When the People are Ready the Obstacles Dissolve
Tisha B’av 5777 / 2017
Sarah Yehudit Schneider
[When you come into your Promised Land] HaShem will only uproot the nations before you gradually, little by little. You will not be able to defeat them quickly, so the wild animals do not overwhelm you. [Deut. 7:22]
וְנָשַׁל יְי א-ֱלֹהֶיךָ אֶת-הַגּוֹיִם הָאֵל מִפָּנֶיךָ מְעַט מְעָט לֹא תוּכַל כַּלֹּתָם מַהֵר פֶּן-תִּרְבֶּה עָלֶיךָ חַיַּת הַשָּׂדֶה
Moshe speaks these words before his death with Israel poised to enter their promised land. Moshe identifies two threats that will complicate their mission: 1) The idolaters that currently occupy the territory,[i] and 2) the wild beasts roaming the countryside (including snakes and scorpions).
There are two scenarios of how the Israelite’s conquest could proceed. They could enter with a roll of easy victories or a wearisome string of battles, winning some, losing others, high attrition, struggling for survival. One would expect HaShem to choose Plan-A for his blessed Jewish nation, especially since their invasion was the fulfillment of His explicit command.
Yet Moses prophesied the harder road and prepared the people for that. “When you cross into the land and begin your conquest HaShem will not prosper your efforts to the degree of plan-A. He will not uproot the inhabitants in a single sweep, but only gradually, little by little, so the beasts do not multiply in the vacuum created by the sudden absence of the native populace.”
Certainly, Moshes’ premonition was literally true. The Jewish nation has never fully occupied the territory bequeathed as its inheritance—even in its heydays of King David and King Solomon. It has been over 3,000 years since Moshe spoke those words and they are as true today as they were back then. That’s one interpretation, but there’s another message as well.
These carnivores prowling at the fringes poised for attack if not checked by human settlements, even those of our enemies…these wild beasts, says kabbala, are actually the unenlightened layers of our own souls.[ii] We all have a nefesh Elokit (a Divine soul) whose joy is to do good, serve truth, dissolve ego and merge with the Divine. And we all have a nefesh bahamit (an animal soul) that pursues creature comforts like dominance, wealth, territory, mating and power. This nefesh bahamit, as our survival instinct, preserves life and protects the ego. That’s its job.
Kabbala equates the Divine Soul with gadlut—broad, mature, enlightened consciousness and the Animal Soul with katnut—narrow, childish, constricted consciousness. The mission of life is for the Divine Soul to raise up the Animal Soul—to infuse it with wisdom so that it also sees the big picture and makes decisions accordingly. “Who is wise? One who sees the entire chain of cause and effect that will be born by each option and chooses the high road with a whole heart.”[iii]
But in the meantime, the Animal Soul’s dog-eat-dog worldview clashes with our self-image. The more “civilized” we become, the more this antisocial “beast” gets relegated to the borderlands of our psyche. Out of sight, out of mind we imagine that we’ve transcended its aggressive temperament.
The Book of Lamentations, referring to Jerusalem, reads: “Her impurity is in her hems,”[iv] meaning her outskirts. Similarly, the hem of our soul refers to its nether reaches—its unconscious layers—the part of ourselves that we haven’t yet faced, partly because our consciousness hasn’t penetrated there, and partly because we’re ashamed of its coarseness and deny its existence.
The Torah informs us that these brutish impurities, banished to the outer edge of our psyche are the wild beasts that HaShem is concerned about, that need to be kept in check by, strangely, keeping enemies around until we are ready, really ready, to be done with them.
Why? Because, as the Tanya explains, although we have managed to contain them (אתכפיא / askhafia), we still have not succeeded in transmuting them (אתהפכא / ethafkha).[v] There is a constant stream of urges emanating from the animal soul pressing us to satisfy its short-sighted cravings. There are two ways to handle these wayward impulses: We can resist them (אתכפיא) or we can sweeten them at their root and divert them toward good (אתהפכא). Obviously the latter is the ideal, but it requires a level of mastery that follows a lifetime of spiritual work. In the meantime, we need to sort through our daily barrage of impulses, identify the good-serving ones and strive to act only upon them.
But the beast needs its outlets. It must have opportunities to express its carnal self (for example, through sports, political protest, competitions, dancing or the vicarious emotional catharsis of movies, etc). Otherwise its frustration will lead either to depression or to unpredictable outbursts that leave a lot of messy fallout in their wake.
And, of course, one of the most socially sanctioned outlets is to direct its innate aggression toward an enemy (real or imagined) that is trying to harm us. On one hand the enemy poses a threat which legitimizes an aggressive discharge, and on the other hand, it instigates a bonding experience for the group, nation, or even couple that feels besieged. It is well-known (and documented) that a shared enemy exerts a bonding influence upon society. The free-floating aggression of its members gets directed outward, toward the scapegoat, and since the aggression is safely and “honorably” discharged, the people are moved to express their warmth and loyalty to each other.
In the absence of an enemy the aggression, which now needs an outlet, will focus upon targets within the community: neighbors, competitors, political rivals, minorities and adversarial interest groups. Unchecked internecine strife can spiral into civil war. The danger of domestic hostilities is even greater than the threat of war from without. When internal loyalties crumble and infighting escalates, a society splinters and self-destructs.
And so, on one hand, we long to be free of our enemies—they are our greatest anguish. Dealing with them is a massive waste of resources (time, attention, money and lives). Enemies are the primary obstacle to quality of life. If they would just disappear, we could finally focus on our soul work instead of always getting sidetracked by the need for self-defense. That is what we believe. That is what we say to ourselves…but, in this verse, HaShem informs us that it is not so simple. The enemy provides a safe target for the displaced aggression of our still-unrectified animal souls.
In this verse, HaShem is conveying to us that we are not ready to be free of enemies. There are still too many untamed (and unenlightened) “beasts” prowling at the edge of our psyches. HaShem is letting us know that we would tear each other apart if we would lose this “acceptable” outlet to vent our aggressive drives. We have to do our inner work. We have to learn how to respectfully disagree. We have to find a spiritually productive way to deal with fellow tribesmen who, from our perspective “have got it all wrong, who are causing more harm than good, and even endangering the rest of us (as it appears to us).”
At this very moment there is a rabbi under attack for attempting to solve a halachic matter that is a source of existential pain for numbers of Torah-true Jews. With compassion for the dilemma, he turned to the tools of his trade (the halachic and meta-halachic tradition) and forged a creative solution that he hoped would open a larger rabbinic dialogue about how to help all congregants find their (self-respecting) place in the Torah world.
Instead of respectfully disagreeing with his halachic conclusions and presenting an alternative perspective to one’s own congregants, instead of preparing a rebuttal class or calling for debate…he’s besieged by “carnivorous beasts” that are after blood, assassinating his character, calling for his excommunication, shaming his rabbinic title, and tearing his life and dignity to shreds.
Until we learn to process the difficult emotions triggered by disagreements within the tribe, even when the stakes are high and the threats feel existential…until we can hold our opponent’s tselem Elokim before us at all times…until we can acknowledge that there are many valid approaches to a halachic dilemma that may seem totally strange and unfamiliar to us…until we find a spiritually productive way to express our zeal, we are going to keep fasting instead of feasting on this most hidden of holy days.
Please HaShem, help us to find our center, both individually and collectively, the place that can hold all the disparate parts of ourselves in grace and joy and peace and love, the place that can hold your mashiach and draw his revelation into the world NOW.
[i] These Canaanite inhabitants were given three options by the invading Israelites: 1) leave, 2) stay and accept the 2nd class status of woodchoppers and water carriers, 3) fight. TY Shevi’it 6:1; Rambam, Hilchot Melachim 6:4,5; Kesef Mishna, Hilchot melachim 6:4
[ii]ר’ אליעזר צבי סאפרין, אור עינים, אות ע’ – עם הארץ ; (Ramak, Pardes Rimonim 24:8 (חיתו שדי).
[iii] TB Tamid 32a. “Who is wise? The one who sees what is born.”
[iv] טֻמְאָתָהּ בְּשׁוּלֶיה”.”
[v] R. Shneur Zalman of Liadi, Tanya, Chapt. 27.