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Torah Attitude: Parashas Toldos: "Remove Satan from before us and from behind us"
The next thing mentioned by the Mishnah, that one needs to acquire Torah, is "to recognize one's place." The evil inclination and the Satan are one and the same. Our evil inclination has two basic modus operandi. The two character traits of haughtiness and depression are two of the worst mental maladies that a person may suffer from. We live in a time when the general trend in education is "just do it." One often finds that the younger generation looks somewhat down upon their elders. Prior to the Holocaust, Germany was considered one of the most educated and scientifically highly-developed countries in the civilized world. The Rambam had a dispute with some philosophers who claimed that they could educate cats to walk on two feet and act like humans. G'd created the evil inclination and He created its antidote in the form of the Torah. The rabbis of the Talmud revered the rabbis of previous generations. "And man is nothing more than animals, for everything is vain." "G'd has chosen you [the Jewish people] to be for Him a treasured people from all the peoples that are on the earth." As G'd's chosen nation, it is an obligation for us to live according to the commandments that He gave us in the Torah. By emulating Moses' ways, we can recognize our personal place in society and yet stay humble. In this way, we also will merit to study Torah and teach it to others.
"Recognize one's place"
The next thing mentioned by the Mishnah, that one needs to acquire Torah, is "to recognize one's place." This is important in every occupation and in every situation. And when it comes to studying Torah, one must be aware where one stands, both vis a vis other people, as well as in regards to earlier generations.
Satan and evil inclination
Every evening we say in the second blessing after Shema, "And remove Satan from before us and from behind us." This needs clarification. What does it mean when we ask that G'd shall "remove Satan from before us and from behind us"? The Talmud (Bava Basra 16a) explains that the evil inclination and the Satan are one and the same. First Satan comes as our evil inclination and entices us to do wrong. Afterwards he accuses us in the Heavenly Court for doing so.
Two basic modus operandi
Our evil inclination has two basic modus operandi. It will sometimes try to push a person forward and make him feel that he is superior to others. Such a person feels that he understands things better than his peers, and he is capable of doing things in the best possible way. Often he will disregard the opinion of others and look down upon them. Such an attitude will not only affect his relationship with his colleagues and mentors, but also how he regards people from earlier generations. On the other hand, the evil inclination may approach someone and make him feel worthless and good for nothing. This person will feel that he has no ability and strength to accomplish anything in life, and sooner or later he will fall into depression and be inactive in his misery. This is what we hint at in our prayer. We ask G'd to remove our evil inclination from behind us when it comes to push us to take upon ourselves tasks that are above our ability. We ask that we should not feel superior and better than others, and exhibit self-confidence to the extent that we come to ignore, other people and their opinions. At the same time we pray that we should not suffer from a frontal attack by our evil inclination, to stop us from achieving what we truly can accomplish.
Haughtiness and depression
The great Kabbalist, Rabbi Chaim Vital (Gates of Holiness 1:2) explains that the two character traits of haughtiness, brought about by feeling superior to others, and depression, that comes from a feeling of being worthless, are two of the worst mental maladies that a person may suffer from. The truth is that they both stem from one source: When a person does not recognize his place in society and his true capabilities.
"Just do it"
We live in a time when the general trend in education is "just do it." In our permissive society, children are encouraged to do whatever makes them feel good about themselves, and they are allowed to express their individuality without too much concern about others. Obviously, this kind of education fosters ego-centric and arrogant people. Young people often grow up not being equipped to judge their own strengths and weaknesses, and this can have disastrous effects once they enter a very competitive workforce.
Younger generation looks down upon elders
In addition to this, one often finds that the younger generation looks somewhat down upon their elders. This is the result of the rapid development in all areas of science. Every day new inventions are presented in the medical world, as well as in every other aspect of science. Nowadays, the scientists understand things that just a few years ago nobody even dreamt about. No wonder that many people feel superior, and more educated than previous generations. However, they are not aware of that it says in the Zohar that prior to the coming of Mashiach, G'd will open up the wells of wisdom in the world. The modern day scientists are merely riding on this wave that has been let loose from Above.
If we analyze the situation we will find that with all our superior education, we do not produce better or even happier people. Prior to the Holocaust, Germany was considered one of the most educated and scientifically highly-developed countries in the civilized world. They were famous for their good manners, never forgetting to say "please" and "thank you" at the appropriate time. Nevertheless, in a very short period of time, they fell so low, and utilized their organizational skills to act like wild animals without any education.
The Rambam and the cats
This brings to mind the dispute the Rambam had with some philosophers who claimed that they could change the nature of cats and train them to walk on two feet and act like humans. On the day of their presentation, the philosophers brought their pets that had been trained to perform certain acts similar to human beings. In the middle of their performance, the Rambam opened a little box and let out a mouse. As soon as the cats saw the mouse, their dropped everything and chased the mouse like any good cat, and forgot about their human-like acts. The Rambam clearly proved that there is no way that one can change the nature of a cat, but everything was just exterior acts without affecting the true nature of the animal.
Fight evil inclination with Torah
In the same way, we have seen time and again that secular education and scientific development does not change the basic nature of man. When feeling deprived and threatened, most people will act no better than the savages of the past. This is not at all surprising for the Talmud (Kiddushin 30b) teaches that G'd created the evil inclination and He created its antidote in the form of the Torah. In most societies, there are people with good character traits that go out of their way to help their fellow human beings. But when a person is challenged by his evil inclination, the only real way to fight back is by delving into the depths of the Torah. Only this enables the person to have a chance to stand up and overpower his evil inclination.
Talmud rabbis revered previous generations
The Talmud (Shabbos 112b) shows how the Torah elevates and refines a person. The Talmud relates how the rabbis revered the rabbis of previous generations. They would say, "If the earlier generations were like angels, we are like humans. But if they were like humans, we are like donkeys." Every generation felt inferior to the generation before. And this has been the attitude of our great scholars throughout the generations. The rabbis of the Talmud would never dare to argue against the rabbis of the Mishnah. Similarly, the halachic authorities of today do not feel that they have authority to dispute the rulings of earlier authorities.
Man is nothing
Every morning we say in our prayer after the morning blessings, "What are we? What is our life? What is our kindness? … Are not all the powerful ones like nothing before You [G'd]. And the famous are as if they never existed. The sages are as without wisdom … And man is nothing more than animals, for everything is vain" (see Artscroll Siddur p.26-27). This statement appears to be rather depressing. However, it must be understood in the context of comparing man to the Creator. In this context, the difference between man and animal becomes minimal.
We continue and say that this all refers to mankind in general, but we the members of the Chosen People are very different. As we state, "But we are Your people, children of Your covenant, Children of Abraham… the offspring of Isaac … the community of Jacob, Your first born son" (see Shemos 4:22). Rabbi Chaim Friedlander points out that in this prayer we express that we are G'd's people, children of His covenant. Everything comes from G'd. It was His decision to choose us as His people. We say to G'd that we are "Your people", "children of Your covenant", etc., indicating that our chosen status has been an act of G'd right from the beginning. As Moses said to the Jewish people (Devarim 7:6-8): "HASHEM, your G'd, has chosen you to be for Him a treasured people from all the peoples that are on the earth. Not because you are more numerous than all the other people … For you are the least of all the other peoples. Because of G'd's love for you, and because He keeps his oath that He swore to your forefathers, He took you out with a strong hand, and He redeemed you from the house of slavery from the hand of Pharaoh, king of Egypt."
Obligation to live according to the commandments
This is how we are expected to understand our position as G'd's chosen nation. It is not just a simple privilege. Rather it is an obligation we have been given to live according to the commandments that He gave us in the Torah. And this is how every individual person should feel about himself: "Yes, I do have many qualities and abilities, but I did not develop them myself. They are all a gift from G'd." As it says (Devarim 8:18): "And you shall remember HASHEM your G'd. It is He Who gives you strength to make wealth" (see Targum Onkelus). When a person looks at himself in this light, and recognizes his place and position with all his qualities, it makes the person feel good about himself. But at the same time, he should be humble and remember that all his qualities are Divine gifts.
There is no doubt that Moses recognized his position and was aware of that he was the greatest prophet of all generations. As it says (Devarim 34:10): "Never did a prophet arise in Israel like Moses." But in no way did this make him feel arrogant or haughty. On the contrary, the Torah refers to Moses' great humility and says (Bamidbar 12:3): "And the man, Moses, was exceedingly humble, more than any person on the face of the earth." For Moses truly recognized that all his greatness was from G'd. This is how Moses merited to receive the Torah and teach it to the Jewish people. By emulating his ways we can recognize our personal place in society and yet stay humble. In this way, we also will merit to study Torah and teach it to others.
These words were based on a talk given by Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.
Shalom. Michael Deverett
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