Day 25: Remember Your Heritage
What tools can I use to make sure I make the best choices?
A fascinating insight found in Midrash Tanchuma (Vayeshev) is that the righteous and the wicked both use their sense of sight, but for different purposes.
"Tzaddikim elevate themselves with their eyes, as it says (Bereishit 22:4), 'And Avraham lifted up his eyes and saw the place from afar.' Regarding Yitzchak, it says (Bereishit 24:63): 'And Yitzchak went out to the field in the evening and he saw...' About Yaakov, it says (Bereishit 33:1): 'And Yaakov lifted up his eyes and saw...'
"But wicked people fall due to their eyes, as it says (Bereishit 13:10): '...and Lot lifted his eyes and he saw the entire plane of Jordan.' This is Sodom. He left Avraham and went to Sodom in order to follow after their bad deeds. Regarding Balak, it says (Bamidbar 22:2): 'And Balak ben Zippor saw...' [and eventually sought to curse the Nation of Israel]."
We all have the G-d-given ability to choose. Every organ and limb can be used constructively, but it can also be used to degrade ourselves and destroy. The moral choice is ours.
Fortunately, we have several weapons at our disposal to help us choose to do the right thing. The combination of our awareness of Hashem (Yirat Shamayim, discussed on Day 11) and Wisdom of the World (the concept that we must be aware of traps in the world, discussed on Day 21) complement each other in the "battle of the eyes." These are powerful deterrents and they are even more effective when you realize who you are - the son of Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov.
We can learn a lot from Yaakov's son, Yosef. It's worth the time reviewing the biblical story. During the time that Yosef was a slave in Egypt, he was appointed household caretaker of an Egyptian government official named Potiphar.
Here he encountered a great test. Potiphar's wife was extremely attracted to Yosef and brazenly tried to seduce him at every opportunity. Yosef's automatic response was to turn away to avoid seeing her. His first line of defense was his intense awareness of Hashem, and it was effective for quite some time in neutralizing her efforts.
Only after repeated attempts over a long period of time was she able to find a chink in his spiritual armor. Nevertheless, Yosef immediately recovered and saved himself from sinning. What did he do?
(1) He saw the image of his father's face.
(2) He ran away from the palace.
Seeing the image of the face of Yaakov, reminded him that he was the descendant of great tzaddikim. It would be beneath his dignity and moral heritage for him to yield to this woman. These thoughts injected him with the strength to bolster his waning awareness of Hashem and helped him gain control.
Why did he run outside? That was the best way of removing Potiphar's wife from his sight. In both of these actions - picturing his father and running outside - he was using what we call Wisdom of the World. He was savvy enough to know that her seduction must be met by determined thought and action.
You, too, are descended from the very same tzaddikim as Yosef. In addition, you are heir to generations of ancestors who sacrificed much to maintain their Judaism. In addition to direct ancestors, you are also the beneficiary of generations of tzaddikim of our great nation. If your eyes are challenged and your Yirat Shamayim is not sufficient, think of the greatest tzaddik you ever met and imagine how he would behave in this situation. Imagine how your ancestors would feel if they could see you now. Know that Hashem is watching you too, as indeed He is.
Rabbi Yisrael Salanter noted that most of us know intellectually that Hashem sees our actions, but the full consciousness of this truth has not yet penetrated our hearts. Our main defense must be Wisdom of the World. In letter 4 of Ohr Yisrael, he writes:"Wisdom of the World will lighten our burden and the awareness of Hashem will strengthen us."
Each one us has fluctuating degrees of Yirat Shamayim. As you continue your efforts to master your eyes, you will learn how to increase your awareness of Hashem and apply the Wisdom of the World. And, like Yosef, you will be able to withstand challenges using these tools and by knowing that you are descended from morally strong forefathers.
Today: Think about your heritage and internalize its meaning. Along with your awareness of Hashem and Mussar study of the Wisdom of the World, it will help you in your battle for Shmirat Einayim.
On the train this morning, I found myself surrounded by immodesty. It felt like the whole world had conspired to weaken my Yirat Shamayim, and I realized that I was losing the battle.
I wasn't strong enough to control my eyes. So I tried to think of everything I could to combat this impulse: I thought about Mike and Gail, and how their marriage fell apart when he lost control of his eyes. I thought about Eddie and Julie and Raymond, and how I must be strong for their sakes as well as mine.
Once I was thinking of my family, my mind conjured images of my grandfather, zichrono l'vrachah. I could see him perfectly in my mind's eye, sitting on the back porch in that regal blue bathrobe of his. What a magnificent person he had been! He treasured his life of Torah and mitzvot so much that he had fled from his anti-Semitic hometown as a boy to preserve it. He used to tell us a lot about those days. Though he never lectured us, there was something about him that demanded respect for the purity of his life and the genuineness of every mitzvah he did. He got that from his father, I suppose. He had the warmest smile.
I realized that I come from a long line of noble Jews. That thought suddenly gave me a sense of dignity and I somehow felt that the temptations around me were not worthy of my attention. So I pulled a book out of my briefcase, one I carry for this very purpose. I had chosen it one day when I realized that there are circumstantial traps like this one. It helped me distract myself from the people around me.
Grandpa would have been proud.
These e-mails are excerpts taken from the book "Windows of the Soul" by Rabbi Zvi Miller of the Salant Foundation.