Getting Hooked on Evil, Part II
Chapter 4, Law 5-6(b)
[Law 5] And among them (i.e., the twenty four factors which interfere with
repentance listed in this chapter) are five things which one will be drawn
after constantly and which are difficult to desist from. Therefore, one must
be vigilant regarding them lest he become attached to them. All of them are
particularly bad behavioral patterns (Heb., 'de'os', lit., 'attitudes').
(a) Rechilus (speech which causes enmity between individuals -- such as
telling A what B said about him behind his back).
(b) Lashon Hora (gossip)
(c) Being hot tempered ('ba'al chaima;' lit., 'the owner of rage').
(d) One plagued by negative thoughts (lit., 'the owner of bad thoughts').
(e) One who befriends a wicked person, as he learns from [the wicked man's]
actions and they become impressed in his heart. This is as Solomon said,
'One who befriends fools will become evil' (Proverbs 13:20).
We have already written in the Laws of De'os ways in which a person must
accustom himself constantly [to avoid such behavior], certainly in the case
of a repenter.
[Law 6] Regarding all these things and the like, even though they interfere
with repentance, they do not hold it back [entirely]. Rather, if a person
repents over them he is [considered] fully repentant (lit., 'an owner of
repentance') and he merits a share in the World to Come.
Last week we began discussing the sins listed by the Rambam. As we saw,
unlike his earlier lists, this list does not refer to specific actions but
to more general traits or behavior patterns. As such, they are especially
difficult to change. Once a person gets hooked on gossip or anger, it will
be near impossible to retrain himself to act more appropriately.
We were in the middle of the fourth example last week -- the person of
negative thoughts. We discussed why negativity and depression are so
addictive. We all get down here and there, but why is it that when that
happens we want to stay that way? A depressed person does not even want to
be cheered up. He wants to wallow in his self-pity, being too busy feeling
bad for himself to pay attention to anything or anyone else. Isn't it so
much better to be happy and a part of the world than depressed and down on
We answered on two levels. The first idea is that this is somehow the
depressant's way of striking back at the rest of the world -- in vain hope
of restoring his own bruised ego. They don't value or care for him, so he'll
withdraw as a means of showing how terribly they've treated him. Look how
much harm you have all done! I don't need them anyway! I wouldn't even
*want* them as friends! They're not worthy of it! He rebuilds his injured
self-esteem by pretending he doesn't even care for the people who ignored or
slighted him -- he never regarded them in the first place. And such a person
would not even *want* to be cheered up -- lest his disdainful attitude be
A second related idea, based on my teacher R. Yochanan Zweig, is that
depression is an enormously selfish attitude -- of only caring for myself
and blocking out the rest of the world. If I see that other people really
are kind and caring towards me, I become beholden to them. If they do for
me, I must reciprocate. I must care about them and do for them myself. But
that means not caring only for myself. And people have an enormous
resistance to this. They would rather be miserable and claim no one does
anything for them than admit they owe others. They would rather only look at
and care about themselves than turn their focus outwards. Admit life isn't
all that bad and you must own up to those who have made it more bearable for
you. And when someone is down in the dumps, self-centeredly thinking and
caring only about himself, practically no force on earth can raise him out
This, however, is not merely an interpersonal issue. It describes mankind's
entire struggle in his relationship with G-d.
Deuteronomy 28 outlines the horrific, unspeakable punishments which will
befall Israel if it refuses to serve G-d. Verse 47 (according to one
reading) interpolates a cryptic comment right in the middle of the curses:
"On account of that you didn't serve the L-rd, your G-d from joy and
goodness of heart, when you had much of everything." Thus, the Torah appears
to threaten such terrible punishments not for sinning against G-d or
ignoring His commandments, but for *performing* them -- but doing so without
Now of course we know how important attitude is and how much more pleasant
our good deeds are if with do them with enthusiasm, but why such terrible
punishments simply for lacking joy? Isn't such a person basically serving
G-d regardless? Isn't the main thing that he's performing the commandments?
Furthermore, why *didn't* Israel serve G-d with joy when they had "much of
everything?" If G-d really provided us with all we could ask for when we
first came into the Land, why was our service of Him so lacking in happiness
and enthusiasm? What more could we have wanted? Why *not* be happy and serve
The answer (also from R. Zweig) touches upon one of man's great challenges
in life. Ask anyone how he's doing -- even if things are perfectly fine with
him -- and you'll typically get a very muted response. "Not bad." Alright,
perhaps people don't won't to brag unnecessarily when things are good, and
at time things really are much worse than they appear to us. But people tend
to downplay their blessings. Things are "okay", "could be better" -- or
they're just "not bad" (not really positive, but at least not negative). Or
more religiously, "baruch Hashem" (thank G-d) -- which too actually says
Now, when we view all of the blessings G-d has granted us and continuously
grants us in life -- every part of our body which is constantly functioning,
our families, talents, livelihoods -- not to mention the planet, the air we
breath, the weather, etc., we should be ecstatic, overwhelmed with joy --
even if there are many minor issues we wouldn't mind improving. But we're
very lukewarm about how things are with us. We're almost not aware of our
blessings -- whereas we are quite keenly aware of our few problems and
shortcomings. Why is that? Why not admit -- at least to ourselves -- that
life is wonderful?
The answer is because the more we admit things are so good, the more we are
obligated to G-d. Life is fantastic! -- and every aspect of it has been
granted to us by G-d on a silver platter. How do we own up to that? The
implications are that we owe and we owe and we owe G-d for every moment we
have been granted. But how do we repay that? By devoting our every moment to
G-d. And that is sobering and frightening beyond imagination.
Thus, we have a very strong defense mechanism against our religious
obligations. We downplay (or try not to think about) how much G-d does for
us. Rather, we focus on the little bit of bad -- perhaps by comparing
ourselves to someone who (we think) has it better -- and allow ourselves to
get down as a result, even imagining that G-d does not do so much for us to
earn our allegiance.
"On account of that you didn't serve the L-rd, your G-d from joy and
goodness of heart, when you had much of everything." We weren't happy even
though we had it all -- or actually, *because* we had it all. We didn't
*want* it to make us happy, lest we become obligated to devote our every
moment and every fiber to the G-d who granted it all.
And when that point is reached, all hell breaks loose -- literally. G-d
visits upon such people the most terrible chastisement imaginable. Why?
Because if a person doesn't feel G-d does for him, if he feels he owes G-d
nothing, then his every act of obedience will make him *resent* G-d. "Why do
I have to do this for G-d? What do I owe Him for -- for making my life
miserable?" Thus, every mitzvah (commandment) such a person performs will
drive him further from G-d rather than closer. Every act will increase his
resentment and annoyance. And the worse the resentment and resistance we
feel towards G-d, the more He will return in kind. He will throw every one
of our worthless, negative acts back in our faces.
I will mention briefly two other common examples of this phenomenon --- also
both from R. Zweig. Take your adolescent child. "What do my parents give me?
They give me no freedom! I'm *embarrassed* to be seen with them! I can't
even invite my friends because the house is such a mess, etc." When one
human being owes another for *everything* he goes into denial. "No -- my
parents made my life miserable." Otherwise, he will realize he owes a debt
he can never repay, and that he must be eternally beholden to parents who
though no doubt hardly perfect, invested so many years of time, money and
energy into his very existence.
Another excellent example is that big imperialistic bully, the good old US
of A. The United States basically gives away free tens of billions of
dollars yearly to the world at large -- to developing nations, impoverished
nations, nations in crisis, and thankfully to Israel -- basically as a
complete act of kindness. Is it to contain Communism? To ruthlessly swallow
up smaller nations and impose Western ideals on Eastern man? Hardly. Any
such minor considerations would in no way justify the sums of money handed
over. Rather, it's almost a complete, unadulterated act of kindness, of
noblesse oblige. And, as to be expected, what is the reaction of the Third
World countries which receive so much aid from America? "Why, those
despotic, degenerate, imperialistic bullies, who think they know better and
attempt to impose their will on the rest of mankind! Who do they think they
are?" And ever since the Marshall Plan or so, hating America has quite been
I think I've written enough for one week, so I will close up this lesson
quickly. The final example, befriending a wicked person, is fairly
self-explanatory. People do not like standing out and appearing different.
It is thus imperative to stay clear of wicked people. As the Rambam taught
us in the Laws of De'os (6:1), we
should take care not to even live in the same country as wicked people. Some
people naively feel that if they join the company of the sinful, they will
shine by comparison -- and they may even influence the evil to improve. On
the other hand, if they live with the righteous, they will become annoyed
and resentful towards those who are so much more religious than they, and
they will become defensive and negative. Or at the very least, they'll feel
like such incompetents they'll sink into hopeless depression.
Is there any validity to such an attitude? Perhaps. But the Rambam tells us
otherwise. Stay away from the wicked. They will harm you much more than you
will improve them. You will become addicted to their seductive ways, with
little means of freeing yourself. Rather, stay in the company of the
righteous. Once you're there you can work on your attitude -- learning from
them rather than resenting them. But one thing at a time. For seeing and
observing the ways of the good is the first step towards adopting such
wholesome ways yourself.
Text Copyright © 2012 by Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld and Torah.org