Often one may be tempted by destructive or selfish impulses. How can these urges be overcome?
When King David called upon his opponents to repent, he counseled them:
“רִגְזוּ וְאַל-תֶּחֱטָאוּ. אִמְרוּ בִלְבַבְכֶם עַל-מִשְׁכַּבְכֶם, וְדֹמּוּ סֶלָה.” (תהילים ד:ה)
“Tremble and do not sin. Speak in your hearts upon your bed, and be still forever.” (Ps. 4:5)
According to third-century scholar Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish — himself a well-known penitent — this verse outlines a four-step program how to master the temptations of the yeitzer hara, the evil inclination.
These are four useful tools for overcoming evil urges and desires. But if the ultimate weapon in battling the yeitzer hara is to reflect on human mortality and the transient nature of life in this world, then why not use this method right from the start? Why wait before bringing out our most effective weapon?
All of our characteristics, whether positive or negative, are meant to be used for the good. Even bad traits, such as jealousy, greed, and pride, have their place, and can be sublimated for good purposes. If we weaken these negative traits, they will not be available to help us attain positive goals. The ideal is that all of our energies be strong and healthy, with the negative traits firmly under the control of our positive side.
It is natural that negative traits are more readily aroused. Therefore, the first step in subduing them is to “awaken the good inclinations” — to bring our good traits to the fore, so that they will be in control and rule over the negative ones.
It is enough to awaken the soul’s innate goodness if one has a robust sense of morality and integrity. But those who have not adequately refined their character must learn and internalize knowledge of the proper path. Therefore, Rabbi Shimon’s second advice was “to engage in Torah study.”
However, he was not referring to the study of Torah in general — that is a mitzvah that obligates all. Rather, he meant specifically studying those aspects of Torah that one is lacking. By absorbing this knowledge, the penitent will then aspire for the good, and will be able to overcome his negative urges.
For some individuals, however, knowledge alone is insufficient to awaken their inner good. For these people, the soul has been so tarnished that the soul’s emotional faculties need to be elevated. In order to uplift the emotions — which have a stronger impact than abstract intellectual knowledge — the third method is to recite the Shema prayer.
The Shema is not simply a matter of intellectually recognizing God’s oneness. Were that the case, it would be sufficient to recite it at infrequent intervals, perhaps once a year (like the mitzvah to remember the evil of Amalek). The fact that we are commanded to recite the Shema twice a day indicates that this mitzvah relates to our faculties of emotion. The Shema is meant to instill feelings of love and closeness to God; therefore it is recited every morning and evening. This truth must be constantly confirmed and renewed in the heart. It is a continual spiritual need, like air to the soul. By inspiring the emotions, we strengthen the intellect.
All of the first three steps share a common feature: they work by strengthening the soul’s positive qualities. But if evil impulses are still not overcome, then it becomes necessary to weaken the negative traits. This is the final step, to “remind oneself of the day of death.” Reflecting on our mortality serves to restrain the lures of false imaginings that inflate the importance of worldly pleasures.
However, if it is possible to strengthen the positive forces, this is the preferred method. For once we start weakening the forces of the soul, we also weaken positive energies.
(Adapted from Ein Eyah vol. I, pp. 13-4; vol. II, p. 389)