A story is told [Chovot haLevavot, Sha'ar haYichud haMa'asei 5]:
Once there was a mighty warrior who was returning from a great battle in which his army was victorious against the enemy - utterly crushing their forces. Everyone in the city went out to greet him and congratulate him on the victory, cheering and celebrating the defeat of the city’s foes. Yet there was one wise man who, when he came to congratulate the warrior said, ‘You have been victorious -- but only in the small battle. The great battle is still undetermined.’ The warrior, angry at this man’s lack of enthusiasm, asked him, ‘If so, then what is the great battle.’ The wise man responded, ‘the great battle is the war within your soul, the campaign to conquer the yetzer haRa.”
In our Torah reading this morning we read a bit about a battle as well. In chapter 20, we find the following few verses:
10 When you approach a city in order to wage war against it - you shall call out to it for peace. 11 And it shall be, if they answer you with peace, and open the city to you, then it shall be, that all the people that are found therein shall become tributary for you, and they shall serve you. 12 But if they do not make peace with you, but instead make war against you, then you shall besiege it.
Our Sages are amazed by this passage! They comment on these verses saying, “Look at how great the power of peace is! Even in war, in which no person finds themselves without a sword and a spear, The Holy Blessed One tells us that when we go to war, we begin only with peace.” [Devarim Rabba Perek 5]
But as beautiful as this endorsement of peace is, it is not the whole story. It’s rather a one-sided peace after all, conditional on complete servitude. Is that really the kind of peace we hope for, one in which we conquer the enemy, dominate its forces, take its people, animals, and resources as tribute? It’s hardly a realistic or compassionate view of what a workable peace looks like, and it’s perhaps the reason that this passage is so often interpreted differently. That is, that this remarkable endorsement of seeking peace first, of aiming to prevent total destruction, has implications beyond the physical realm. Many of our great sages have understood this passage not only in the context of warfare between armies, but also, and perhaps even more so, to refer allegorically to the battle within our souls.
That is, as R’ Chayyim ibn Attar, a 16th C. Moroccan sage tells us, in his commentary on the passage, this image of warfare is meant to explain not only how we confront our external enemies, but our internal ones as well. The great battle is the subtext. The great battle is, as we saw in our story, the battle against the yetzer haRa.
What exactly is the yetzer haRa? Literally, it’s the ‘impulse toward evil.’ The Talmud tells us that it, the angel of death, and the figure of Satan, are all one in the same thing [Talmud Bavli Shabbat 157a] - meaning that evil is entirely a psychological reality. Within us we find drives that guide us towards goodness, light, love, and meaning- yet we also find those that push us toward evil, darkness, hate, and apathy. Others define the yetzer haRa as the part of our souls that wants to take: take things from others, take pleasure from the world, take what may not be ours. Clearly no one would see these as mutually exclusive categories. The impulse to do good can cause us and others harm and the impulse toward evil can be beneficial, or even save our lives. These forces within us are not black and white, they are subtle shades, mixtures of light and darkness, pulled toward one side or the other but always in the middle.
However we may conceive it, surely no one can deny that they have faced darkness within themselves at some point or another. For those who are sincerely devoted to a religious life, facing one’s shadow, one’s yetzer haRa is essential.
R’ Chayyim Vital, in his manual for how to receive enlightenment, called Sha’arei Kedushah, writes that, “good character traits are acquired in no other way than in the war against the evil impulse.” [Sha’ar 2, Perek 3]
That means that it is not optional for us to confront our own dark sides! Certainly, we can deny it, run from it, avoid it successfully for a very long time, but sooner or later we must come to terms with the fact that we have within us darknesses. We cannot delude ourselves into thinking those people have them, a habit we reinforce by the gleeful coverage of serial killers and mass murderers that plagues the news. We take a certain sick pleasure in seeing other people lose the war because it makes us think we’re already winning. More often than not though, we’re just not paying attention.
This is by no means a new part of our tradition. The oldest reservoir of ethical wisdom, Pirké Avot, asks quite plainly, “Who is a warrior?” - and Ben Zoma answers for us that it is, “one who conquers their evil impulse.” [4:1]
In the medieval period we see the same idea reflected in Chovot haLevavot, a hugely influential book dealing with morality and ethics. The author, R’ Bahya ibn Paquda writes:
“O mortal! You should know that the greatest enemy you have in this world is your own yetzer haRa. It is interwoven in the forces of your soul and intertwined in the organization of your spirit. It associates with you in the guidance of your physical and spiritual senses. It rules over the secrets of your soul and of what is hidden in your heart. It is your advisor in all of your movements whether visible or invisible that you wish to do. It lies in wait, watching your steps to lead you astray. You are asleep to it but it is awake to you. You look away from it but it does not look away from you. It masks itself as your friend, and pretends to show love, it enters in your inner circle of close friends and advisors. From its gestures and signs it appears it is running to do your will but in fact it is shooting deadly arrows at you to kill and uproot you from the land of the living” [Sha’ar Yichud haMaasei 5]
Similarly, in our own time, R’ Adin Steinsaltz has promoted doing away with the constant discourse in which we advocate the value of ‘peace of mind.’ Peace of mind, he argues, is a trap- an effort to quench the legitimate and necessary struggle that accompanies spirituality. The ‘strife of the spirit’ as he calls it, the battle against and for ourselves, is an essential part of the spiritual journey.
What does all this mean? What does it mean that we should go to war against ourselves? How do we conquer our darkness without repressing it? How we acknowledge our evil without becoming overwhelmed by it? How do we live in a constant state of war, pursuing always the impossible victory of the ‘great battle?’
That answer is provided precisely by our passage from Shofetim: Yes we do battle, but we seek peace first. Peace is the priority. In the battle within our souls, we must work first to make peace with the evil within us.
The truth is that we can never eliminate the yetzer haRa, for it is an essential part of being human. We could not be in the world without it. The rabbis tell us that without it the world would immediately come to an end, for no one would procreate, build a house, or have any drive to strive further to advance themselves and their society.
Thus, we cannot entirely vanquish evil or selfishness. We have only the two options that the Torah lays out in front of us: we can seek peace with our own darkness, and if that fails, we can lay siege to it.
Contemporary psychologist C.G. Jung, who wrote a great deal about what he called the Shadow, gave nearly identical advice. He said: “We must accept our own evil without love or hate, recognizing that it exists and must have its share in life. In doing so we deprive it of the power it has to overwhelm us.” (TRB 288)
Evil is not an objective reality per se, but rather a predominantly psychological one. It stems from our pursuit of pleasure above all else, from our desire to take for ourselves. Until we can make peace with it and use its capabilities for good, subjugated to our intellects and to our desire to give, it will take our mind hostage and require a lengthy and bloody siege to free ourselves from it.
The primary goal is to make peace with our evil - to assimilate the shadow into our persona. We must go out to war, armed and ready, yet we must always seek peace first.
I can’t tell you what the peace within your soul looks like for you. No one can. I can’t tell you what the evil is that you will face when you go out to that battlefield. Each of us has a different enemy with which we must attempt to make peace. Each of us must be warriors in the ‘great battle.’ the one that takes place within our souls- and the one that must conclude with us finding a way to conquer the evil impulse. Trying to destroy it entirely would be foolish, but we also must take care not to be destroyed by it. Our ancestors and our sages have waged the same battle. Some returned victorious and some fell on the field, but perhaps they can offer us some strategies and tactics. Yet, ultimately we walk alone onto the battlefield.
My prayer for you and for all of us is that we find ways to make peace with the evil within us, that we find ways to utilize its power for good, and with God’s help - that we return victorious.