Tuesday, November 25, 2008

The Righteous

Do the righteous have an impulse to sin, a yetzer ha-ra? In the opening chapter of Tanya (Likkutei Amarim), R. Schneur Zalman of Liadi wrote that some people are entirely righteous, i.e. without a yetzer ha-ra. I have always taken this to mean that these people have not just overcome but obliterated their desire to sin (and not that people are born without this desire). The Gemara (Bava Basra 16b-17a) lists four people who did not have a yetzer ha-ra: Avraham, Yitzchak, Ya'akov and David. Regarding David, it seems to me that there is an implication that he destroyed his evil inclination. Regardless, there is no reason why that list has to be comprehensive. Maybe all righteous people have no impulse to sin.

Everyone Sins

However, this is difficult because there is an explicit verse that there is no one who is so righteous that he never sins (Ecc. 7:20). You might have thought that this simply means that while everyone sins, the completely righteous certainly repent for their few sins.

Click here to read moreThis would explain the Gemara (Shabbos 55b) that four people died from the machinations of the serpent from the Garden of Eden, which means that they died only because humans are mortal and not for any sin. Those four people (and the list need not be exhaustive, as is common in the Talmud) could have sinned as said in the above verse and then repented so as not to be punished for their sins.

However, the Gemara (Sanhedrin 101a) tells the story of R. Eliezer's suffering before his death. Among the scholars who came to visit, R. Akiva laughed at R. Eliezer's pain. Why? Because this means that R. Eliezer was punished for his sins in this world and not the next. But, asked R. Eliezer, who said that he sinned? R. Akiva answered, "Didn't you teach us that there no righteous man in the world who does not sin?" In other words, the verse means that everyone sins and is punished for those sins.

If so, how do we reconcile the story of R. Akiva with the passage about four people who died without sinning? Tosafos (Shabbos, ad loc.) Say that the verse only means that most people sin but not everyone. However, that seems to contradict the story of R. Akiva.

One possibility, suggested by the Derashos Ra'anach (on Parashas Bo, cited in Gilyon Ha-Shas, Sanhedrin 101a), is that everyone sins but not necessarily transgressions that are bad enough to be punished with death. Therefore, there are a handful of people who sinned but do not deserve to die because of their sins and only die because of their human mortality (this is also suggested by the Meiri on Shabbos 55b).

Does the biblical and talmudic premise that everyone sins lead to the conclusion that everyone has a yetzer ha-ra? Not necessarily. Sins sometimes can come from errors rather than inner desires. For example, this is one way that is used to reconcile passages that say that angels sin with other passages that angels lack free will: They sin unintentionally due to error (cf. Sefer Chasidim, no. 530; Sifsei Chaim, Emunah U-Vechirah, vol. 2 p. 147ff.). Therefore, perhaps the fact that everyone sins does not rule out certain people lacking an impulse for bad.

The Mountain

There are other passages that seem to imply that even the righteous have impulses to sin. For example, the Gemara (Sukkah 52a) says that in the messianic era, the evil inclination will look like a small hair to the wicked and a mountain to the righteous. This is meant to contrast the failures of the wicked with the accomplishments of the righteous. It seems that the righteous do, in fact, have a yetzer ha-ra. The Gemara also says there that the greater the person, the larger his evil impulse. However, these passages could be referring to the inclination that the righteous initially have until they totally destroy it.

The Gemara (Berakhos 54a) says that a person should worship God with both his inclinations, that for good and that for bad. Some understand this to mean that people should channel their natural desires to mitzvah matters. Others, however, understand it to mean that people should totally obliterate their evil inclinations to the point that these desires are for good and not bad.

Continence vs. Temperance

The Rambam (Shemonah Perakim, ch. 6) takes the familiar division of commandments into those that are rational (e.g. murder) and those that are non-rational, i..e. only obligatory because God commanded us regarding them (e.g. not eating milk and meat together). For the former, we should totally destroy our urge to contradict them. For the latter, the actions are not inherently bad and therefore we should merely overcome our desire regarding them. In other words, for some things we should overcome our yetzer ha-ra (continence) and for others we should destroy our yetzer ha-ra (temperance). This seems to contradict the idea that the righteous totally destory their evil impulses because regarding some commandments they are supposed to retain them.

R. Yisrael Salanter (Or Yisrael, ch. 30) deals with the contradiction between this and Rambam and the idea of destroying the evil impulse. I initially thought that R. Salanter had somehow, with a wave of his hands, dismissed the contradiction but after reading R. Hillel Goldberg's careful analysis of R. Salanter's explanation I have a better understanding of it (Israel Salanter: Text, Structure, Idea, pp. 132-135; note that I took the terms continence and temperance from his analysis).

R. Salanter suggests that with rational commandments, you should transform each desire one at a time to positive forces. With non-rational commandments, you should not address each individual desire but focus on making your general will to fulfill God's word, thereby indirectly destroying the desire to sin.

However, just because all desires should be overcome does not mean that they can. R. Salanter writes, "Even when evil is uprooted from man's innards, a muddy well remains, hidden in its latency, ready to gush forth its waters... and destroy" (Or Yisrael, ibid., p. 82 par. 2; Goldberg, p. 134).

The Rambam, even according to R. Yisrael Salanter's interpretation, seems clear that even a righteous person has a desire to sin. It is by overcoming it that he attains the status of righteous.

Rav Soloveitchik and the Malbim

R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik, for whom the Tanya was a significant influence, is quoted in Al Ha-Teshuvah (p. 242) as taking a similar approach. He notes that Christians tell of the spiritual battles their saints waged against their impulses but we almost never hear about such things with regard to Jewish sages. Rather, it seems that they were able to re-form themselves to instinctively avoid sin.

The Malbim (in his commentary to Psalms 33:1), explains the difference between someone who is righteous (tzaddik) and someone who is upright (yashar). The former does what is right but only after an internal battle. The latter's inner psyche is entirely in line with the Torah's approach to life. It is the Malbim's yashar who seems to represent the Tanya's complete tzaddik. (See also the Malbim's commentary to Prov. 2:7, 10:8, 11:3).

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