LIVE Elul Discussion, Week 3

Our will to cling to God is a fortress, but there are breaches in the wall . . .

Let every man stand in the breach against his will to evil.

His case may be compared to that of a king who has many foes and is fearful of them. So he goes and inspects all of his fortresses and strengthens the breaches at every place where the enemy could possibly enter. The king makes his plans: “Perhaps they will climb stealthily over at this point; and let us build castles and a tower for defense at this point.”

So it is with the will to evil. He is the enemy that lies in ambush and besieges man day and night, inciting him to transgress, that he may be caught in his trap. For that is why the will to evil was created, and he is compelled to do his part, and is an expert at it. Therefore let every man be alert to stand in the breach against the will to evil, and let every man constantly be searching and delving deep in his mind, that he may come to know every place where his will is inciting him to transgression.
-Sermon by Rabbi Jacob Ben-Moses HaLevi, in S.Y. Agnon, Days of Awe

Most devious is the heart; It is perverse — who can fathom it?
-Jeremiah 17:9, JPS

HOW IT WORKS: I will post a few texts and some of my reflections as a discussion starter. Discussion will happen in the blog comments until 10:00 p.m. Eastern time. Use the refresh icon on your browser to read as new comments come in.

IF YOU’RE A FIRST-TIME COMMENTER: WordPress will ask you to register. Sorry, but I can’t prevent that. And I will have to approve your first comment. But I will be doing that during the hour of discussion and your comment will appear.

IF YOU WANT TO JUST LURK: Please at least say hello and make a short comment. It will be more fun for all if most people at least say something.

RULES: This is discussion about repentance, mussar, High Holidays, and God. Anti-Jewish comments, rudeness, comments of excessive length, and similar misdemeanors will get you deleted. But I expect the best of those who show up and I doubt there will be any unpleasantness.

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54 Responses to LIVE Elul Discussion, Week 3

  1. Derek Leman says:

    In this translation, “the will to evil” is the evil inclination or the Yetzer HaRa. In Jewish thought the evil inclination is not inherently evil, but a twisting of a needed impulse. Evil has no independent existence but is only absence or perversion of good. The evil impulse, as the preacher says here, serves a purpose.

    How do we see in ourselves that our failings are missing something good and substituting a lie in its place?

  2. Derek Leman says:

    Ha! I have been away most of the day and did not advertise well. I’m thinking no one is going to show up tonight . . .


  3. David Cook says:

    I’m here but wasn’t sure if I was in the right place.

  4. Derek Leman says:

    Well, even just the two of us can have a nice chat.

  5. David Cook says:

    I read something interesting about forgiveness today.

  6. Derek Leman says:

    David, is this process described by Rabbi Jacob Ben-Moses HaLevi what is known in mussar as watchfulness?

  7. Derek Leman says:

    What did you read about forgiveness?

  8. David Cook says:

    People have a hard time receiving forgiveness from God for the sins they have committed because they themselves don’t forgive others.

  9. David Cook says:

    This was a powerful lesson that forgiving others teaches us how to receive forgiveness.

  10. Derek Leman says:

    About to type in a Lewis quote. . .

  11. David Cook says:

    To answer your earlier question, Rabbi Jacob Ben-Moses HaLevi seems to be describing what Luzatto calls Watchfulness, with a touch of Cleanliness. The Cleanliness part comes in with this statement: “let every man constantly be searching and delving deep in his mind, that he may come to know every place where his will is inciting him to transgression.” Luzatto describes Cleanliness as a process of cleaning the mind of impure thoughts more than anything else.

  12. Derek Leman says:

    The dangers of apparent self-sufficiency explain why our Lord regards the vices of the feckless and dissipated so much more leniently than the vices that lead to worldly success. Prostitutes are in no danger of finding their present life so satisfactory that they cannot turn to God: the proud, the avaricious, the self-righteous, are in that danger.
    -C.S. Lewis, Problem of Pain, ch. 6

  13. Derek Leman says:

    Wow, Luzzato uses that same phrase: “delving in his mind.” I wonder if Rabbi HaLevi was reading Luzzato when he wrote his sermon.

  14. Derek Leman says:

    Typing a Luzzato quote . . .

  15. David Cook says:

    When did HaLevi deliver that sermon?

  16. Derek Leman says:

    There are some fools who, in their desire to lighten the burden, say, “Why should we weary ourselves with all this saintliness and abstinence? Is it not enough that we shall not be classed with the wicked who will be punished in Gehinnom? We need not push ourselves into the innermost parts of Paradise. We shall have some share therein, though that share be small. We are satisfied with a small portion, which we shall not obtain without assuming too heavy a burden.”
    -Rabbi Chaim Luzzato, Mesillat Yesharim

  17. Derek Leman says:

    HaLevi’s sermon in 1923 in a book called Derech Chaim.

  18. David Cook says:

    I love that quote from Luzatto. With it he both discourages us from being slack in our commitment and encourages us to be eager to fulfill our calling.

  19. Derek Leman says:

    So, HaLevi is saying one of the GOOD functions of the Yetzer HaRa is to show us where there are breaches and to help us know ourselves so we will seek redemption.

  20. David Cook says:

    HaLevi may well have been quoting Luzatto. That would have been around the time that Mesillat Yesharim was being translated into English for the first time.

  21. Derek Leman says:

    As to the Luzzato quote, who hasn’t said something like this at one time or another?

    I have said (forgive the crudity): it would be enough to scrub bathrooms in the world to come.

  22. Derek Leman says:

    I don’t know anything about Rabbi Jacob Ben-Moses HaLevi. He may have written in another language and is translated in Agnon.

  23. David Cook says:

    We shouldn’t settle for being a door keeper or for just having a place there. Whatever position we attain there will be for all eternity. I don’t want to arrive there looking back with regret. At that point, we will no longer have any opportunity to persevere, struggle, cling to hope, and demonstrate faith. We will look back in many ways and say, “If I knew then what I know now, I would have done so much more.” Well, we have the opportunity now, so let’s take advantage of it while we still have breath.

  24. Derek Leman says:

    About to type one last quote and call it a night . . .

  25. Cliff says:

    Hello! The two quotes you bring out (in the blog and from chaim Luzzato) are very good. I see the yetzer hara at work in me quite often. I’ll be trying to focus on some aspect of character or mussar and inevitably the biggest distraction is “busy-ness.” I think the yetzer hara loves that everyone is so busy all the time. It prevents them from focusing on the good inclination.

  26. Derek Leman says:

    The essential purpose of the Rosh HaShanah prayers is that his great Name be sanctified in the universe. Therefore, let every man weep and be sorrowful in his heart, especially on the great and awesome Day of Judgment, because of the profanation of his Name.
    -an explanation in a Machzor, cited in Agnon

    • David Cook says:

      That reminds me. Most everyday for the month of Elul I’ve been blowing the shofar at home. For the first time, I can feel my soul being aroused by it’s awesome sound.

  27. Derek Leman says:

    Cliff, good to see you here. I failed to advertise widely and we got only a few tonight. Wish you’d been here the previous two weeks.

  28. Derek Leman says:

    We will have a Week 4 and I will advertise to all my various lists so we can get a dozen people or so on for the last discussion. Sorry I was under-prepared tonight.

    • David Cook says:

      No need to apologize Derek. You should feel sorry for all the others who missed out on a great discussion.

  29. Derek Leman says:

    Any last thoughts? or should we sign off early?

  30. Cliff says:

    Hard to set aside the time and sit down, back to my post above. Ha! It is so good to focus on improving our inner being. Sadly I have not done well this month yet. Well, hopefully I’ll catch you next week. Peace

  31. Herbert says:

    am here too. late. more than deliberate evil I have found doing things meaninglessly to be the bigger problem.

  32. Derek Leman says:

    Herbert, “doing things meaninglessly” is a great description!

  33. David Cook says:

    Each day, we should remember to say “Modeh Ani” and think about what we need to accomplish that day. Doing so will help us stay focused and avoid “doing things meaninglessly.”

  34. Derek Leman says:

    Reminds me of Thoreau: the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.

  35. Derek Leman says:

    David, Herbert is likely unfamiliar with the Modeh Ani. We should have a Siddur basics lesson with some of the new folk at Tikvat David soon.

    • David Cook says:

      That’s a great idea. You’ll teach it too right?

      • David Cook says:

        It’s actually Ani Modeh. I was typing too fast earlier. The term means, “I thank you” and is an expression of gratitude to God for giving us another day to serve Him.

  36. Allison says:

    Am here lurking…haven’t been able to participate like last time, but I love reading your comments.

  37. Derek Leman says:

    Allison, great to know you are here!

  38. Cliff says:

    That is one of my biggest appreciations of the Siddur, always words to say to reflect on God’s amazing gifts. Even waking up. Lila tov

  39. Derek Leman says:

    David, I thought you meant the prayer on waking, Modeh Ani Lifanecha. We focus on God upon waking and this first God-focus of the day sets the tone and priority.

    • David Cook says:

      Yes, that’s the one, and you are correct, it is Modeh Ani. I had it right all along. Must be one of those unconscious things.

  40. Derek Leman says:

    Well, friends, let’s repair the breaches in the walls and circle them often to notice them all. Good night all and see you next week!

  41. Donald Chase says:

    Well after reading all of this, it appears that I missed the discussion. Oh well, that’s me. Always slow and late to what ever.

  42. Derek Leman says:

    Donald, sorry we missed you, brother. We’ll be back next Wednesday at 9:00 Eastern.

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