Among the sections read as the haftara for Shabbat Shuva, the Shabbat in between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, is a portion from Sefer Yoel (2:11-27) that speaks of the onslaught of locusts that ravaged the Land of Israel during Yoel’s time. In this prophecy, Yoel implores the people to repent and pray to God for help, and he assures them that God would be receptive to their prayers and drive the locusts from the land. In describing the predicted departure from the locusts, God proclaims through the prophet, “Ve-et ha-tzefoni archik mei-aleikhem” – that He would drive the “tzefoni” far from the Land of Israel. The simple interpretation of this verse is that it refers to the locusts, which originated from the north (“tzafon”), and which God now promises to keep away from His people in response to their repentance and prayers.
The Gemara, however, in Masekhet Sukka (52a), explains the term “tzefoni” differently, claiming that it refers to the evil inclination. Our evil inclination is known by this term, the Gemara comments, because it is “tzafun ve-omed be-libo shel adam” – concealed within a person’s heart, ever present and ever intent on luring him to sin.
The Tolna Rebbe explained the Gemara’s comment as referring to the deceptive nature of the yetzer ha-ra. One of the greatest dangers faced by a God-fearing person is the confusion between right and wrong, and this is the challenge which the Gemara says is known as “tzefoni.” This is when evil masquerades as virtue; when sin hides itself behind a veneer of nobility and sanctity. The “tzefoni,” the “hidden” yetzer ha-ra, is the tendency we have to justify our vices and misdeeds by considering them virtuous. It is when sin conceals itself by appearing noble that we are most susceptible and likely to be ensnared by our negative inclinations.
The Gemara interpreted this verse from Yoel as an allegorical description of the banishment of the tzefoni, of this “concealment.” In the future, we will still have faults and temptations, but we will have greater clarity which will allow us to carefully and accurately distinguish between right and wrong, between evil and goodness. We will have a clearer understanding of what is proper and what is improper, and will no longer be prone to mistake sin for something valuable. This clarity will allow us to see evil for what it is, such that we will feel little or no temptation to embrace it.
Part of the process of teshuva is restoring our lost perspective, viewing sin and wrongdoing as something repulsive that we must seek to distance ourselves from. Repentance must include a concerted effort to banish the “tzefoni,” the confusion and skewed perspective that makes certain forms of sin seem attractive and desirable. As we return to God, we must try to return our minds and hearts, as much as possible, to the proper perspective on what is good and what is bad, on what we wish to embrace and what we need to reject.