The Battle of the Generation - Day 79
Our weekly excerpt from the book "The Battle of the Generation"
Being infiltrated by raging desires that we couldn’t shut off might cause us to feel ashamed, even though we hung on with willpower and didn’t do anything wrong. Realizing that desire was pulling us instead of us controlling it can make us feel down. However, we must realize that these accomplishments are the greatest because they are so difficult! Realizing this will make us proud of what we have accomplished rather than ashamed, which will help us succeed in our subsequent battles as well.
The Gemara (Kiddushin 81a) relates a fascinating story:
A group of young women had been taken captive by gentiles and were redeemed by the people of Nehardea. They put the young women in the attic of Rav Amram Chasida (the pious one), figuring they would be safe there. The people removed the ladder to ensure that no man would go up to the attic.
That night, as one of the young women passed by the hatch in the floor of the attic, her shining face radiated light through the hatch, and Rav Amram saw her. He took the ladder — a ladder so heavy that ten people couldn’t move it — and moved it by himself to climb to the attic. When he got halfway up the ladder, he planted his feet [to stand firmly with strength to overcome his desires — Rashi] and screamed, “There is a fire in the house of Amram!”
The rabbis came running and were shocked to see that instead of a fire, a scandal was unfolding. The rabbis told Rav Amram, “You embarrassed us [by causing the whole town to see that you almost sinned, after we left these captives in your house assuming that you wouldn’t do anything]!”
Rav Amram answered, “It is better that I brought you embarrassment in this world and not in the next world [which would have happened had I sinned].”
Rav Amram then demanded that the yetzer hara leave him. The yetzer hara emerged, appearing as a pillar of fire. Rav Amram told the yetzer hara, “See that you are fire and I am flesh, yet I am stronger than you.”
This story is baffling. Rav Amram was pushed around by the yetzer hara. He could not shut off his desires. He seemed to have completely lost control over himself as he employed superhuman strength to move the ladder in order to sin. He could only stop himself from sinning by embarrassing himself and all the rabbis. He should have been embarrassed about what happened, and relieved that he had somehow saved himself from sinning. Yet not only wasn’t he ashamed, he even proclaimed to the yetzer hara, “See! I am stronger than you!” This is hard to understand.
But in reality, what Rav Amram said makes a lot of sense. There will be times when we face challenges that we are not ready for. When that happens, the yetzer hara penetrates and takes over our thinking before we can stop him. Things quickly change from how they were just a few minutes earlier, and we feel, “I want it!” We no longer want to do anything to make our desires go away. We feel overwhelmed. It takes tremendous exertion to refocus ourselves, and we don’t even want to anyway. Getting what we desire becomes all that matters. Our desires influence every decision we make.
When this happens, the only shot we have at winning is to hang onto our willpower and attack the yetzer hara. We must say NO and mean it. This is very difficult, and the longer the battle rages on, the harder it becomes. Overcoming these desires might just be the greatest victory there is. If we can pull it off, there is nothing for us to be ashamed of. In fact, the instinct to be embarrassed or upset that we desired is just the yetzer hara trying to make us feel down rather than excited after such an incredible victory.
We should not be disheartened over losing our equilibrium. That is what happens in these situations, and our goal is to nonetheless emerge victorious. Though we shouldn’t go around telling everyone that we faced these desires — it is nobody’s business other than our own — there is nothing for us to be ashamed of.
To the contrary, we should be excited when we succeed in this fashion. Because of the difficulty, it is one of the most precious accomplishments that exist. Even if we felt out of control, holding on makes us great.
This is why Rav Amram declared that he was stronger than the yetzer hara. Though it looked like the yetzer hara was pushing him around, in reality Rav Amram did something astounding! He defeated the yetzer hara, who is like a pillar of fire.
Rav Amram masterfully blended willpower with excitement to accomplish. He was so energized by his massive victory that he called out to the yetzer hara, “See that I am stronger than you!” This is the secret weapon of the successful: they are fired up to defeat the yetzer hara. Willpower alone isn’t enough to conquer desire. We must feel that we gain immensely every time we win and every bit we try. We must be excited about the incredible opportunity we have to become great.