ויאמר ה’ אל קין: למה חרה לך ולמה נפלו פניך? לוא אם תיטיב, שאת, ואם לא תיטיב, לפתח חטאת רבץ; ואליך תשוקתו ואתה תמשל בו.
(בראשית ד’, ו’-ז’)
With Bereshit we start the Torah from the beginning. This parasha has a lot of beginnings, the obvious one being the creation of the world. But this is also a first for many other things: the first sin, the first murder, the first excuse. In many ways Bereshit is the foundation for many of our traits as human beings. One of these is our propensity to sin.
The two sons of Adam make an offering to God. Abel brings the firstlings of his flock and Cain brings the fruit of the ground. After God rejects Cain’s offering He tells him:
Why are you angry and why is your countenance fallen? If you improve yourself, shall it not be lifted up? And if you do not improve yourself, sin crouches at the doorstep, and its desire is towards you, but you may rule over it.
(Bereshit 4, 6-7)
So our yetzer ha’ra, our evil inclination, is always there, always lurking. It is at the doorstep, willing us to fulfill our desires and commit a sin. But it does not have full control over us, we may yet “rule over it” if we only so desire. There is an evil force blocking the doorway, but we may conquer it and get past it.
Here is a story that may help us understand the meaning of yetzer ha’ra and the significance of overcoming its desire. The head of a yeshiva noticed that one of the students missed classes on Sunday and Monday. This was a very good student who never missed class, so the rabbi approached him on Tuesday asking what happened. After some hesitation, the student replied that the rabbi would not understand. “Try me”, said the rabbi. So the student explained that he went to watch the finals of an important soccer tournament and that, in fact, he would probably be away also tomorrow as it was the final day of the tournament.
The rabbi smiled and asked the student to explain more about this soccer game. “How does one win this game?”, he enquired. The student explained that there are 11 players and the idea is to kick the ball into a large goal. The rabbi frowned and said: “So what’s the problem? Kick the ball into the goal and come back to study!”. The student laughed and explained that there is an opposing team of 11 players, and they have a goalkeeper that stops the ball from going into the goal. The rabbi asked: “Surely the other team does not sleep at the soccer grounds. So why don’t you just slip out at night, put the ball into their goal, and declare victory the next morning?”. The student, perplexed at this bizarre suggestion, answered: “But that wouldn’t be a challenge. If there’s no goalkeeper trying to stop you, then there’s no point in winning!”.
At this point the rabbi gave the student a large smile and said: “Listen to yourself. You’re a good student and it’s no big deal for you to come to yeshiva when there is nothing holding you back. But when the urge to skip class is there, when the yetzer ha’ra is the goalkeeper keeping you from entering the classroom, then it becomes a real challenge. This is when you score the real points in the game.”
The Torah tells us not only about the nature of the yetzer ha’ra as an adversary, but also as a challenger. It challenges us to overcome our desire and to do the right thing. It is always crouching at the doorstep, ready to block us. Our job is to realize that we must overcome it at the point when the urge is the greatest. When it is difficult to do the right thing, it is up to us to make the effort to score the goal.
The idea for this week’s Torah thought is from R. Mordechai Kamenetzky.