A Dualist Outlook

  • Rav Elyakim Krumbein

THE VILNA GAON

By Rav Elyakim Krumbein

 

Shiur #11: A DUALIST OUTLOOK

 

 

I. THE YETZER HA-RA THAT DISGUISES ITSELF IN MITZVOT

 

            In the previous shiur, we examined a fundamental element in the Gra's moral world: perishut, separation from the worldly. We saw the important role played by separation in social conduct, which is meant to free time and energy for Torah study, and also to serve as a protection against various sins. Now I wish to broaden the canvas and examine the Gra's moral outlook in general.

 

            Man's struggle with his yetzer ha-ra (evil impulse) is a central component of Jewish ethics. In this framework I wish to raise two questions, one fundamental question and one practical question: Fundamentally – why must a person struggle with his yetzer? And practically – how is he to do this? It seems that a good place to deal with these questions is the situation in which the yetzer ha-ra appears not in the context of sin, but just the opposite, in the context of a mitzva. Here we can relate to the yetzer itself as a separate entity, in a situation in which all the other objective data is in order.

 

            Chapter 7 of the book of Mishlei deal with the seductions of a harlot. According to the Gra, in his commentary to that chapter, the harlot is a metaphor for the yetzer ha-ra in general:

 

I discerned among the youths, a young man void of understanding, passing through the street near her corner; and he went the way to her house, in the twilight, in the evening, in the blackness of a dark night: and behold, there met him a woman with the attire of a harlot, and wily of heart… So she caught hold of him, and kissed him, and with an impudent face said to him, I have had to sacrifice peace offerings; this day have I paid my vows. So I came out to meet you, diligently to seek your face, and I have found you. (vv. 7-15)

 

            Why does the harlot note (v. 14) the fact that she had paid her vows that day, and "so" she came out to meet the young man and seduce him? The Gra explains the matter as follows:

 

For the yetzer ha-ra does not come to a person to seduce him to commit a sin, for who would listen to it. Rather it comes to him with mitzvot, and through them it draws the person after it. This is the meaning of the peace offerings, because peace offerings involve a great mitzva of eating and rejoicing, and with this the yetzer ha-ra draw hims, for the yetzer ha-ra only comes with eating and rejoicing… And similarly all the seductions of the yetzer ha-ra are with something that is good and evil, for it cannot seduce with something that is totally evil, and there is no good thing with which it can seduce like eating that involves a mitzva and rejoicing that involves a mitzva, and with these it can draw him very well. Accordingly it says that a person should consider the fact that there is no eating that involves a mitzva more than peace offerings, for even on Shabbat a person can exempt himself with a pie of fish-hash it he makes it in honor of Shabbat. But the eating of a peace offering is a mitzva, and a person must also be careful that he not leave a part of the sacrifice past the time it is permitted to be eaten, and eating it with joy is also a positive mitzva, as it says: "And you eat peace offerings and rejoice, etc."… A person must be exceedingly vigilant and careful that the yetzer ha-ra not take hold of him there.

 

            The joyful eating of a peace offering is an important mitzva, but it is precisely such a mitzva that opens the door and allows the yetzer ha-ra to come in and take control of the person. The festive eating of the peace offering, the physical enjoyment – that is the essence of the mitzva. "The yetzer ha-ra only comes with eating and rejoicing." The Gra continues his description of the seduction:

  

"So I came out," since I have a mitzva like this in my hand, and I know that you love mitzvot, and I love you very much. So I came out to seek you out so that you may perform the mitzva… And when he is involved in the delights of the mitzva, then the yetzer ha-ra says to him: Why do you forsake this world which is good and beautiful…

 

            What follows from here is that eating is indeed a great mitzva, but it poses a danger, because a person is liable to wallow in his eating and other this-worldly pleasures, and thereby forget his spiritual destiny in the world-to-come. What is needed here is extreme caution.

 

            We must be precise in our reading of the Gra's words. The mitzva is indeed a mitzva, that is to say, the fact that a person derives physical pleasure from a mitzva is not seen here as a flaw.[1] The concern about which the Gra issues his warning is that a person is liable to be drawn away by such a mitzva and suffer a corruption of his ways.

 

II. THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN THE GRA AND THE BESHT (RABBI ISRAEL BAAL SHEM TOV)

 

            We can reach a clearer understanding of the Gra's approach by comparing it to the Chassidic approach to the same topic. What follows is an excerpt from "Ba'al Shem Tov al ha-Torah" (Bereishit, no. 165):

 

"For there is not a just man upon earth, that does good, and sins not" (Kohelet 7:20). That is to say, that there not be in that good some [ulterior] motive or sin. This is impossible, because when a person performs a good deed with no evil component, the yetzer ha-ra is provoked. This is not the case when the yetzer ha-ra sees that there is an intermingling [of good and evil], he leaves him alone and goes away, and then the person can finish the matter and do it for its own sake afterwards. This is what is meant by: "I thought on my ways, and turned my feet to Your testimonies" (Tehilim 119:59). That is to say, regarding every matter of mitzva or holiness, at first "I thought on my ways" - for my own material pleasure. But afterwards "I turned my feet to Your testimonies," that is to say, "my feet" (ragli) – "my customary practice" (hergel), that I was accustomed [to perform the mitzva not for its own sake], (but) then I did it for its own sake.

 

            First of all, the Besht and the Gra disagree about the following question: What is the danger posed by the yetzer ha-ra, when it appears in the framework of a mitzva? The Gra is worried that the person will become accustomed to material pleasure, and then be drawn after the seductions of this world, and he will abandon his study of Torah and service of God. The Besht, on the other hand, sees a moral flaw (referred to here as "sin") in the very intermingling of a material motive in the performance of a mitzva. We are dealing here with different assessments of the role of the intention "for the sake of Heaven" in the observance of mitzvot. The Gra expresses the halakhic position which states that we do not disqualify a mitzva performed for the sake of the mitzva, even if it is accompanied by some material and egotistical motive. Accordingly, the Gra does not speak of a need "to purify" the eating itself from material pleasure, but only to restrain one's impulses so that they not distance him from the path of Torah. The Besht views this situation as one of sin, and insists that a person aspire to observe mitzvot with no trace of a motive of personal pleasure. This position reflects the centrality of the motivation of the heart in Chassidic thought.

 

            The Besht and the Gra disagree about another point as well. How is a person to deal with this danger? The Besht proposes that a person not take on his material desires frontally. The reason is that even if the person defeats his yetzer and succeeds to observe the mitzva totally "for the sake of Heaven," the very struggle provokes the yetzer to come back and try again. A person who stubbornly refuses the yetzer ha-ra entry into his heart guarantees for himself a long-term struggle with his yetzer. It is preferable, argues the Besht, to approach the mitzva with full awareness and acceptance of material pleasure, for in that way the yetzer ha-ra will "calm down" after receiving what is due it, and then leave him be. At that point, after the person's desires have been satisfied, he can turn to fulfilling the mitzva with pure intention. The surest way to pure motivation passes through the readiness to allow egotism to have a part in the mitzva at the outset.

 

            The Gra, on the other hand, speaks of man's duty always to be on guard. If he fails to restrain his yetzer ha-ra, he is liable to weaken his spiritual resistance and fall into the trap of sin. The Gra does not believe that the yetzer will depart on its own if we cooperate with it and not go out head on against it. He does not think that positive cooperation with the yetzer will lead to any benefit; the only way to confront the yetzer is with constant caution and vigilance.

 

            What underlies these two disagreements between the Gra and the Besht? Perhaps we can say that the Gra sees man's spiritual standing as a struggle between two extremes. Man's task in this world is not to forget the world-to-come, where his eternal destiny is found. The Torah and its mitzvot connect a person to this destiny, for which he must separate himself from the seductions of materialism or fight against them. The Besht's approach, on the other hand, alludes to a different understanding. Both the Besht's striving to dissociate from the yetzer, on the one hand, and his faith that such dissociation is possible without significant struggle, on the other, imply that there is no unequivocal barrier between the two worlds. Even in this world, in the bosom of materialism, ideal purity of heart is attainable, provided that we employ the correct tactics. The Gra does not think that there is much reason to try and remove the yetzer from its own territory, the world of eating and drinking. It is possible to act against it, to set boundaries for it, and to be careful not to provoke it too much. The best way is to "starve" it with separation, which can seriously narrow the arena of the struggle. In any case, the battle is unceasing, and always characterized by opposite extremes.

 

            I shall immediately adduce support for this understanding, but first I wish to note a certain difficulty with our argument. We have seen that the Gra himself was in constant contact with spiritual worlds. Does not this very connection testify to the strong connection between our reality and the heavenly spheres? Here too we see an important difference between the Gra and the Besht. What was the substance of the Gra's connection with the supernal world? One thing: Torah, and only Torah. Whereas the Besht's heavenly ascents, as described in Chassidic accounts (and also in the Besht's famous letter to his brother-in-law), touched upon existential issues – the state of the people of Israel, the cancellation of edicts against the Jews, and the like. The Besht is the archetype for all the Admorim of exceptional distinction and spiritual abilities, who saw themselves duty bound to place their unique talents in the service of Jews who were in need of salvation, livelihood and rescue, in addition to guidance regarding the service of God. This is not the case regarding the Gaon of Vilna. According to the Gra, so it seems, it is impossible to cling to the supernal world, save for the sake of Torah and by means of Torah.

 

III. DEATH AS A GATE TO THE WORLD-TO-COME

 

            The duality that underlies the Gra's outlook and thinking also finds expression in his commentary to the book of Yona. This work is exceptional among the Gra's scriptural commentaries. We have already noted the Gra's practice to emphasize the plain meaning of the text in his exegesis, as he did in his Torah study and halakhic decision-making, and we added that nevertheless he believed in the traditional division of "pardes" – the plain meaning (peshat), allusion (remez), midrashic interpretation (derash), and esoteric lore (sod) – and he exploited all these avenues of interpretation. From a methodological perspective, the Gaon emphasized the distinction between the different pathways – derash is not peshat, and vice versa. It is possible to sense that this separation had fruitful consequences, and that it served as a stimulus for exhausting all these avenues. In any event, the Gra's commentary on the book of Yona is unique in that it is entirely built on the path of metaphor, with no exegesis whatsoever based on the plain meaning of the text.

 

            What is the metaphor of the book of Yona? Yona symbolizes the soul of man that runs away from God. Yona goes down to Yafo, that is to say, he inclines toward the material beauty (yofi) of this world, in order to run away from "before God" – the spiritual place where the soul is found before it enters this world.

 

            The ship is also a symbol. This world may be likened to the sea, writes the Gra, and the world-to-come to dry land:

 

All those who go out to sea do not go to settle there, but rather to bring merchandise to the dry land. So too this world is likened to the sea, and the misfortunes of this world to the waves, as it is stated: "All your waves and your billows [are gone over me]" (Tehilim 42:8); "The waters compassed me about" (Yona 2:6). And the body is similar to a ship, on which people go out to sea; so too the soul, by way of the body in this world, reaches the world-to-come.

 

            This world is a place of stormy troubles that may be likened to waves, and the soul is sent there in a body (a ship) in order to return to dry land with the merchandise – a load of Torah and holiness. But the soul chooses to run away. According to the Midrash, Yona paid the fare fee for the entire ship. The Gra explains that the soul subordinates all its powers to the body, so that all the organs of the body can derive pleasure from sins. All of them together – the soul and the organs of the body – go down "to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord," for they all flee from before Him, not wishing to stand before Him.

 

            In several places the Gra states that man's stay in this world is only temporary, and that he must always remember that his goal is to reach the world-to-come. In Aderet Eliyahu on the Torah, the Gra explains the introductory verses in the book of Devarim as symbolizing this idea:

 

"On the other side of the Jordan" – this world is called "the Jordan." That which it says "on the other side (be-ever) of the Jordan" – because man in this world is merely passing through (over)… "The other side of the Jordan" is a generalization, and afterwards there is a specification: "In the wilderness" – what this means is that the proper way for a person is not to set his eyes upon the delights of this world, that is to say, the delights of eating, but rather to set himself as a wilderness to study Torah. "In the desert" – that a person should distance himself from the company of men who neglect Torah study, and dwell in the wilderness and the desert. The words "in the wilderness" refer to separation from the delights of eating, and the words "in the desert" refer to the company of men, as it is stated: "For he shall be like the juniper tree in the desert (arava), and shall not see when good comes" (Yirmiya 17:6), that is, he shall not see that good comes to the company of men. "But he shall inhabit the parched places [in the wilderness]" (ibid.), for he is there without food.

 

            Jordan (Yarden) is a fitting name for this world, as we already saw in the Gra's commentary to Yona, because the soul goes down (yoredet) to this world from the heights of the spiritual world. The primary advice that the Torah gives man who passes through this world is to separate himself from the pleasures of eating and society in order to wholly dedicate himself to the study of Torah. This idea is no longer surprising after what we learned in the past, but the support that the Gra brings for this interpretation is instructive. He relates to the book of Yirmiyahu (17:5-6):

 

Thus says the Lord, Cursed be the man who trusts in man, and makes flesh his arm, and whose heart departs from the Lord. For he shall be like the juniper tree in the desert, and shall not see when good comes; but shall inhabit the parched places in the wilderness, a salt land not inhabited.

 

            These verses are a curse. The Gra learns from them the metaphoric meaning of living in "the desert" (without society) and "in the wilderness" (without food). But it is fascinating to see how a prophetic curse turns – through the quality of perishut – into an ideal.

 

            The Gra's reservations about this world are reinforced in the continuation of the Gra's commentary to Devarim, when he explains the allusion in the expression "over against Suf." This expression serves as a concise summary of the central idea:

 

Over against Suf – that a person should always think about the day of death, and set the end (sof) before him.

 

            This directive is already brought in tractate Berakhot (5a) in the name of Resh Lakish:

 

A man should always incite the good impulse [in his soul] to fight against the evil impulse. For it is written: "Tremble and sin not." If he subdues it, well and good. If not, let him study the Torah. For it is written: "Commune with your own heart." If he subdues it, well and good. If not, let him recite the Shema. For it is written: "Upon your bed." If he subdues it, well and good. If not, let him remind himself of the day of death. For it is written: "And be still, Selah."

 

            Only that Resh Lakish does not suggest that a person should "always" think about the day of death, but rather he gives this advice as the fourth in a series of "if not's." According to him, remembering the day of death is the last alternative, and it seems that he intentionally leaves it for when a person reaches the stage that no other solution works. It stands to reason that he sees a certain danger in remembering the day of death. Such a thought might bring a person to depression or hamper his normal functioning. In contrast, the Gra has no qualms. He sees "over against Suf" as man's true and existential state: Facing the end of life.

 

            The Gra's perspective on death led him to a new understanding of a passage in the book of Iyov (3:12-22). There Iyov imagines how good it would have been for him had he died at birth:

 

Why did the knees receive me? Or why the breasts that I should suck? For now should I have lain still and been quiet, I should have slept: then had I been at rest… The small and great are there; and the servant is free from his master. Why is light given to him that is in misery, and life to the bitter in soul; who long for death, but it does not come; and dig for it more than for hidden treasures; who rejoice exceedingly, and are glad, when they can find a grave?

 

            These verses describe the bitter souls of this world, who wait for death to release them from their lives that are filled with suffering and affliction. The grave promises them sweet sleep, liberation and quiet. The Gra in his commentary to verse 22 takes the matter much further. He turns our attention to the expressions of joy and gladness that are tied here to the grave. The commentary was dictated by the Gra to his son, R. Avraham. Parenthetically, the passage exhibits a verbosity not characteristic of the Gra, and apparently reflects the style of writing of his son:

 

Know that the superiority of "gladness" (gil) over "joy" (simcha) is as follows. Joy applies to something that comes to a person when he wants it and toils for it, e.g., wealth and honor. Then a person rejoices. Gladness, however, applies to something whose good continues for a long time… And so it is stated (Tehilim 118:24): "We will be glad and rejoice in Him." The gladness in Him will come when we merit delighting in the splendor of His Shekhina at all times without interruption. And the joy will be through novel Torah insights and the revelation of the depths of its secrets to no end. Now if the delight in the world-to-come were of one dimension, the delight and the pleasantness would only be felt at the beginning when it is attained. As we see regarding delight in this world, that delight arrives only at the first moment. But there will be additional delight in the world-to-come with each additional comprehension of God and the depth of His Torah to no end. And each time he will add knowledge to know Him more and more, and the soul's yearning to cleave to Him will grow stronger, and it will continue to grow minute after minute. This is what Chazal have called the feast of the Leviathan. And the meaning of "Leviathan" is clinging, as in "livyat chen (graceful garland)" (Mishlei 1). And this is the meaning of "There is the Leviathan, whom You have made to play (sechok) therein" (Tehilim 104:26). That is to say, "sechok" is sudden joy that comes to a person. Therefore, when we understand and apprehend some new knowledge about Him, each time suddenly … it is possible to speak of "sechok" which applies to sudden joy.

 

            The verse describes the calm and serenity that the grave offers to the wretched of this world. But the Gra lavishly describes spiritual delight that grows from moment to moment, that surprises in its constant renewal, that never ceases, and that turns the world after death into the desired destination of anyone who is imprisoned in this material world. This unceasing joy – comprised of infinite novel Torah insights and constantly intensifying cleaving to God – is not in our reach as long as our souls are trapped in material bodies. The Gra yearns for a world of pure spirit that is the very opposite of the reality familiar to us. This yearning turns the tragic picture of the wretched of this world into a fundamental statement regarding the fitting and desired destiny of man.

 

            We have seen how the Gra sets mundane reality as the polar opposite of the supernal spiritual world. We also noted some of the consequences of this polarization: the struggle with the yetzer ha-ra, moral perishut, and the need for a person to live his life "over against Suf" – with concentrated consciousness of the world-to-come. We also alluded to the fact that Chassidic thought embraces principles that allow for a more unified approach to the world and to life. Does this duality in the Gra's teachings constitute the entire story, the final world in the legacy of the Mitnagdim? We shall deal with this question in the next shiur.

 

(Translated by David Strauss)



[1] This assertion is reinforced by Chazal's decree that a person should not eat a meal on the day before Pesach after the time of mincha, so that he will be able to eat the Pesach offering and the matza with an appetite.