avodah Zarah, it might not, it's not clear until the Oral Torah that comes forth from the mouth of a Rav or a Rebbe is brought into play. What is certain though, is that if I start acting on and passing judgement based on my 'feelings,' that would definitely be Avodah Zarah.

Why? Because each of us is born with a yetzer harah, (literally: evil urge) an earthly soul that is mixed with evil. This yetzer harah will try over the course of our lives to trip us up at every oppurtunity. Why? the answer is ultimately because that is God's Will. There are other answers that are more or less satisfying depending on your perspective. In a simplistic sense, the yetzer harah is similar to inertia. At the start of one's drawing closer to HaShem, ie. when you are at rest, it tries to keep you at rest. Then, when you've really gotten moving and you've refined your body, mind, soul, and actions, it will propel you forward, and keep you in motion. The trick here is that because of the nature of the yetzer harah, it's virtually impossible to tell whether it's trying to keep us at rest or keep us in motion. In other words, we can't be sure of where we are in the spectrum.

When I was first getting to know my Rav, he asked me how it was that my name was Yitzhak, a name heavily rooted in judgement, din, and yet my nature seemed completely the opposite. I said that I didn't know, and he asked if I turn my judgement on myself, I said I don't know, perhaps, a little? Only now I've really come to realize where I channel my judgement.

I think out of everything that I know, the personal skepticism that HaShem gave me is the most useful thing I could teach someone. Not that I'm a skeptic at all, I made a decision long ago that any perspective other than the optimistic is a serious waste of time, but that I'm always skeptical about my own intuition, my own insights. In short, I never trust myself completely.

This is vital, because an unwavering faith in oneself can very easily turn into Avodah Zarah, hubris, something that Our Rabbis (Chazal) warned us about in every generation. Our faith in HaShem is meant to be unwavering, our faith in ourselves should always be taken with a grain of salt.

On the other hand, what do we have to go on beyond our own intuition? We can't run to a Rav everytime we want to cook a meal, or tie our shoes. We need to trust ourselves, and we should, within reason.

First off, in the event of an emergency, we must trust our intuition completely, this is obvious from the Torah that all of the mitzwoth are pushed off (נדחה) for the sake of saving a human life.
In other situations the protocol is much more murky, but there are some good guidelines.
  1. Anything that affects ONLY oneself, one has more wiggle-room to rely on one's intuition.
  2. Anything that affects others as well as oneself, well, we need to be much more careful about how the yetzer harah might try to bend our will. Especially in light of how wired we are towards self-preservation. (This is a topic I will have to adress in a different post.)
I'm not going to go too much further with this, simply because there is no end, but I would like to mention two caveats that affect both of the basic principles I just stated.

When dealing with something that only affects oneself, be aware that this is a complete fabrication. Everything we do has a profound affect on the world, either for good or ill. Even moreso, Our Rabbis, (Chazal) tell us not to rely on the merit of our own deeds, for our children will need to rely on them--more broadly stated, all of your actions could affect your future generations. (Think environmental issues--For a complete non-spiritual illustration.)

And lastly, the Mitler Rebbe, the second Lubavitcher Rebbe, said that two people serving God together are more powerful than one person serving God alone, this is because each person's yetzer harah has no interest in tripping up other people, only himself, whereas each person's yetzer tov, (literally: Urge to be good) their Godly soul, is totally dedicated to bringing out the good in everyone. In such a manner, the fight becomes two against one. Similarly the more people one involves in their service of God, the more strength you collectively have to overcome the inertia of the yetzer harah. This is why Our Rabbis repeatedly encourage us to live amongst people who will have a positive influence upon us, good devout people.

Let me just sum up with a traddition of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, one I've mentioned a number of times. He would think a long time on any new behavior before incorporating it into his life. Similarly, we need to go with our instincts in the heat of the moment, where it is appropriate, but we must always be reflecting on our actions looking to see how we could improve them, where our instincts lead us astray.

The goal is not to become paranoid, but to truly recognise the yetzer harah, so that we can take active steps to break out of the confines of our nature.


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