The Burning Desire of Temptation (Shabbos 58)

The slave-trade was raging in Assyria.  Tribes would invade one another’s territory, seizing property and people.  Often, the Jewish community would hear of the capture of their brethren and expend considerable sums of money to redeem them.  On one such occasion, in Nehardea, the leaders of the community were able to redeem a number of young ladies who had been taken captive in a recent raid upon a neighbouring town.  They offered them lodging in the attic of Rav Amram.

One night, Rav Amram was hosting a number of the young men from his academy.  In order to avoid any improper mingling between the boys and girls, in the evening, they would remove the heavy ladder up to the attic.  In the middle of the night, however, Rav Amram was suddenly “possessed” by an inexplicable urge to check on the lodgers.

With superhuman strength, he replaced the ladder all by himself.  He began to climb.  But then he stopped.  He screamed at the top of his lungs, “Fire, fire!”  The entire household was awoken by the outburst.  The young men rushed into the room and were shocked to find their teacher balanced on the ladder. They said to him, “Rebbe, you have embarrassed us.  Everyone sees what you had intended to do.” Rav Amram replied, “It is better that you be shamed in Amram’s house in this world, and not be ashamed of him in the World-to-Come.”

אָמַר רַבִּי שְׁמוּאֵל בַּר נַחְמָנִי אָמַר רַבִּי יוֹנָתָן: מִנַּיִן לְמַשְׁמִיעַ קוֹל בִּכְלֵי מַתָּכוֹת שֶׁהוּא טָמֵא, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: ״כׇּל דָּבָר אֲשֶׁר יָבֹא בָאֵשׁ תַּעֲבִירוּ בָאֵשׁ״ — אֲפִילּוּ דִּבּוּר, יָבֹא בָּאֵשׁ

Rabbi Shmuel bar Nacḥmani quoted Rabbi Yonasan: From where is it derived that a metal vessel (such as a bell) that produces sound is considered a vessel and can become ritually impure? As it is stated: “Every thing (davar) that passes through the fire, you shall make it pass through the fire (and it shall be clean)”. Even noisemakers (dibbur), you shall pass through fire.

Generally, when it comes to questions of ritual purity, only items of significance (called man-made vessels) may become impure.  Raw materials are not susceptible to impurity.  The Gemara teaches that a bell-shaped piece of metal made for adornment is not sufficiently fashioned to be called a vessel.  On account of the extra word ‘davar’, which is related to ‘dibur’, Rabbi Shmuel demonstrates that if a bell makes noise, it would be considered a vessel.

While the word ‘dibur’ is used by our Gemara to denote ‘noise’, the simple meaning of the word is ‘speech’.  What is the meaning of the Gemara’s implication that speech must pass through fire? The Pnei Menachem (Matos) writes that, in order to combat the fire of the yetzer hara (inner tempter), the speech of holiness must be infused with fire.

When you feel overcome by a fiery passion to sin, you need a stronger fire of purity to overpower the burning desire of impurity.  The Pnei Menachem, quoting the Baal Shem Tov, teaches that the fire of Torah speech will quell any impure fire.  In other words, it is not enough to attempt to engage in pure thinking to suppress the impure thoughts.  That battle is hard to win.  You need something more tangible.  And speech is more tangible than thought.  The fire of sinful intent in the mind is no match for your mouth and mind fired up with Torah.

That’s why Rav Amram screamed out for help.  Had he kept his struggle internal, his mind would have played tricks on itself and his yetzer tov (good inclination) might not have been victorious over the yetzer hara.  You can imagine the conversation:
‘I wonder what they’re up to in the attic.’
‘You can’t go up there.  That’s inappropriate.  Who knows what it might lead to?’
‘Don’t be silly.  I’m only going to check they’re OK.  They’ve been through a lot lately.’

Rav Amram knew that the only way to stop himself from sin, then and forever more, would be to utilize the power of speech.  Once he had verbalized the Torah’s abhorrence for sinful behaviour, he was able to overcome the appeals of his yetzer hara.  The clear reason for the incident’s inclusion in the Talmud (Kidushin 81a) was to impart an unforgettable lesson to his students, then and for all time.  One can safely assume that Rav Amram never intended to sin.  In order to deter his students from engaging in sinful behaviour, however, he was prepared to demonstrate the power of the yetzer hara, even if that entailed an implication of his own personal weakness.

Of course, we should not allow ourselves to get anywhere near as close to sin as Rav Amram did.  The moment that improper thoughts enter your mind, you need to cry out with the fire of Torah speech.  That could take the form of picking up a Chumash and speaking the words of Torah, thereby occupying your mind and mouth.  Or it could be more akin to the words of Rav Amram, such as verbalizing out loud an oath to do the right thing.  Leaving the decision to your mind alone simply won’t work.

Every person knows their own shortcomings.  It’s not enough to keep telling yourself in your mind that you need to do the right thing.  You need a verbal formula to utter, which includes a Torah verse or teaching.  For example, if you struggle with honouring your parents, you need to learn to recite the “5th Commandment” by heart.  Anytime you are overcome by the urge of the yetzer to act improperly towards them, you have the key to overpowering his urge.  Stop, think, and verbalize the Torah’s commandment.  You might need to recite the “1st Commandment” as well.  Acknowledging God’s dominion and uttering His holy name is an incredible antidote to potential transgression.

The same goes for any of the Ten Commandments, and indeed all 613 of them.  Whether it’s envy, anger, or lashon hara, you know your own weaknesses.  You can beat them!  The victory begins with the fire of Torah.  To overpower the burning desire for sin, you need to design a fiery verbal Torah formula.  May you verbalize Torah throughout your day and never succumb to temptation!

About the Author
Rabbi of Hampstead Garden Suburb Synagogue, London, UK.
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