Who would have thought that going out for coffee with a couple of friends could be so liberating and energising? Who would have imagined that being able to have Shabbat dinner with one of your kids or being able to daven / pray indoors with just a minyan could be so deeply satisfying?
That’s the power of this little virus we have been living with for most of this
year. It has recalibrated our way of living, refocused our way of thinking.
I felt it keenly when for the first time I met with a group of multifaith representatives and officials on our first day of freedom to do a filming at Fed Square (see article further down). That eye-to-eye contact (faces still masked); that energy that comes from live interactions; the spontaneity of connecting; affirming the deep social need that makes us human. Of course, it did help that Melbourne put on its best face – the aching beauty of a perfect spring day in our lovely, liveable city.
Daniel Andrews timed it well to coincide with the parasha / Torah reading of the week! Lech Lecha, go forward; get moving; get away from your “family home” (Gen 12:1). The parasha does continue “leave your country, your birthplace” (Ibid): Leaving Australia however remains an obstacle as most citizens are banned from leaving the country. Not that most of us would be keen to travel when the world is experiencing a huge increase in Coronavirus infections and deaths.
It’s a sobering reminder that despite our Melbourne elation at liberation, the pandemic is far from over; that even with the rapid development of vaccines there is no guarantee we will find one. Apparently only one human virus has ever been eradicated with a vaccine. That was smallpox and it took almost 200 years!
We are simply going to have to live with Covid-19 for the foreseeable future. We have to get used to living with the enemy: social distancing, masks, crowd control and sanitisation remain our best weapons; developing better treatment options perhaps our best hope. Jewish tradition has always been aware of the silent enemy that lurks within us and without in the social environment. I’m referring to the yetzer hara or the congenital desire to do evil. It’s a phrase that has its origins in the Torah texts we’ve been reading over the past few weeks. It occurs twice: “God saw that the wickedness of man was great on the earth and that every inclination – yetzer – of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all the time” (Genesis 6:5). After the flood God again laments: “I will not continue to curse the ground anymore… as the inclination of man’s heart is evil from his youth” (Ibid 8:21).
The yetzer hara is sometimes externalised as Satan, a force of evil that exists outside of ourselves, beyond our control. More popularly however it is recognised as the impulse within, the drive of our instincts; its most common expression is predatory sexual misconduct. The rabbis saw it as the wily enemy within, an inclination that constantly longs and lusts and causes us to falter and stumble. It is the source of ugly competition, jealous greed and anger. No one is immune from the yetzer hara not even the most prominent rabbis and sages; in fact, the Talmud sees it as the very aphrodisiac of the powerful.
“The greater the person, the greater the evil inclination” (Sukkot: 52a).
In the Talmudic tractate of Kiddushin there are a series of stories illustrating how famous rabbis are seriously challenged and sometimes fall prey to their sexual proclivities. The fabled Rabbi Akiva tended to mock failed sinners, so Satan decides to test him by transforming himself into a beautiful woman sitting alluringly on top of a palm tree. Rabbi Akiva is overcome by her fatal attraction and begins to climb the tree! He is only saved by Satan relinquishing his grip…
We cannot escape the yetzer hara but neither should we try to. God has given us both the good impulse (the yetzer hatov) and the evil for a practical purpose: to harness the energy of evil for the generativity of good. The yetzer hara allows us to practise our free agency, to choose wisely. This is most evident in another Genesis text when God assures Cain he has the capacity to control his jealous and murderous impulses.
“Truly, if you do good, you will be elevated. And if you don’t do good, sin crouches at the entrance and its desire is for you. But you may rule over it: Veatah Timshol bo” (Ibid 4:7).
The key word here is Timshol – you have the potential and power to control, sublimate and direct your impulses, you are not a hapless victim of your wild and wily drives. In Freudian terms your superego can rule over your id. Homer Simpson recognised it’s a perennial battle: “Inside every man there is a struggle between good and evil that cannot be resolved”. John Steinbeck in his celebrated novel, East of Eden, puts it starkly and powerfully: “Why is this word [Timshol] so important?… Why, that makes a man great, that gives him stature with the gods, for in his weakness and his filth and his murder of his brother he has still the great choice. He can choose his course and fight it through and win”.
The yetzer hara is apparent not only in our struggle with our own demons but also in our failure to control our racism, xenophobia, and bigotry. It’s also evinced in the unbridled misogyny of our culture, in the unchecked abuse of women. It’s glaringly obvious in the widening economic gaps in society, in the damage we’re doing to our environment.
If the yetzer hara is the perennial enemy within how does one counter it? By sanitising yourself from its toxic influence, by distancing yourself from its arenas of temptation by keeping away from its pernicious social environment, by seeking to inoculate yourself from its danger – through ethical behaviour. Don’t become complacent. And if the vaccine doesn’t work, seek out the yetzer hatov, the force for good, the people of good energy, the company of refined principled persons. The choice is yours.
Covid-19 is here for a while yet. Let’s use all of our wisdom and skills to keep it under control; let’s draw on our own Tradition to keep us strong and connected.