Rabbi Eliezer (Lazer) Gurkow, currently serving as rabbi of congregation Beth Tefilah in London, Ontario, is a well-known speaker and writer on Torah issues and current affairs.
This week we discover that Jews are full of hot air. The story of the spies is recounted by Moses in the first portion of the book of Deuteronomy. He relates the negative report that the spies brought back from Israel and the fact that Jews believed this report and wanted to return to Egypt rather than go to Israel.
He then reports that G-d was angered and condemned the entire generation to death in the desert, and their children would enter Israel. Without missing a beat, the Jews changed their tune. They donned their armor once more, but this time they demanded to go to Israel.
What changed? Moses had not disproved the report of the spies. He merely relayed G-d’s wrath and sentence. What did Moses say that caused our ancestors to change their minds?
Reverse The Question
In truth, the question is not why they changed their minds to do what G-d wants, but the opposite. How did they possibly decide to go against G-d’s wishes?
A Jew is a sacred spirit, a cauldron of Divine passion, a leaping flame hewn from the Heavenly throne. A Jew is a believer by nature and by birth. Jews are incapable of severing themselves from G-d. How did the spies manage to turn Jews against G-d, to go against their very grain and quintessential selves?
The same question can be asked every time a Jew commits a sin. How is it possible for a Jew to turn on G-d and transgress His will? Jews adore G-d; in His presence, they tremble in reverence and melt in ecstasy. A Jewish soul is a pure, sacred spark of Divinity. How does a Jew commit a sin?
It is because G-d gave us competing inner forces. On the one hand, we have a sacred transcendental G-dly soul. On the other hand, we have a crass, craven, indolent, decadent, hedonistic, insecure, and fractured animal soul. The animal soul’s role is to entice us to turn against G-d.
Thus, our sages taught that Jews never commit a sin unless they are overcome by a spirit of folly. Our passion and excitement for a tempting sin is not really ours. It is introduced to us by a foreign agent—the animal soul. It is not natural to us. It is alien to our inherent nature. But G-d endowed the foolish animal soul with the power to compete against the G-dly soul.
The G-dly soul is much stronger than the animal soul. One is a sliver of the infinite G-d, and the other is a crass piece of refuse. There is no comparison between them. Yet, G-d enabled the animal soul to punch above its weight and challenge the G-dly soul.
The animal soul has a full arsenal of resources, but its most potent tool is its ability to infiltrate our psyches and make us think that its voice is our voice. The animal soul sets out to tempt us with all kinds of pleasurable allures. If we were to visualize the animal soul talking to us, we would peg it immediately as the enemy and ignore it. We would use the brilliant might of the G-dly soul to obliterate the tempting thoughts of the animal soul.
The problem is that the animal soul disguises itself and convinces us that we are hearing our own voice in our heads. We think that we are tempted by the forbidden pleasures. We think it is our heart that skips a beat in desire and attraction. This is not true. The Jewish heart beats only for G-d. The animal soul, however, disguises itself so perfectly that it sounds and looks like us. It manages to fool even us.
This is the folly of which our sages spoke. The foolish sensation that we want it when, in fact, we don’t.
Identify the Animal
The key to success in combating the compelling allure of the animal soul is to identify it. Manipulators thrive in the dark. When you shine a light on them, they shrivel and disappear. The animal soul shrivels and melts away when you identify it. The moment you identify the voice of the animal soul and recognize it as an intruder, you are on alert and can fight back.
The animal soul can’t fight the real you on an even playing field. The animal soul’s only hope for success is to sow havoc in our ranks by disguising itself as us—speaking to us in a voice that sounds like ours and planting ideas we think are ours. The moment we identify it as the animal soul, we have won.
Call it out and tell the truth. Thunder down on it with genuine wrath and tell it not to tangle with you again. You are a holy, vibrant, passionate spark of the Divine. You love G-d and His commandments. You despise anything that separates or, worse, distances you from G-d. The tempting voice in your head is not yours. It is the voice of the detestable animal soul whose only goal is to distract you and trip you up.
The moment you do that, the die is cast, and the game is won. The animal soul cannot stand up to this truth. It has no independent power. It is full of hot air. Its power comes from tempting you. When you succumb to it, it grows stronger. The stronger it grows, the harder it is to overcome it, and thus you succumb again and make it even stronger. It doesn’t have its own strength. It siphons strength from you.
However, when you identify it and reveal the Ponzi scheme, it topples. It loses its power source and can no longer challenge you. It is revealed as an imposter that pretended to be you. It is revealed as a failure who attempted to sway you but failed.
The moment you bust its balloon, all the hot air rushes out. What was once a proud, full, soaring balloon is now a ragged empty piece of plastic. You have shined a light of truth, and the animal soul’s opposition shrivels and wastes.
The truth is that the animal soul is secretly happy to have lost. After all, it, too, was created by G-d and is a loyal servant of G-d. It has given a G-d -given task to tempt you. G-d’s intention was not that you succumb to its wiles but that you overcome them. As a loyal servant, the animal soul does all it can to succeed. But secretly, it hopes that you are strong enough to make it fail. When it fails, it exults because G-d, its master, receives the desired results.
Moses Pricked the Balloon
This explains why our ancestors pivoted as soon as Moses thundered down on them with G-d’s wrath. Moses wasn’t thundering at the Jews. He was thundering at the animal souls that had led them astray. He told the animal souls that they had no power, they would not get the Jews to return to Egypt, and their fate was simply to die in the desert. He punctured the balloon and let out the hot air.
As soon as the people heard this, they were freed from the animal soul’s assault. The pressure eased, and their natural desires came to the fore. Once again, they were desirous only of moving to Israel.
The lesson for us is that when we are beset by temptation, anger, lust, greed, doubts, etc., and feel unable to push back, remember that we are fighting a paper tiger. It has no independent power but the power we give it by the illusion that it is us. This is not the real us. The real us is powerful and can stand up to this. And this knowledge sets us free.