Friday, September 21, 2012

My Invisible chair Rosh Hashana sermon

Why are we here?  What is our purpose in the world?  A big question, but one that we all know the answer to.  Our purpose in this world is to do good. 

The real question is what is "good?"  That question has many answers, and it is different for every person, for every time, and for every situation. 

But we can all agree that our purpose is to do good.  And most of the time, if not all of the time, it is clear what good is. 

So do good. 

Life would be that easy, if not for one thing - the yetzer harah.  Hashem created something called the yetzer Harah whose only job is to prevent us from doing good and entice us to do bad. 

Every minute of every day is a battle that we all fight against the yetzer harah in our quest to do good.

And the yetzer harah is always with us, every minute of our lives, from the time that we are first cognisant of the difference between good and bad all the way until we die. 

Where ever we are, the yetzer harah is always there.  He is here with us right now in shul on Rosh Hashanah. 

In fact, he is sitting here in this chair - and I have a few questions for him. 

Say hello yetzer harah.

Disclaimer: this sermon is not meant in any way to imply that President Obama is the yetzer harah.
The idea of personifying the yetzer harsh is much older than the Republican national convention.  It is even older than Clint Eastwood.

From the Torah, to the prophets, to the gemara, all the way to modern times, Jewish literature regularly personifies the yetzer harah as if it were a person or some creature that is constantly scheming and thinking of ways to get us to sin.

When I first arrived at Yeshiva in Israel, before we even unpacked our bags, we were assembled for a welcoming lecture from the Rosh Yeshiva, Rav Yitzchak Mirsky. 
Rav Mirsky told us the following story. 
When each of us were boarding the plane to go to Israel in Newark airport we turned for one last waive goodbye to our parents and we saw a stranger standing with our parents also waiving goodbye.  The stranger looked so familiar that we had to turn back and ask who he was.
"I am your yetzer harah" he said.
"Aren't you coming with me to Israel?"  You asked.
"Nope" he answered.  "I am staying right here in New Jersey.  Good luck in Israel."
"Wow" you thought.  An entire year with no yetzer harah.  That will be amazing.
But when you got off the plane in Tel Aviv and were collecting your bags, standing by the carousel you noticed once again your yetzer harah.
"What are you doing here?"  you asked.  "I thought you were staying in America?"
"Oh!  You are confusing me with someone else.  That guy you saw at Newark, that was your America yetzer harah.  You see, in America it does not take much to get you to sin.  So we dispatch a lightweight yetzer harah to follow you around.  But in Israel you are going to be in Yeshiva all day.  you are in Jerusalem, the holy city and not far from the kotel.  If the same yetzer harah that tailed you in high school tried to tempt you with the same things that tempted you in high school you would easily be able to resist.  So in Israel we send in the big guns!  I am your Israel Yetzer harah and I will be on you like glue and I will be using all the heavy artillery to get you to sin."
This story reflects chazal's counter intuitive idea that the greater the person the greater his yetzer harah.  
A weak person can be tempted by anything.  He does not need a strong yetzer harah.  But the more a person works on his character the shrewder and stronger his yetzer harah must be in order to get him to sin.

So, Yetzer Harah, here is the question that I have for you.  How strong are you compared to your ancestors?  By knowing how our generation's yetzer harah rates we can gain an idea of how strong we need to be to fight him. 
Let's take a walk down memory lane to the first yetzer harah.  The snake.  If you visit the yetzer harah hall of fame, as soon as you walk in there is a big statue of the snake from the garden of eden. 

Now there was a yetzer harah!!
The Torah says that he was the shrewdest of all creatures that hashem had made. 

And  he had to be!  Can you imagine how hard his job was??  First of all, his only two opponents were Adam and chava.  Part of the yetzer harah's strategy is to get us to somehow forget about God.  How could you get them to forget about God!  They were created by him directly!!  
And what did he have to tempt them with?  There was only one sin that they could possibly do!  Everything in the world was permitted except for the fruit of one tree.  He had a hard job. 
But he did it!  your great great grandfather beat our great great grandparents.

Now let's take a look at you!  You are nothing! 
Because you have the Internet.

They say that Facebook has over 900 million users.  that is almost a billion hours of wasted time, gossiping, and stalking exes every day!  All you have to do is get people to log on!

Your ancestor, the snake had an advantage.  Before the tree incident Adam and Chava were lacking one of our most valuable weapons in the battle against our yetzer harah - SHAME!

Before he died Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai blessed his students that they should fear Hashem as much as they fear man.  How many sins are prevented because people are afraid that someone might see them?

We used to have shame.  Twenty years ago if a person wanted to buy pornography he had to get in his car, drive into a populated area, walk into a store that sold it, pick it up off the shelf, walk to the register with it, hand it to the clerk, and take money from his wallet to pay for it.  Then he had to hide it so that his friends and family did not find it.

Not today.  Today it is as easy as closing the door and click click click.  Done. 

And there are many sins that we can now do because of the Internet with no shame. 

Yetzre harah, you don't even have to try anymore do you?

And on top of that, our ancestors were too busy with all kinds of other problems to have time to give in to you.  They were too busy dealing with the perils of their difficult lives to fall for your tricks. 

Thank goodness today we do not deal with the same problems they had: destitute poverty, domestic war, pogroms, common illnesses that are now easily treatable. 

But because of our good health, freedom, and relative prosperity our yetzer harah is running wild!.

The problems that face our society today: compulsive spending, impulsive violence, underachievement, procrastination, substance abuse, unhealthy diet, these are all things that plague us in ways that our ancestors could never have imagined.  And every one of them is a result of not being able to defeat our yetzer harah.  

We are at war against the yetzer harah.  And our generation is losing.  

The first recorded struggle with the yetzer harah was Adam and Chava's son Kayin.  The yetzer harah used two of his greatest weapons against kayin.  First he made him jealous and then he made him depressed.  When someone is depressed the yetzer harah can get them to think and do almost anything!

Hashem saw that Kayin was struggling, so he said to him, "if you do good, good, but if not, the yetzer harah is crouching by the door in ambush.  He is gunning for you!"

But then Hashem said something very important.  he told Kayin, "But you can conquer him!"

Unfortunately we know the rest of the Kayin story. 

But Hashem's words are there for us to learn from.  Kayin would have wanted us to learn from them. 

Hashem created the yetzer harah.  he did so for our benefit.  So that we could achieve virtue.  And if Hashem said that we can beat him, then we can beat him!!

Yetzer Harah, you wanna fight?  Well, as Clint would say, "Go ahead, make my day of judgement!"
In the words of Rav Yisrael Salanter:

You are trained in the art of warfare.  You prepared for your vocation from the earliest of days.  The vagaries of time and troubles of old age do not confound you as they do us.  So therefore, we must adapt to your methods.  

We need to train ourselves.  His primary occupation is getting us to sin.  So our primary occupation must be the pursuit of virtue.  We must immerse ourselves in Torah study and constantly proactively look for mitzvoth that we can do.

He is patient and in control of his emotions.  We must control our emotions.
environment, create spaces and times where we will be more aware and less likely to succumb to his tricks.

The battle against the yetzer harsh takes a physical toll on us and we must be aware of that.  If we are not sleeping well or not eating right, the yetzer harsh is stronger.  If we are well rested and eating properly then we are stronger and more able to fight.  

And through exercise, practice, and the study of Torah we can build up our immunity to the yetzer harah.  The more we work on ourselves the more conscious we will be of the yetzer harah's presence and the more adept we will become at fighting him. 
If we put our minds to it and help each other we can beat this guy!!!

And like every war, after all of our preparations are done, we turn to Hashem and ask for his help. 
Horeini hashem darkechah uncheini biorech mishor limaan shorerai!
Hashem teach us your ways and lead us on the right path - because I have enemies!
Hashem, help us beat this guy.  Help us concentrate and focus so that we can steer clear of bad and do good. 
Answer our davening today and next Rosh Hashanah we will stand before you wiser, stronger, and better able to serve you.