We all want to be happy… but are all types of happiness good?
Consider, for example, the temporary happiness you get from eating 3 pieces of cake when you’re on a diet. In the moment, you enjoy the pleasure, but a few minutes later, you are filled with regret. “Did I really just eat 3 pieces of cake?!” you ask yourself in horror. “Why on earth did I let myself do that?”
When we make impulsive decisions like this, we are indulging in short-term pleasure (eating cake) at the expense of our long-term happiness (being healthy).
Shlomo HaMelech warns us about this dangerous type of pleasure in Mishlei, as he writes, “Acharis Simcha Tooga – The end result of [physical] pleasure is agony.“2 It might feel good to indulge in a few seconds of pleasure, but this pleasure is short-lived. A few moments later, we will feel terrible about ourselves, and will also have to deal with the negative consequences of the choice we just made.
This danger of succumbing to our temptations is not just about eating unhealthy foods. It might come in the form of sleeping so much that it affects our ability to get things done, shopping so much that it plunges us into debt, or checking our phones so much that it ruins our ability to focus or to build close relationships. When we engaged in these behaviors repeatedly, it becomes almost like an addiction that we cannot control.
Of course, Hashem wants us to enjoy the pleasures of this world, but as soon as these pleasures start impacting us negatively, then we know we have crossed the line from basic pleasure into dangerous Ta’avah (temptation).
But if giving in to these temptations ends up hurting ourselves in the long run, why do we keep doing it? Why can’t we stop?
The Yetzer Hara’s Lies and Illusions
The Sfas Emes3 explains that the yetzer hara gets us to harm ourselves by tricking us with lies and illusions.
When you are tempted to eat that cookie, you have one voice in your head telling you that it will make you gain weight or ruin your health. But the yetzer hara jumps in with a counter-argument. “Just this one little cookie?” he says. “This one little cookie wont make any real difference! This one little cookie wont make you gain 10 pounds.”
You can try to reason with the yetzer hara, but it’s hard, because what he said does contain a grain of truth. It’s true that this one cookie is not going to make you gain 10 pounds. But the yetzer hara’s words contain a lie. The yetzer hara is hiding from you that if you continue eating cookie after cookie and thinking that each individual cookie doesn’t make a big difference, all the cookies are definitely going to add up over time, and before you know it, THEN you might gain 10 pounds!
As all experienced liars do, the yetzer hara starts with a grain of truth, but then twists it into a full-blown lie that can really hurt us.4 He makes us slip up by hiding the truth.
So how can we defeat this yetzer hara?
Strengthening the Voice of Truth
The way to defeat this yetzer hara is by strengthening the voice of truth. Validate the grain of truth in what the yetzer said, but answer him back with the truth – the full truth this time. (“Yes, this one cookie will not cause me to gain 10 pounds, but if I keep reinforcing this habit, then it’s very likely to add up to 10 pounds!”)
By considering the true consequence of our actions, we will be following the suggestion of Pirkei Avos5: “What is the path that a person should choose for himself?… Calculate the amount of pleasure that you will experience from doing a sin, and compare it to the harm it will cause you in the long-term.” (How long will I enjoy this piece of cake? Just for a few seconds. How long will I experience its negative effects to my health? Much longer.)
We usually do hear this voice of truth in the back of our minds, but we usually just tune it out. The key then is to consciously “turn up the volume” so you can hear clearly what the voice of Truth is saying.
Now, during Adar, it’s particularly important to train ourselves to listen to this voice of truth and overcome our desires. Chazal teach: Why were the Jews subjected to Haman’s evil decrees? Because they indulged in pleasures at the feast of Achashveirosh.“6
In the beginning of the Megillah, we read about how Achashveirosh prepared an enticing party with every kind of pleasure imaginable. He tempted the Jews to join his party, and many Jews fell prey to these temptations and succumbed to their yetzer hara. In order to rectify this mistake, Hashem sent Haman to scare us with his evil decrees, so that we would wake up and do teshuva. Even today, we are still suffering the effects of the Jews’ mistake as we fast and do teshuva on Taanis Esther.
This week, let’s practice strengthening our inner voice of truth so that we’ll be able to defeat the yetzer hara and overcome our desires.
Sources:  Taanis 29a;  Mishlei 14:13;  Sfas Emes Vaeira 638 and Ki Teitzei 634, also see Seforno on Bereishis 3:1;  See Rashi on Bamidbar 13:27;  Pirkei Avos 2:1 with explanation of the Bartenura;  Megillah 12a;
Once a day, catch the yetzer hara when he tries to tell you a lie, and answer him with the truth, instead.
- Yetzer hara says: This one little cookie won’t make any difference!
- You answer: It’s true that this one cookie will not make a huge difference, but if I keep eating cookie after cookie then it definitely will have an impact on my health.
- Yetzer hara says: You have to check your phone again – what if you missed a call or got a text?? There is nothing to lose by checking your phone again, just in case!
- You answer: I already checked my phone 10 times in the past 5 minutes. If I wait to check my phone for another several minutes, nothing terrible will happen. But if I do keep checking my phone incessantly, I will become a more distractible, less focused person. So yes, there is something to gain by restraining myself from checking my phone again.
- Yetzer hara says: Oy! A blob of ketchup just fell on your shirt! You have to wash it out right now, otherwise you will be embarrassed!
- You answer: It’s Shabbos right now and I’m not allowed to wash my shirt. It’s true that I don’t want to be embarrassed, but I would rather be a little embarrassed temporarily in this world than be embarrassed for eternity in front of Hashem.
- Yetzer hara says: That pizza looks SO GOOD! You MUST eat it!
- You answer: The pizza does look good, but it’s not true that I “must” eat it. If I don’t eat it, I will be perfectly fine.
- What is the first thing described by the Torah as a “ta’avah” (desirous)? (See Bereishis 3)
- After the Jewish people left Egypt, they said that they missed eating certain foods that they had been eating in Egypt. Name at least 2 of the foods they missed eating. (See Bamidbar 11:5)
- Why couldn’t the Mun taste like these foods? (See Rashi)
- When the Jewish people were traveling in the desert, the “Assafsuf” desired something. What did they desire? (See Bamidbar 11:4)
- Who were the “Assafsuf”? (See Rashi)
- The Gemara (Sotah 14a) says that Moshe Rabbeinu didn’t want to enter the land of Israel just to enjoy eating its fruit; rather because he wanted to _____?
- According to the Gemara (Pesachim 99b), what should a person do to make sure that he enters into Shabbos of Yom Tov with an appetite for food?
Questions to Ponder
- The Midrash writes that when a person dies, he doesn’t have even half of his desires in his hand. What do you think that means? Let’s say a person always wanted to become a millionaire, and he achieved his dream before he died. Didn’t he get everything he desired?
- The Midrash Tanchuma says that Torah Sheba’al Peh (the Oral Law) cannot be contained in a person who runs after the pleasures of this world. Why not?
- The Sefer HaChinuch writes that we shouldn’t stray after our hearts and eyes, because if a person gives in to their desires, they could eventually become a heretic (denying Hashem’s existence). How could succumbing to one’s desires lead to heresy?