By Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski, M.D.
The Talmud depicts the yetzer hara (temptation to sin) as an external agent and tells us that its tactics are very insidious. It does not make a frontal attack, directly challenging a person’s beliefs. Rather, it first persuades him to commit a rather subtle transgression, perhaps just deviating from a customary practice. Then it moves on to a transgression of more substance, and it gradually increases the severity of transgressions until it ultimately leads a person to idol worship.
The yetzer hara has yet another deceptive maneuver. Instead of inciting a person to commit a sin, it masquerades as a champion of ethics, showing a person how terrible the sin is. The unsuspecting person may indeed react with outrage and disgust, but the yetzer hara has scored a point. By exposing the person to a sin, it lessens his aversion to it. Indeed, repetitious exposure to a sin may make a person indifferent to it.
The Torah gives us several examples of this. Esau’s wives were pagans, and burned incense to their idols. Both Isaac and Rebecca were irritated by this, but Isaac’s reaction was the more severe. Rebecca, who had been exposed to idol worship in her parents’ home, was somewhat callused to it, whereas Isaac, who grew up in the patriarch Abraham’s home, and had never encountered this practice, was more disturbed by it (Rashi, Sifsei Chachomim, Genesis 26:35). Think of it! The matriarch Rebecca, whose piety is legendary and who despised idolatry, was less aggravated by pagan worship because she had been exposed to it as a child!
This concept is again contained in the comment of the sages on the apposition of the laws of the Nazirite, prohibiting him from drinking wine, to the ritual of the woman suspected of infidelity. “One who sees the degradation of the loose woman should be cautious not to drink wine,” because wine can lead to debauchery (Rashi, Numbers). One might have thought just the opposite: i.e., that observing the humiliation which one suffers from being immoral would serve to discourage such behavior. Our sages, however, knew better. Even if one condemns a sin and sees its ugly consequences, the very exposure to the sin lessens its repulsiveness.
Even if one condemns a sin…the very exposure to it lessens its repulsiveness.
We should be aware of this phenomenon, because it is very relevant today. You will recall that when the first physician-assisted suicide was publicized, there was a public outcry and this outrage was virtually universally condemned. Then physician-assisted suicide became an issue for the courts, and there were arguments pro and con. Now, at least one state has formally adopted legislation legalizing what had heretofore been seen as an abomination. It is only a matter of time before other states follow suit. The yetzer hara triumphed by introducing this as an act to be condemned, and after the initial shock wore off, advanced it to the point of acceptance.
“Mercy killing” was next demonstrated on television. Thus the atrocity was somewhat mitigated by our sympathy for the person who was suffering. Bear in mind that each time euthanasia is debated – in the courts, on the radio, on television — our reaction of outrage is lessened a bit. It is only a matter of time before we become convinced that it is only humane to relieve a person of intolerable suffering, and an abomination will become a virtuous act.
There are precedents to this, both in ancient and modern history. The midrash tells us about the corruption of Sodom, where abominable practices were legalized and held as virtues. We know only too well the lesson of recent history, where the most sophisticated nation in the world set out to save society by ridding it of people who were a “burden,” such as the retarded, the severely handicapped, and six million Jews.
Many Germans wish to be exonerated, claiming that they did not actively participate in the murder of our people. The fact is that even those who may not have been actively involved gave tacit approval, became inured and accepted this unspeakable atrocity as being in the country’s best interest.
There is nothing that cannot be rationalized. King Solomon said, “All the ways of a person appear just to him” (Proverbs). If one has a desire for something, it is not too difficult to justify it.
We should be aware of the social pressures that underlie the abandonment of traditional values, and the subtle ways in which this erosion occurs. We may not be able to alter society, but we must reinforce our ethics and values and take greater effort in conveying them to our children. We must demonstrate in our own behavior that none of Torah is subject to change. We cannot cut corners on any of the commandments of the Torah, because the moment we render Torah alterable, we also undermine the commandment which prohibits taking a human life.
The founder and medical director of Gateway Rehabilitation Center in Aliquippa, Pennsylvania, Dr. Twerski is one of the country’s leading experts on alcohol and drug rehabilitation. He is the author of numerous books and his column is regularly featured in Jewish Action. His most recent work is Twerski on Spirituality (Mesorah Publications).