Parashat Vayesheve – How to Respond to the Yetzer Hara

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*We read in Parashat Vayeshev that after Yaakov had spent many years working for his father-in-law, Lavan, God appeared to him and commanded him to return to his homeland, Eretz Yisrael. Yaakov summoned his wives and, surprisingly enough, did not simply inform them of God’s command. Instead, he explained to them how he has suffered at the hands of their father Lavan, who attempted to swindle and cheat him countless times. Rachel and Leah similarly responded by voicing their complaints about the way their father mistreated them. Only at the end of their response did they say to Yaakov, “All that God commanded you to do – you should do” (31:16).

This entire exchange between Yaakov and his wives seems very puzzling. Once God issued a command that Yaakov and his family must return to Canaan, what difference did it make whether or not Lavan treated them well? Would Yaakov and his wives have entertained any thoughts of remaining with Lavan, against God’s will, if Lavan had treated them nicely? Seemingly, this entire discussion was unnecessary, insofar as God had explicitly instructed Yaakov to leave.

A number of scholars of Musar (religious ethics) explained that in truth, this exchange reveals an important strategy in responding to the prodding of the Yetzer Hara (evil inclination). The task of the Yetzer Hara is to ruin our lives – both in this world and the next – by convincing us that harmful, damaging behavior is actually beneficial. For example, the Yetzer Hara might attempt to persuade a person that smoking cigarettes is to his benefit, despite the warnings written on the label and the statistics of smoking-related deaths. As we approach an intersection and the light turns yellow, the Yetzer Hara tells us that we have much to gain by accelerating so we can reach the intersection in time before the light turns red. Of course, it is far more beneficial to slow down, reach our destination a minute later, and avoid the risks entailed by speeding. But the Yetzer Hara has the uncanny ability to make bad choices look attractive, to turn our attention away from the detrimental effects of sin and convince us of its benefits. Similarly, many couples accept the Yetzer Hara’s advice to have only one child, so they can “enjoy life” without being bogged down by the responsibilities of raising a large family. Years later, after they retire and when they are too weak to travel, they stay lonely at home while their friends and neighbors enjoy the constant company of their many children and grandchildren.

The strategy for combating these efforts is to beat the Yetzer Hara at his own game. It goes without saying that we must observe the Mitzvot simply because God commanded us to. In theory, no further analysis, rationale or consideration is needed for us to reach the resolute decision to perform Mitzvot and avoid sins. But as Yaakov, Rachel and Leah show us in Parashat Toledot, it is permissible – and in fact advisable – to identify the practical benefits of obeying God’s word. Without doubt, Yaakov and his wives would have obeyed God’s command to leave Lavan even if they had enjoyed royal treatment. However, they nevertheless found it worthwhile to point out the immediate benefits of leaving, so that the Yetzer Hara has no chance of convincing them otherwise. Telling the Yetzer Hara, “I hear what you’re saying, but I’m going to listen to God, not you” is not always effective. We stand a far better chance of resisting his efforts by saying, “You’re completely wrong; I don’t stand to gain by sinning – I stand to lose!”

A young man once described to me how badly he had wanted to spend a lot of money for an expensive watch, and how he thought that this would make him happy. I pointed to the watch he was wearing – which he had purchased several years earlier – and told him that back when he bought that watch, he probably figured that it would make him happy. But now, several years later, the Yetzer Hara comes to him and claims that the old watch can’t bring him happiness anymore, and he therefore needs a newer, fancier, more expensive watch. And if he listens to the Yetzer Hara and purchases the new watch, it won’t be long before he will again be convinced that he needs another watch to be happy.

We must learn to beat the Yetzer Hara at his own game, and remember that a life of Mitzvot and religious devotion is to our benefit – even in this world. Only religious fulfillment can give us the sense of joy and satisfaction that we seek. This should be our response to the lures of the evil inclination: “You’re wrong; I will not achieve happiness or success following your advice.” We will then earn the happiness and satisfaction we seek in this world, as well as our full reward in the world to come.

Adopted from the class of Rabbi Eli Mansour