By: Rabbi Eli J. Mansour
It was the largest “vacation” ever. But soon after the Exodus from Egypt began, Pharaoh rescinded his decision to let the Nation of Israel free, and pursued the former slaves, trapping them against the sea. In an act witnessed by millions, Gd saved His people by splitting the waters, allowing them safe passage, and then drowning the Egyptian army that had followed them.
What Did the Sea See?
The Sages teach that a miracle of this kind, saving the “vacationing” Jews from mortal peril, could not have occurred without some special merit on the nation’s record. There must have been some extraordinary missva performed by somebody among Beneh Yisrael, or by their forebears, to render them worthy of experiencing this miraculous event. Indeed, a verse in the Book of Tehillim (114:3), in the second paragraph of the Hallel text, describes the miracle of the sea as follows: “Hayam ra’a vayanos – The sea saw, and fled.” Our Sages noted that the sea did not split until it “saw” something. The raging ocean waters would not have receded unless they “saw” some special merit, on account of which they reversed their natural course.
What the waters saw, the Midrash teaches, was the merit of Yosef, who had fled from Potifar’s wife. Recall that while Yosef served as a slave in Potifar’s home in Egypt, Potifar’s wife tried to seduce Yosef. Just seventeen years old, Yosef heroically resisted the woman’s advances, even when she grabbed his garment. The Torah says that Yosef fled – “vayanos” (Beresheet 39:12) – leaving his garment in the hands of Potifar’s wife. The verse in Tehillim uses this same term – “vayanos” – to describe the water’s retreat to allow Beneh Yisrael passage, suggesting a connection between the two incidents. The Sages thus explain that the sea split in Yosef’s merit, in reward for Yosef’s “escape” from the clutches of his master’s wife.
Elsewhere, the Midrash comments that Gd rewarded Yosef for resisting temptation by raising him to royal stature in Egypt. The honor and prestige which he enjoyed as Egyptian vizier came as a reward for passing the test posed by Potifar’s wife. Interestingly enough, Yosef received a far greater reward – the splitting of the sea, which saved the lives of some two million people – for the specific act of “fleeing” from Potifar’s home.
What was so unique about Yosef’s “fleeing”? Why did this particular aspect of his resistance to Potifar’s wife render his progeny worthy of experiencing one of the greatest supernatural events of all time?
“Fleeing” from the Evil Inclination
Rav Haim Shmuelevitz, in one of his classic discourses, explained that Yosef’s conduct in this incident demonstrates the importance of avoiding situations of spiritual danger. Yosef’s greatest reward was for not merely overcoming the yesser hara (evil inclination), but for avoiding the yesser hara. He realized that every second he spent resisting Potifar’s wife posed another difficult spiritual challenge – and that his success in withstanding the pressure until this point did not guarantee that he would succeed again. Yosef therefore fled, he escaped the clutches of the yesser hara. Even though it was possible that he would triumph over his passions, it was also possible that he would not – and so he ran from Potifar’s home.
A recovering alcoholic does not overcome his addiction by keeping liquor on his kitchen table, so he can see it each day and try to avoid it. Nor would any therapist recommend that he enter bars every night, inhale the smell of alcohol, and then leave without taking a drink. If he is serious about recovering, then he avoids alcohol to whatever extent he can. He does not trust in his ability to withstand constant temptation. And even if it so happens that he finds himself near a drink but abstains, he will not trust in his ability to abstain the next time.
This should be our strategy in handling the yesser hara. The Sages admonish in Pirkeh Avot, “Do not believe in yourself until the day you die.” We should never feel fully confident in our personal strength to withstand challenges. Of course, when we are tested, we must muster all our willpower and resolve to resist. But we shouldn’t be looking for unnecessary challenges. As it is, life poses enough challenges, and places us in enough situations that test our religious commitment. The yesser hara certainly does not need our help. It is quite capable on its own of making things difficult at times for the observant Jew. We have our hands full already with the challenges we cannot avoid; the last thing we want to do is to bring on new tests. Like Yosef, we should be fleeing from the yesser hara, not looking for additional confrontations.
King David’s Mistake
A striking example of this concept is an episode recorded in the Talmud (Sanhedrin 107) involving no less a spiritual giant than King David. David wondered why in the Amida prayer we refer to Gd as “the Gd of Avraham, the Gd of Yizhak and the Gd of Yaakov,” without adding that He is also “the Gd of David.” In David’s mind, his close relationship with the Almighty was equal to that of the three patriarchs, and thus he deserved to be mentioned with them in the Amida service. Gd, however, explained to David that he had not reached the stature of Avraham, Yizhak and Yaakov, all of whom had to withstand difficult spiritual tests. David, while certainly earning his place as a towering sadik, did not have to confront the kind of challenges that the righteous patriarchs overcame.
David then replied to Gd, “So I am prepared to be challenged like the patriarchs were. I am ready to prove that I am on their stature of piety!”
Sure enough, Gd put David to the test, and arranged that he would see Batsheva as he strolled along the balcony of his palace. As we know, David was unable to withstand this test.
The Talmud states in reference to this incident, “A person should never bring a test upon himself.” We should allow Gd – and only Gd – to choose which tests to give us. He knows which tests we are capable of withstanding, and which are beyond our capabilities. If He tests us, then we can rest assured that we have it within ourselves to succeed. But if we bring upon ourselves unnecessary spiritual challenges and voluntarily place ourselves in a situation of spiritual danger, as King David did, there is no such guarantee, and we run the real risk of failure. King David mistakenly presumed his ability to withstand all religious challenges, only to discover that he could not. Certainly, then, we, who are very far from the stature of King David, must avoid spiritual pitfalls, even if we feel confident in our ability to jump over them.
If we passed by a burning building, would we go inside to prove that we could escape? Would this adventure be worth the deadly risks involved? Firefighters have no choice but to rush to the scene to extinguish the blaze. But the rest of us have no business putting ourselves in that kind of dangerous position. And if this is true with regard to physical danger, then it certainly applies to spiritual danger. We should be no more willing to risk our spiritual lives than our physical lives. If a certain place or situation poses a spiritual challenge, we owe it to ourselves to heed the warning sign and stay far away.
The Insanity Plea
The Talmud in Masechet Sota makes a comment that, at first glance, calls into question the entire notion of culpability for sin: “A person does not commit a sin unless a ru’ah shetut enters inside him.” The sages here implicitly address the fundamental question of how it is possible for somebody to sin. If we recognize the eternal repercussions of sin, and are aware of the grave punishments we incur, how do we violate Gd’s word?
The Talmud answers by attributing all wrongdoing to a “ru’ah shetut” – loosely translated as, “spirit of insanity” – that overtakes a person. In other words, a person would never commit a religious offense in his normal mental state. It is only when one is overcome by a temporary condition of “insanity” that he is prone to sin.
In secular law, defense attorneys often use the “insanity plea” to help their clients avoid a conviction. If a defendant can prove that his rational faculties were dysfunctional at the time he committed the act, he earns an acquittal. Shouldn’t this plea work on our behalf in Gd’s court? If we commit sins only as a result of a “ru’ah shetut,” why are we ever held accountable? Aren’t we always “innocent due to temporary insanity”?
The answer is, quite simply, that we are guilty for exposing ourselves to the “ru’ah shetut,” for putting ourselves in a position where we will likely be overcome by this “spirit of insanity.” If we are asked to watch a valuable object for our friend, and a tornado strikes the home and destroys the object, we are obviously not held responsible. But if we place the object on our roof during a windstorm, and it is blown away, we are certainly guilty of negligence. The same is true of our souls, the most precious object with which we are entrusted. Gd holds us accountable not for the actions we commit while we are overcome by the “ru’ah shetut,” but rather for making ourselves vulnerable to the “ru’ah shetut” in the first place. For many of us, it might be impossible to sit with a certain group of friends and refrain from gossip. If this is indeed the case, then Gd will not find us guilty for speaking gossip in that situation – but He will certainly convict us for sitting with that group of friends. Even if the “insanity plea” can absolve us from guilt with respect to the action committed, we have no excuse for putting ourselves in that position before the “insanity” set in.
A joke is told of a man who was ticketed for driving through a red light. He protested the penalty, and came before the judge.
“Your Honor,” he said, “it is not my fault that I drove through the red light. I was driving 80 mph – there was no way I could stop in time!”
The man was correct that he could not stop at the light. But whose fault was that? What right did he have to put himself in a position where he would be unable to obey the law? Similarly, we might find ourselves incapable of “stopping” when the halachic “traffic light” turns “red.” The question is, why did we put ourselves in that position to begin with? What were we doing taking risks with our spiritual well-being?
LUI – “Living Under the Influence”
This is why Judaism has always taken such a strong stance against drinking alcohol in excess. In fact, the Rambam (Rabbi Moshe Maimonides, 1135-1204) goes so far as to equate drunkards with animals. It is the human intellect which sets people apart from animals; a person who neutralizes his intellect through intoxication thus effectively divests himself of his humanity and lowers himself to the stature of animals. If we are warned to avoid the “ru’ah shetut” which clouds our senses and reasoning, then we must certainly not turn off our rational faculties by drinking to the point of intoxication.
Contemporary society glorifies drinking. Successful corporate tycoons celebrate closings by getting drunk. Major life events and holidays in the US and many other countries are celebrated with “open bar” parties which practically encourage drunkenness. In fact, the ability to ingest large quantities of alcohol is considered enviable by many.
Contrast this with the Torah’s attitude toward intoxication. In the Book of Bamidbar (chapter 6), the Torah introduces the concept of nezirut, a voluntary vow that imposes upon the individual several restrictions, including a prohibition against drinking wine. What underlies the institution of nezirut? What would prompt a person to undertake these voluntary restrictions? The Gemara (beginning of Masechet Sota) explains the concept of nezirut by noting that the Torah discusses this topic immediately after presenting the laws of the sota, the infidel woman. A husband who has reason to suspect his wife of infidelity would bring her to the Bet Hamikdash where a special ritual was performed. If she was guilty, then a miracle would occur and the woman would die in full view of all the onlookers. A person who observes this sorrowful spectacle will, in all likelihood, begin analyzing the situation and thinking how the tragedy could have been avoided. The woman probably attended a party, had too much to drink, started socializing flirtatiously, and ultimately betrayed her husband. These thoughts naturally inspire a person to undertake the nazirite vow, to abstain from wine in order to avoid sin.
The Torah denounces intoxication in the strongest of terms because it can so easily cause a person to act improperly. Even on Purim, when it is customary to drink, it is forbidden to become inebriate if this will pose even the slightest risk of missing a single beracha, uttering a single inappropriate word, or causing any form of physical or emotional harm to one’s fellow. The Torah does not sanction any form of spiritual risk. To the contrary, we are required to avoid spiritual dangers and stay far away from any situations which lend themselves to religious compromises.
Secular law forbids “driving under the influence” of alcohol because it impairs one’s ability to drive safely. Judaism goes much further, forbidding “living under the influence” – for the precisely same reason, because alcohol impairs one’s ability to live safely.
Have a (Spiritually) Safe Trip
January is usually the month when we read the sections in the Torah dealing with the story of the Exodus from Egypt. Appropriately enough, it is also the time when our community witnesses an “exodus” of its own, as countless families hit the airways for a well-deserved and much-anticipated vacation from work and school.
Undoubtedly, vacation plays a vital role in allowing people to clear their heads, rejuvenate, and enjoy quality time with family. Unfortunately, however, these benefits often come with dangerous side effects. For too many otherwise observant Jews, travel is a time to lower religious standards and expectations, to allow themselves and their children freedoms and opportunities that are, for very good reason, denied back home. Kashrut standards become far too flexible, and people participate in recreational activities that should be off-limits to any conscientious Jew. Travel can, in many instances, be a very dangerous period.
Before vacation, we often wish each other, “Have a safe trip.” And this is my sincere wish to all travelers. Keep a safe distance from spiritual dangers. Avoid situations that compel you to compromise the religious standards you maintain here at home. And don’t allow your children to lose in one or two weeks all that they’ve gained throughout the school year.
I once visited the Norman Rockwell Museum in Massachusetts, which exhibits Rockwell’s paintings. The displays are equipped with special sensors that sound an alarm if a visitor comes within several feet of the painting. As the museum affords great value to these pieces of art, it takes great pains to keep them far away from potential harm. Our souls are far more precious and valuable than any piece of artwork. Let us keep them safe and out of harm’s way, and not do anything or go anywhere that will put our or our children’s spiritual lives at risk. Let us have our own “sensors,” and heed the “alarm” that sounds whenever we come too close to danger.