The daf today is concerned with the evil inclination, tracing its origins to the moment of creation, reflecting on the myriad ways it perpetually haunts us. It is compared to a fly that lies in wait between the entrances of the heart, waiting for its chance to enter. It is also compared to a grain of wheat, which also looks for an opening, ready to expand and leaven when an opportunity arises.
They’re definitely onto something these Rabbis, we all have a little grain of mischief and selfishness inside us, which can lie dormant for extended periods but which will blossom and come to life when given half an opportunity. It will often start with the smallest thing, a very mild slackening of our attention and caution, perhaps when we accede to one drink too many of an evening, or when we first stick our nose into business where it doesn’t really belong.
Before we know it we’re immersed in something, and it can be an almighty struggle to extricate ourselves from it. We might be watching ourselves with a modicum of disbelief – ‘is this really me? How did I fall from grace so quickly?’ And if the mischievous impulse is particularly sly it might turn the questioning to its own ends – ‘doesn’t this show that all my righteousness and goodness until now was just a sham, that this is the real me, this craven depraved creature appearing before my eyes?’
I’ve heard it compared to a little monster, our capacity for darkness: once he’s fired up and let out of the cage he just doesn’t want to be put back in.
And it is with this keen psychological awareness that the Rabbis offer the following advice:
A man should not walk behind a woman on a path [as he will look at her constantly]…And anyone who walks behind a woman in a river has no portion in the World-to-Come.
Tosafot, who don’t say much in these last pages of Berakhot, are quick to offer the following explanation:
This applies if he does this regularly, for he will eventually fall prey to the temptations of adultery and he will end up in hell.
If a man spends his days admiring the feminine shape, no matter how pure and noble his intentions may be at the start, he is opening the door to temptation, to the pesky fly which is just waiting for a sniff of opportunity. The flesh is weak, sin is always waiting, and if we want to escape the personal hell into which it can lead us into then we would do well to keep an eye on our eyes.
There is a recognition here of the huge effort that goes into sustaining the civilised and virtuous state of mind, and of how little it takes to undermine that effort. In this sense the Rabbis are deeply Freudian, their take on man shares his realistic and sober assessment of our nature. They do not share the enlightenment or liberalist optimism, pervasive to this day, wherein man is basically good, where he is born in purity, and it is only the poisons of society which corrupt him. They are all too conscious of how corruptible he really is.
This consciousness informs their next insight:
One who counts money for a woman from his hand to her hand in order to look upon her, even if he has accumulated Torah and good deeds like Moses our teacher, he will not be absolved from the punishment of Gehenna.
At a first glance this sounds absurd – who does that, who makes such a roundabout effort to catch a glimpse of a woman’s hand and finds it a turn on?
But it happens. The Rabbis are not saying that it always happens, that every man who sees a woman’s hand is wildly turned on. For the most part, for most people, it can be a deeply insignificant moment.
But when a man is in a frenzy of obsession, when an imbalance in his libido causes him to invest parts of a woman’s anatomy with near magical powers, when she becomes the locus of his fetish; at that point anything is possible.
And the Rabbis did not say that at that point a man is ill, he is disturbed, he is somehow sub-normal. No, they did not use the clinical terms of the DSM IV to distance themselves from the phenomenon in front of them, from phenomena they knew intimately from personal experience. They make it clear that it can happen to a man who is full of Torah and good deeds, who in every other way and to all outer appearances is thoroughly upstanding.
The Rabbis knew the heart of man, they knew the craven spirit that was always hovering in its environment, and they issued their warnings accordingly:
‘Do not think that you have no such inclination, and do not think that you will forever be immune to its charms. Treat it with respect, for otherwise it will lead you to personal ruin and destruction, to a hell of your own making, it will pervert your imagination and give you no rest until you have acted its bidding.’
Indeed, in this spirit Rav Shimon ben Pazi was known to say:
Woe unto me for my Creator and woe unto me for my inclination.
We have a great many inclinations for the positive, but we also have powerful inclinations for the worse, particularly when the fires of sexuality come to life. There is no sense in protesting it, for we were created this way, but when we try to disavow or deny it, when we delude ourselves that it holds no sway over us, that is when we are worthy of woe, for that is when we are at our most painfully vulnerable.