In the haftara read on Shabbat Shuva (the Shabbat between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur), the prophet Yoel conveys to the people God’s call to prayer and repentance in response to the devastation wrought by swarms of locusts. God promises that in reward for their prayer and repentance, He would bless them with prosperity (2:19) and would keep the “tzefoni” away from them (2:20). The simple meaning of this word is that it refers to the swarms of locusts, which, apparently, originated from the north (“tzafon”). Rashi brings those who explain “tzefoni” as a reference to foreign nations who attacked Eretz Yisrael from its northern border; God will respond to the people’s prayers by blessing them both with economic prosperity and with protection from hostile nations.
A different interpretation is given by the Gemara in Masekhet Sukka (52a), which lists “tzefoni” as one the seven names of the yetzer ha-ra - our negative instincts. The promise announced by Yoel – “ve-et ha-tzefoni archik mei-aleikhem” – is understood by the Gemara to mean that in the future, God will eliminate our sinful inclination so that we will serve Him properly. The yetzer ha-ra is given this name, the Gemara explains, because it is “tzafun ve-omeid be-libo shel adam” – hidden deep within a person’s heart. The Gemara adds that the prophet here speaks of how the yetzer ha-ra will be “punished” for instigating the Jewish People to sin, for relentlessly attempting to cause us to stumble. Abayei adds that this is especially true of Torah scholars, who are particularly vulnerable to the lures of the evil inclination.
Many have noted that the seven names given by the Gemara to the yetzer ha-ra likely refer to its numerous different manifestations, the different kinds of spiritual challenges that we face. The phenomenon of “tzefoni,” then, might speak of our “hidden” evil inclination, the challenge of unholy instincts that appear to us as holy, or at least innocent. The form of yetzer ha-ra referred to by the name “tzefoni” is improper thoughts, attitudes and practices which do not seem to us as improper, which we can easily justify as acceptable, or even mistake for piousness.
If so, then we can perhaps understand why it is specifically in reference to the “tzefoni” that Abayei observes the particular vulnerability of Torah scholars. Those who are spiritually accomplished, who have devoted themselves to intensive study and to meticulous and devout religious observance, are especially prone to experience the phenomenon of “tzefoni” – the “hidden” yetzer ha-ra. They might complacently trust their instincts, and assume that they have reached the point where they are naturally inclined to follow God’s will, such that they fail to exercise careful discretion in how they speak and act. And, having grown accustomed to teaching and giving guidance, they are prone to the “hidden” vice of arrogance and excessive self-assurance, confidently thinking that they are always correct and can never be criticized. The Gemara’s discussion of the “tzefoni” thus reminds us to beware of our “hidden” vices, to realize that negative behavior does not always appear negative, and that no matter how much we grow and advance, we must always introspect and honestly assess our conduct so we do not arrogantly ignore our faults, and we instead constantly work to correct them.