Controlling Desire (Parsha Ha’azinu)

This week’s (9/18/2021) Parsha is Ha’azinu (Deuteronomy 32:1–32:52). In this week’s Torah portion we read:

But Jeshurun waxed fat, and kicked: thou art waxen fat, thou art grown thick, thou art covered with fatness; then he forsook God which made him, and lightly esteemed the Rock of his salvation.
(Deut. 32:15 KJV)

Philo of Alexandria comments on this verse saying:

(120) Moses proceeds to say, that Tubal’s sister was Noeman, the interpretation of which name is “fatness.” For it follows that those who pursue a luxurious condition of the body, and the other objects which I have mentioned, do get fat when they obtain any of the things that they desire: but such fatness as this I lay down as not strength but weakness; for it teaches a man to depart from the honour due to God, which is the first and most excellent power of the soul: (121) and the law is a witness to this which in the great hymn speaks thus–“He was fat, he was rich, he was exceeding broad, and he forsook God who had made him, and he forgot God his Saviour.” (Deut. 32:15.) For in truth those men whose lives have been exceedingly fortunate and are so at the time, do not remember the eternal God, but they think time their god; (122) on which account Moses bears witness, exhorting us to war against the contrary opinions, for he says, “The time has departed from them, and the Lord is among Us.” (Num. 14:9.) So that those men by whom the life of the soul is honoured, have divine reason (Logos) dwelling among them, and walking with them; but those who pursue a life of pleasure have only a brief and fictitious want of opportunities: these men, therefore, having swollen extravagantly, and become enormously distended by their profuse fatness and luxury, have burst asunder. But the others, being made fat by that wisdom which nourishes the souls that love virtue, have a firm and unshaken power, a specimen of which is the fat which is sacrificed as a whole burnt-offering from every victim: (123) for Moses says, “All the fat shall belong to the Lord by the everlasting Law;” (Lev. 3:16.) so that the fat of the mind is offered up to God and is appropriated to him, owing to which it is made immortal; but the fat which clings to the body and belongs to external things is referred to time, which is contrary to God, through which it very rapidly wastes away.
(On the Prosperity of Cain 120-123)

Philo sees Jeshurun in this verse as an example of those who have become slaves to desire, and contrasts Jeshrun with those who have the Logos (divine reason) dwelling in them, and walking with them.

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Having Courage (Parsha Vayelech)

This coming week’s (9/11/2021) Parsha is Vayelech (Deuteronomy 31:1–31:30). In this week’s Torah portion we read:

Be strong and of a good courage, fear not, nor be afraid of them: for the LORD thy God, he it is that doth go with thee; he will not fail thee, nor forsake thee.
(Deut. 31:6 KJV)

This is just as the Hillel the great taught as recorded in the Talmud:

Our Rabbis taught: It once happened with Hillel the elder that he was coming from a journey, and he heard a great cry in the city, and he said: I am confident that this does not come from my house. Of him Scripture says: He shall not be afraid of evil tidings; his heart is steadfast, trusting in the Lord. (Ps. 112:7) Raba said: Whenever you expound this verse you may make the second clause explain the first, or the first clause explain the second. ‘You may make the second clause explain the first’, thus: ‘He will not fear evil tidings’. Why? Because ‘his heart is steadfast, trusting in the Lord’. ‘You may explain the second clause by the first’, thus: ‘His heart is steadfast trusting in the Lord’; therefore, ‘he shall not be afraid of evil tidings’.
(Ber. 60a)

The Zohar tells us our sin (no living in accordance with the Word/Logos) can block our Yetzer Tov (good inclination) from contending with our evil inclination:

Hence it behooves a man to strive his utmost in this world to fortify himself in the Almighty, and put his trust in Him; for then, although he may have sinned, if he repents with all sincerity, since his stronghold is in the Holy One, it will be as though he had not sinned. The brothers were afraid (Gen. 43:18) on account of their sin in having stolen Joseph, for had they not sinned they would not have had any cause to fear; for it is only a man’s sins that break his courage and deprive him of strength, the reason being that the good inclination is at the same time unnerved, and left powerless to contend with the evil inclination.  This is implied in the words: “What man is there that is fearful and faint- hearted?” (Deut. 20:8), on account, that is, of sins which he may have committed, these being the ruin of a stout heart.
(Zohar 1:202a)

The idea of these two inclinations is derived from Genesis 2:7:

And YHWH Elohim formed (YETZER) man of the dust of the ground,
and breathed into his nostrils the breath (NISH’MAT) of life;
and man became a living soul (NEFESH).
(Gen. 2:7)

The Wisdom of Ben Sira says of this verse:

It was He who created man in the beginning.
And He left him in the power of his own freewill (Heb: YETZER).
If you will, you can keep the commandments,

and to act faithfully is a matter of your own choice.
He has placed before you fire and water:
Stretch out your hand for whichever you wish.
 (Sira 15:14-16)

The Talmud takes note of the fact that the word YETZER in Gen. 2:17 is spelled with to YODS (Y’s):

R. Nahman b. R. Hisda expounded:
What is meant by the text, Then the Lord God
formed [va-yetzer] man? [The word va-yetzer] (Gen. 2:7)
is written with two yods, to show that God created
two inclinations, one good (tov) and the other evil (ra).
(b.Ber. 61a)

It has been taught: R. Jose the Galilean says,
The righteous are swayed by their good inclination, as it says,
My heart is slain within me. (Ps. 109:22)
The wicked are swayed by their evil inclination, as it says,
Transgression speaks to the wicked,
methinks, there is no fear of God before his eyes. (Ps. 36:1)
Average people are swayed by both
inclinations, as it says, Because He stands at
the right hand of the needy, to save him from them
that judge his soul. (Ps. 109:31)
Raba said: People such as we are of the average.
(b.Ber. 61b)

Philo of Alexandria also saw a dichotomy in Genesis 2:7, between what he called “body” or “flesh” and what he called “soul” or “mind” with the mind being a fragment of the divine:

There are two several parts of which we consist, the soul and the body; now the body is made of earth, but the soul consists of air, being a fragment of the Divinity, for “God breathed into man’s face the breath of life, and man became a living Soul.”(Gen. 2:7) It is therefore quite consistent with reason to say that the body which was fashioned out of the earth has nourishment which the earth gives forth akin to the matter of which it is composed; but the soul, inasmuch as it is a portion of the ethereal nature, is supported by nourishment which is ethereal and divine, for it is nourished on knowledge, and not on meat or drink, which the body requires. (Allegorical Interpretation, III, 161)

He does well here to attribute the flow of blood to the mass of flesh, combining two things appropriate to one another; but the essence of the mind he has not made to depend on any created thing, but has represented it as breathed into man by God from above. For, says Moses, “The Creator of the universe breathed into his face the breath of life, and man became a living Soul,” (Gen. 2:7) who also, it is recorded, was fashioned after the image of the Creator. (Who is the Heir of Divine Things? 56)

For among created things, the heaven is holy in the world, in accordance with which body, the imperishable and indestructible natures revolve; and in man the mind is holy, being a sort of fragment of the Deity, and especially according to the statement of Moses, who says, “God breathed into his face the breath of life, and man became a living Soul.”(Gen. 2:7). (On Dreams 1, 34)

In the ancient Hebraic Stoic work, 4Maccabees (also known as On the Supremacy of Reason) we read concerning this verse:

21 Now when Elohim fashioned man, he planted in him emotions and inclinations,
22 but at the same time he enthroned the mind among the senses as a sacred governor over them all.
23 To the mind he gave the Torah; and one who lives subject to this will rule a kingdom that is temperate, just, good, and courageous.
(4Macc. 2:21-23)

And as Philo of Alexandria concluded:

“For these passions are the causes of all good and of all evil; of good when they submit to the authority of dominant reason, and of evil when they break out of bounds and scorn all government and restraint.”
(Life of Moses 1; VI, 26)

The neshoma that was breathed into man, is the rational mind. It is a spark of the Logos, the rational mind that permeates the Universe. Hebraic Stoicism teaches us that our rational mind, should be in control over our emotions.

Hebraic Stoics saw in Genesis 2:7, that man had within him a spark of the Logos that permeates the Universe and two inclinations. They saw the Yetzer Tov (good inclination) to be the result of the rational mind in control over the emotions, and the Yetzer Ra (evil inclination) to be the result of the emotions unrestrained and out of the control of the rational mind.

To apply a modern metaphor, the ancient Hebraic Stoics taught that the emotions should be in the passenger’s seat, and the rational mind should be in the driver’s seat.

As Ben Zoma taught “Who is strong? He who controls his inclinations.”  (m.Avot 4:1) citing as his proof text, from Proverbs: “He that is slow to anger is better than the mighty: and he that rules his spirit, than he that takes a city.” (Proverbs 16:32 HRV)

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