12 Tishrei 5782 / Saturday, September 18, 2021 | Torah Reading: Ha'azinu
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The Wrong Initiative    

The Wrong Initiative

But when the evil inclination is quiet, and a person chooses on his own to wake it up – that is a particularly serious type of sin, and hence...


The opposite, however, is also true. If a person decided by himself to take a step in the direction of sin, if he deliberately awakens a desire for transgression, the consequences are usually much worse than if temptation came by itself, “from the outside.”
The Talmud (Bava Basra 57b see Maharsha) talks about a case in which a man must choose between two roads that can take him to his destination. One of them passes a river where women are washing their laundry. Since the sight of the women may cause him to have illicit thoughts, the Sages rule that he must take the other route: and if he goes near the river, he is considered to be a rasha, a wicked person – even if he closes his eyes.
The reason is as follows. An ordinary person may have illicit thoughts which come into his mind suddenly and spontaneously - when that happens, he is commanded by the Torah to push away those thoughts and to make God the ruler of his inner, private world. Nevertheless, since those thoughts came against his will, he cannot be held accountable for the fact that they appeared in his mind. When the “arousal to sin” comes “from above,” a person is not responsible for it, although it goes without saying that he must fight against it once it appears. But if a person deliberately chooses a path that leads to such thoughts, he will be held accountable, since he caused those thoughts. When the “arousal to sin” comes “from below,” the consequences are far more severe. So severe, in fact, that he is considered to be a rasha, even if he manages to avoid any improper thoughts while traversing the path.        
From this we see that the power of “an awakening from below” is extremely great, whether it is used for good or for evil.
This also explains a puzzling line in the long confession of sins we recite on Yom Kippur. In the midst of asking God to forgive us for what seems like every imaginable type of sin, we also mention “the sin that we committed before You with the evil inclination.” Aren’t all sins caused by the evil inclination? What does this phrase add?
The answer is that there are times when our evil inclination is not bothering us, yet we choose to arouse it by ourselves. It is normal to have an evil inclination, and whenever it tempts us to sin, we must fight against it. But when the evil inclination is quiet, and a person chooses on his own to wake it up – that is a particularly serious type of sin, and hence requires a special request for forgiveness.
Using the Power of Choice
God gave us a special gift – the power to choose between good and evil. When we use this power to serve Him, we receive a tremendous reward. Even when we feel nothing, and our hearts are as cold as ice, we have the power to sit down and read from the Book of Psalms with great, fiery enthusiasm. Or we can call out to God in prayer from the bottom of our heart until we arouse a genuine feeling of love for Him. Even at a time when everything is going well, we can make a cheshbon hanefesh, a spiritual accounting, to remind ourselves of our real purpose in the world. Or we can resolve to improve our observance of particular mitzvot – even without any special inspiration from above.
In all these cases, we are initiating the relationship with God, and then, even if it seems that no inspiration descends from above, we should still be happy with what we did. For we chose to search for God, and that is infinitely precious to Him – more than we can imagine. Happy is the person who uses his power of choice to serve the Creator. God never withholds a reward from His creatures, and all those who serve Him will eventually receive the reward they have earned.
“Awake, My Glory”
Our Sages tell us that whenever a Psalm begins with the words Mizmor leDovid (literally, “A Song to Dovid”), it means that first Dovid (King David) sang and played music, and then the Shechinah rested upon him. In other words, Mizmor leDovid means “a song (that brought Divine inspiration) to Dovid.” On the other hand, when it says, LeDovid mizmor (literally: “To Dovid, a Song”), it means that first the Shechinah rested upon Dovid, and then, with the inspiration he received from above, he sang these words” (Bava Metzia 84a).
Dovid always tried to take the initiative in his worship of God. It is true that sometimes the Shechinah would come to him, without any effort on his own. But when that didn’t happen, he would start to sing even without Divine inspiration. He would make “an awakening from below,” and then he would be answered from above. This gives us a new understanding of the verse in which Dovid exclaims, “Awake, my glory; awake, O harp and lyre; I will awaken the dawn” (Tehillim 57:9). The simple meaning is that Dovid was telling the harp above his bed to wake him at midnight so that he could sing praises to God in the early hours of the morning. But in a deeper sense, Dovid was speaking to his own soul. He was exhorting himself to awaken spiritually and to cling to God, as he sang to the music of his harp. Then, in response to his efforts, the Shechinah would come to rest upon his soul. For Dovid wanted the Shechinah to rest upon him as a result of his own initiative.
That is also the deeper meaning of Dovid’s words, “I will awaken the dawn,” (Rashi on this verse). The simple meaning is that Dovid did not stay in bed until he was awakened by the light of dawn; he would rise before the dawn to serve God. But the deeper meaning is that Dovid did not wait until the Shechinah came to him with “an awakening from above.” He wanted to bring the light of the Shechinah to himself through his own avodat HaShem, through his own “awakening from below.” (See Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 1:1, with the commentary Turei Zahav)
A Flow of Life
It is written in the Gemara that a person should recite a hundred blessings every day (Pesachim 117a), and the Tur tells us that King Dovid was the source of this law. There was once a plague in which a hundred Jews were dying every day, and no one knew why it had begun or how to end it. Finally, through Divine inspiration, Dovid told everyone to say a hundred blessings every day. When his advice was followed, the plague came to an end (Menachot 43b).
The explanation is as follows. Physical life depends on a constant flow of spiritual life and energy from heaven to the soul; and death is caused by a cessation of that flow. Dovid understood that the life-flow from above is prompted, at least in part, by the “awakening from below” which is made by the Jewish people in their avodat HaShem. Since the life-flow from above was insufficient, it must have been that the “awakening from below” was also insufficient, and hence it was necessary to give God more “satisfaction” from the service of the Jewish people. With Divine inspiration, Dovid understood that the blessings and praises that go up to God from the lower worlds would provide such “satisfaction,” and hence they would engender a new flow of life from above.
We too must draw down a flow of spiritual life and energy into the world, and one way to do this is by following Dovid’s advice, by saying a hundred blessings each day, and by saying them clearly, audibly, and with concentration. This is especially important when we have young children at home, for then they will learn to recite blessings properly, and this will draw down spiritual life and sustenance into the home.
To be continued…
(Excerpt from The Scent of Gan Eden, by Rabbi Yaakov Meir Shechter, Keren Ohr Publications. Used with author's permission.)

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