Be the Master of Your Mind
RABBI WAGENSBERG ON PARSHAS MISHPATIM
“Be the Master of Your Mind”
A verse in Parshas Mishpatim says, “If a man will act intentionally against his fellow to murder him with cunningness, from My Altar must you take him to die” (21:14). This means that it is forbidden to spare the murderer even if he is a distinguished person whose services are needed by the nation.
However, the Maggid of Kozhnitz (Rabbi Yisrael Hopstien, 1737-1814, Poland), in his Avodas Yisrael, says that this pasuk teaches us about a segula (charm) that we could implement in order to overcome the Yetzer Hara (evil inclination) who plagues our brains with evil thoughts. We will see this hint in a moment; however, we must first introduce what it says in the Arizal’s Siddur (Siddur Rebbi Shabtai, Seder Halimud).
The Arizal (Rabbi Yitzchak Luria, 1534 Yerushalayim-1572 Tzfas) says that the Ramak (Rabbi Moshe Cordovero, 1522-1570, Tzfas) received a teaching from Eliyahu Hanavi (Elijah the Prophet) who said that we can nullify evil thoughts by reciting the verse, “A permanent fire must remain aflame on the Altar, it may not be extinguished” (Parshas Tzav, 6:6).
With this teaching from Eliyahu Hanavi, we can see how the pasuk from Parshas Mishpatim teaches us about a segula to overcome the Yetzer Hara of sinful thoughts. According to the Kozhnitzer Maggid, this is how we are to understand the pasuk:
“When a man will act intentionally,” meaning, when the Yetzer Hara will act intentionally,
“Against his fellow,” referring to the Yetzer Tov (they are called fellows because they live next to each other within a person’s heart [Parshas Vaeschanan, (6:5), Mishna Berachos, chap. 9 “Haroeh”, Mishna 5, pg. 54a].
“To murder him with cunningness,” meaning, to inject within the person crooked and false thoughts. Then, the piece of advice is…
“From My Altar you must take,” meaning, you must take something from the Altar to help you fight against those malevolent thoughts. That which you must take from the Altar is a verse which talks about the Altar. That verse is, “A permanent fire must remain aflame on the Altar, it may not be extinguished” (Parshas Tzav, 6:6). This means that the person must recite this verse, because when he does….
“You will take him to die,” meaning, you will be able to kill that Yetzer Hara.
The Shvilei Pinchas says that the simplistic way of understanding how the recitation of this verse helps a person overcome malicious thoughts, is as follows.
This “charm” verse is found in the context of a Korban Olah (Burnt-offering; See Parshas Tzav, 6:2), and a Korban Olah atones for bad thoughts (Vayikra Rabba, Parshas Tzav, 7:3, Rashb”I, Rebbi Levi, based on Yechezkel, 20:32). So, when evil thoughts “olah” (come up upon a person’s mind), the “Olah” offering atones for it. Therefore, the recitation of a verse from within the topic of a Korban Olah, helps a person overcome negative thoughts that “olah,” (comes up) upon his mind.
However, there is even something inherent within this verse that assists a person’s battle against improper thoughts. The Zohar in Raya M’hemna (Parshas Tzav, pg. 28b) interprets our segula verse in the following way.
“A continual fire must burn on the Altar,” means that the fire of Torah must burn within us. After all, the Torah is compared to fire, as it says, “Behold My word is like fire, the word of Hashem” (Yirmiya, 23:29).
“It may not be extinguished,” meaning, no sin could extinguish the Torah.
Taking it from the top, “A continual fire may not be extinguished,” means, a person must engage in Torah study continually (Yehoshua, 1:8), because then the Yetzer Hara will not be able to have power over him.
This is because it is only the study of Torah that has the power to win our battles against the Yetzer Hara (Meseches Kiddushin, chap. 1, “Ha-isha Niknis”, pg. 30b).
The Shvilei Pinchas adds that the study of Torah not only empowers us to overcome the Evil Inclination, but Torah study transforms us into something holy. The Gemara in Meseches Sanhedrin (chap. 6, “Nigmar Hadin”, pg. 43b) tells us that we can sacrifice the Yetzer Hara to Hashem. When we do, we become like an Altar upon which we sacrifice the Yetzer Hara as a korban to Hashem. We succeed in sacrificing the Yetzer Hara with Torah study. Therefore, the very breath which emanates from our mouths when we speak in words of Torah is likened to the smoke that rose up to Hashem from the Altar.
There is another Gemara which supports this idea that through the study of Torah, we become like the Altar upon which we sacrifice the Yetzer Hara to Hashem. Rebbi Berachya said that if a person today wants to fulfil the mitzva of pouring wine on the Altar (Nissuch Hayayin, wine libations) he should serve a Talmud Chacham (Torah Scholar) wine because when the wine goes down the Talmud Chacham’s throat, it is as if the wine went down the bowls on the Altar (Yoma, chap. 7, “Bo Lo Kohen Gadol”, pg. 71a; Sukka, chap. 4, Lulav Va’arava, Mishna 9, pg. 48a). This is because through the Talmud Chacham’s Torah learning, he was able to sacrifice his Yetzer Hara to Hashem on a constant basis.
The Shvilei Pinchas adds another way in which the recitation of our “charm” verse helps ward off criminal thoughts. It is based on a teaching that the Arugas Habosem (Rabbi Moshe Greenwald, 1853-1910, Hungary) heard from the second Belzer Rebbe (Rabbi Yehoshua Rokeach of Belz, the Mittler Rav, 1825-1894, Western Ukraine) in the name of the Ba’al Shem Tov (Rabbi Yisrael, 1698-1760, Ukraine).
The Ba’al Shem Tov said that if a positive mitzva presents itself to a person, but he feels that it is too hard for him to do, he should verbally recite a verse from the Torah which talks about that mitzva. The very recitation of the verse will give the person the strength to do the mitzva anyway.
The same rule of thumb could be applied with respect to protecting us from bad thoughts. The mere recitation of a verse that is connected to the cure against improper thoughts will give us the strength to overcome them. That verse is our segula verse in which it says, “The fire [of Torah] must burn [within the person] continually, it [the study of Torah] may not be extinguished.”
When we say this verse, and live up to its expectation, which is to learn Torah as much as we can, then we will be protected from evil thoughts (see Rambam, Hilchos Issurei Biya, 22:21).
At this point, we are going to analyze the words of the Avodas Yisrael that we began with above, and share a deeper meaning of them. The Maggid of Kozhnitz said that the verse in our parsha, Parshas Mishpatim (21:14), must be understood in the following way. “If a man [Yetzer Hara] will act intentionally against his fellow [the Yetzer Hatov] to murder him with trickery [with crooked thoughts], from My Altar take it [a verse and recite it, because then you will be able to kill him, the Yetzer Hara, and cause him] to die.”
We must wonder why the Maggid of Kozhnitz emphasized “crooked” thoughts? Why not just talk about “bad” thoughts? What crooked and cunning thoughts was he referring to? This question will be addressed by a teaching from the Ba’al Shem Tov, a Tosafos, and a Gemara.
The Gemara in Meseches Shabbos (chap. 7, “Klal Gadol”, pg. 75a) asks, “Why is a Shochet (slaughterer) liable for shechting (slaughtering) [on Shabbos]? Rav says, because of coloring.” It is difficult to understand what Rav is talking about because the blood that schpritzes out of the animal onto the shochet’s apron is not coloring; it is soiling, and there is no prohibition to soil a garment on Shabbos. So, what was Rav talking about?
The Tosafists attempt to answer this question by saying that we are talking about the “Shochet d’Alma” (the slaughterer of the world). Now it is difficult to understand what Tosafos is talking about. What does a “slaughterer of the world” mean? Was there some popular butcher to whom everybody brought their chickens? Besides, how does a “slaughterer of the world” explain Rav’s opinion who said that the slaughterer is liable for coloring?
The Ba’al Shem Tov explains Tosafos by saying that the “slaughterer of the world” refers to the Yetzer Hara who is the same angel as the Malach Hamaves (angel of death; Baba Basra, chap. 1, “Hashutfin”, pg. 16a, Reish Lakish). The Malach Hamaves slaughters every person’s body through death, and the Yetzer Hara slaughters everybody’s soul through sin. Thus, he is referred to as the “slaughterer of the world.”
There is one more piece of information necessary to explain this Gemara in Meseches Shabbos. That piece of information is the Gemara in Meseches Sukkah (chap. 5, “Hachalil”, pg. 52a) which quotes Rebbi Yehuda as saying, “In the future [in the Messianic Era] Hashem will bring the Yetzer Hara and slaughter him.” How do you like that? The slaughterer gets slaughtered himself!
The Ba’al Shem Tov says that since the Gemara in Sukkah just said that God will destroy the Yetzer Hara in the End of Days, the Gemara in Shabbos asks, “Why is the slaughterer [the Malach Hamaves] liable [to be put to death].” In other words, the Gemara in Shabbos is not asking a Hilchos Shabbos question about slaughtering an animal on the Sabbath day. Rather, this Gemara in Shabbos is a bit Zoharic in nature.
This Gemara in Shabbos is asking why will the Yetzer Hara – Malach Hamaves get the death penalty in the future? Is it because he caused people to sin? That cannot be because it was Hashem Himself Who appointed the Yetzer Hara to tempt people to sin. The temptation to sin is what makes reward and punishment meaningful. Since the Yetzer Hara carried out the will of God, he should not be punished for it. On the contrary, he should be rewarded and promoted for it.
The Ba’al Shem Tov says that now we can understand Rav’s answer. Rav understood the deep question that the Gemara was asking. Therefore, Rav said that the reason why the Yetzer Hara-Malach Hamaves [slaughterer of the world] is liable to receive the death penalty at the End of Days is because of “coloring.” This means that when Hashem appointed the Yetzer Hara to try to tempt people to sin, there were very specific instructions as to how to go about doing that.
Hashem told the Yetzer Hara to try and get people to sin when the sin is recognizably wrong to the person. The person must know that he is indeed sinning. Meaning, Hashem wanted the Yetzer Hara to make a recognizable sin so attractive that we do it anyway, knowing that we sinned. The Yetzer Hara certainly does this to us.
However, the Yetzer Hara created a new method of how to get people to sin. This new approach was to take a sin and decorate it to make it look as though it is a mitzva. The Yetzer Hara took sins and began painting them as mitzvos. In this way, people do not even detect that they are sinning. People would now begin to justify and rationalize that what they are doing is actually a mitzva. This is something that Hashem never instructed the Yetzer Hara to do.
By the way, according to this approach, we must say that the Yetzer Hara, and perhaps other angels, have free choice. This is how the Yetzer Hara could choose to implement something that he was never instructed to do. This topic about angels and free will is beyond the scope of this article. However, it is a discussion worth exploring.
In any case, this is what Rav meant when he said the slaughterer [Malach Hamaves-Yetzer Hara] was liable for “coloring.” Since the Yetzer Hara colors sins to make them appear as mitzvos, which is something that he should have never done, he will be slaughtered himself at the End of Days.
The Shvilei Pinchas says that now we can understand why the Avodas Yisrael emphasized “crooked” thoughts that the Yetzer Hara plagues us with. It is because he was referring to the trickery of the Yetzer Hara who confuses us into thinking that sins are really mitzvos. That is a very crooked way of thinking.
The only way we can overcome such an opponent is through the study of Torah, as we mentioned above from the Gemara in Kiddushin, and as was hinted to with the “charm” verse about burning a continual fire. Let us explain how Torah study can spare us the grief of falling prey to a Yetzer Hara who has put up a smokescreen which clouds our judgement.
Rabbi Tzvi Elimelech of Dinov, Poland (1783-1841) says in his Sefer Agra d’Kallah (Parshas Korach; this is the same author as the B’nei Yissasschar) that when we think that a certain activity is a mitzva, Torah study will help us clarify if it is indeed is a mitzva. If it is truly a mitzva, it should be found somewhere in Shas, Poskim, Rambam, and Shulcha Aruch. If we search but find no source to this “mitzva,” there is a good chance that it is a sin.
Additionally, when we enter into a Beis Midrash (study hall) to learn Torah (see Meseches Kiddushin, chap. 1, “Ha-isha Niknis”, pg. 30b), there are typically elders, righteous people, and Torah giants who spend their time learning there. Then we have access to leaders who can objectively advise us if this particular project is actually a mitzva or if it is a sin cloaked in false-righteousness.
The Shvilei Pinchas says that this entire approach will shed new light on the following Gemara in Meseches Berachos (chap. 1, “M’eimasai”, pg. 5a). Either Rava or Rav Chisda said that if a person notices that troubles are piling up on him, he should check into his actions to find the cause of his suffering (see Eicha, 3:40). If he examined his ways but could find nothing wrong, then he should assume that these terrible things are probably happening to him because of bitul Torah (not spending enough time learning Torah; see Tehillim, 94:12).
One question we could raise on this Gemara is, “If he searched and found nothing wrong, why assume that it was because of bitul Torah? Maybe it is because of some other sin that he is guilty of. Just as he did not detect bitul Torah, maybe there is some other sin that he did not detect. Why assume that it was because of bitul Torah?”
The Shvilei Pinchas answers this question by saying that if the person examined his deeds and could not find anything wrong, it is a sign that he has already fallen into the Yetzer Hara’s trap of convincing him that everything he has done has been a mitzva. Therefore, the only solution for this person is to know that he has not spent sufficient time learning Torah, because if he did, the Torah would have illuminated his eyes to see what is an authentic mitzva and what is a facade.
As we said before, the fire of Torah must burn within us continually, by day and by night, in order to protect ourselves from this tricky Yetzer Hara. The Shvilei Pinchas concludes by sharing with us the benefit of daytime learning as opposed to the advantage of nighttime learning.
Daytime learning has the power of nullifying a daytime Yetzer Hara, A daytime Yetzer Hara is when he tries to get us to sin when the sin is recognizably wrong. When the sin is as “clear as day,” daytime learning will help us avoid them.
However, nighttime learning has the power of nullifying a nighttime Yetzer Hara. A nighttime Yetzer Hara is when he tries to get us to sin when the sin appears to be a mitzva. This is a dark Yetzer Hara, because his trickery and cunningness has us so confused that we don’t even know if we are coming or going. Nighttime learning will help us uncover the truth so that we do not fall prey to these illusions.
This entire teaching was based on a verse from this week’s parsha, Parshas Mishpatim (21:14) which said, “If a man [Yetzer Hara] will act intentionally against his fellow [the Yetzer Tov] to murder him with cunningness [by making a sin appear as a mitzva], from My Altar must you take [a verse and recite it so that you can kill that Yetzer Hara and cause him] to die.”
That verse is, “A permanent fire [Torah] must burn continually [within us] on the Altar [which is us], it [the study of Torah] may not be extinguished [by day or by night]” (Parshas Tzav, 6:6). Again, it is not just the recitation of this verse which serves as a charm against the Yetzer Hara, it is living up to its message, which is increased Torah study.
One practical application of this teaching would be to recite this seguladika verse from Parshas Tzav (6:6) once a day. By the way, this verse is found in the Korbanos that we say before Shacharis. It is found in the second paragraph of Korbanos which is taken from Parshas Tzav, 6:1-6.
When we say this verse, let us be reminded of its message which is to increase our Torah learning, especially at night, and thus be illuminated to the point that we are not fooled by the Yetzer Hara’s tricks.
So, may we all be blessed to be even more on fire with Torah by day and by night, so that we become like the Altar with its smoke, upon which we will be able to slaughter the Yetzer Hara who tries to make us sin outright and who tries to make us think that a sin is a mitzva, thus cleansing our minds from crooked thoughts, and thus merit to live in a Yetzer Hara free world.