The Fight Against the Evil Inclination
It is stated at the beginning of Parsha Vayigash, “Then Judah approached him [Joseph] and said, ‘If you please, my lord, may your servant speak a word in my lord’s ears and let not your anger flare up at your servant’ ” (Genesis 44:18).
We must understand the hidden meaning behind Judah and Joseph’s surprising discussion.
1. Parsha Mikeitz recounts the story of the cup that was eventually found in Benjamin’s sack. When Joseph’s servant caught up to Joseph’s brothers and accused them of having stolen his master’s cup, Judah took the initiative. Without having been asked to decide upon their fate, he immediately said: “Anyone among your servants with whom it is found shall die, and we also will become slaves to my lord” (Genesis 44:9). It is impossible to renege on such a declaration, and so when the cup was finally found in Benjamin’s sack, why did Judah begin to discuss Benjamin’s fate? Joseph’s servant had already diminished the severity of the sentence, stating that only the individual with whom the cup was found would be made a slave, while the other brothers would be absolved (v.10). Had Judah not declared his own sentence?
2. If we say that Judah spoke with Joseph’s servant because Judah had offered to be Benjamin’s guarantor (as it is stated, “I will personally guarantee him; of my own hand you can demand him” [Genesis 43:9]), and he was ready to lose both worlds for him (as the Sages have said [Bereshith Rabba 91:10]), why didn’t Judah weigh his words more carefully, especially before Joseph’s servant began searching through the brothers’ possessions? Could he not have refused and instead have saved Benjamin without entering into this discussion?
3. Concerning the verse, “Then Judah approached him,” the Sages have said: “He approached Joseph as much to appease him as to fight him, and he threatened him by saying, ‘If I draw my sword, I will begin with you and finish with Pharaoh’ ” (Bereshith Rabba 93:6). This is troubling. Why would Judah want to fight Joseph because of Benjamin, since he himself had decreed a death sentence for the individual with whom the cup was found (and it was only Joseph’s servant who commuted the sentence)?
4. Finally, we must understand the meaning of the mission that Joseph’s servant was sent on. It is written, “When Joseph said to the one in charge of his house, ‘Get up, chase after the men; when you overtake them, you are to say to them, “Why do you repay evil for good? Is it not the one from which my master drinks, and with which he regularly divines? You have done evil in how you acted!” ’ ” (Genesis 44:4-5).
Note that we learn extraordinary things in this parsha: We learn of the cup that was concealed in Benjamin’s sack, the words of Judah to Joseph’s servant, and finally the confrontation between Judah and Joseph.
The account concerning Judah and Joseph teaches us how to conduct ourselves, showing us how to conquer the evil inclination, distance ourselves from it, and not listen to it. This account also teaches us to repent wholeheartedly, confess our sins, and come closer to G-d.
If a man sins and regrets it, he should realize that confessing his sin is an essential part of repentance, as the Rambam writes: “Confessing one’s sins is a Torah commandment, as it is written: ‘A man or woman who commits any of man’s sins…they shall confess their sin that they committed’ [Numbers 5:6-7]” (Hilchot Teshuvah 1:1). Sins committed by people when they are children are erased on condition that they are not repeated in adulthood, the age at which we become responsible for our actions and understand their meaning and gravity. It is therefore essential for us to repent, and in this way our sins will be transformed into merits (Yoma 86b).
The Satan continues to provoke people and make them sin, even those who have decided to repent and have seen a glimmer of light – the light of the Torah, as it is written: “The Torah is light” (Proverbs 6:23; Megillah 16a) – people who desire to break away from their materialism, as it is written: “The day dawned and the men were sent off, they and their donkeys” (Genesis 44:3). However the evil inclination doesn’t give a person the possibility of escape (“he overtook them” [v.6]), nor to appease or fight it. Based on the discussion between Joseph’s brothers and his servant, we may say that the evil inclination tells a person who wants to repent, “The way of the wicked succeeds. As long as you were with me, you were successful. Why do you want to leave me now and repay evil for good? Instead of being punished for all your sins, you would have succeeded. It’s only because of me that you got richer and progressed in life.”
To convince a person to return to it, as well as to maintain its hold over a person, the evil inclination lists in detail the advantages that he received, and it rebukes him for having repaid evil for good. However the evil inclination does not mention the damage that a person causes it when he repents and distances himself from it, nor does it state the misfortunes that occur to a person as a result of his sins and transgressions.
A person who has repented has the duty to reply to the arguments of the evil inclination and emphasize that before he sincerely repented, he was like a child who didn’t know where his sin was or what its consequences were. Now, however, he has repented of his sins, and not because he wants to repay evil for good to the evil inclination, but because he has decided to overcome every difficulty he may encounter, and little does it matter to him if he is deprived of all the evil inclination’s “kindnesses,” which in the final analysis are truly harmful. He realizes that he is now experiencing suffering and difficulties as a result of his previous bad behavior. From now on, he is even ready to die rather than to sin by following the advice of the evil inclination. He prefers to be a servant of G-d, Whose goodness and benevolence he recognizes at every instant of his life. This is indicated by the verse, “Anyone among your servants with whom it is found shall die; and we also will become slaves to my lord” (Genesis 44:9). He prefers to die, for he chooses to be a servant of his master, of G-d.
All the same, the evil inclination does let go of a person, threatening that he will regret having abandoned it. In fact the evil inclination tells all those who repent that they will suffer for it, facing trials until they place themselves back under its yoke as before, as stated in the verse: “The one with whom it is found shall be my slave.” In the battle between the one who repents and the evil inclination, each tires to make the other fall, in the sense of the verse: “Hurriedly, each one lowered his sack to the ground” (v.11). Even though the one who repents occupies himself with Torah and desires to drink from that elixir of life, he risks falling back into the traps of the evil inclination, which possesses more than one trick up its sleeve. It is capable of making a person believe that if he has become poor or lost his job, it was for having chosen the path of Torah and neglected his material needs. Such are the arguments that the evil inclination uses, even with a man of Torah.
However we must overcome it and realize that this fall is necessary for elevating ourselves. We should realize that hope is not lost, and that by diligent Torah study and prayer we will once again ascend with G-d’s help. If the evil inclination asks, “How is it that now, while you’re following the path of Torah, you’re in such a hopeless situation, one whose future seems bleak?” It is with the goal of convincing us to follow its advice that the evil inclination asks such questions, luring us with the promise of more success in the future than in the past. We must reply by saying, “G-d has uncovered the sin of your servants” (Genesis 44:16), meaning that because of the sins we committed, we fell into the difficult situation in which we find ourselves today, yet despite everything we will continue – and desire to continue – to be G-d’s servants.
However the evil inclination is not, even after all that, discouraged, and it does not allow itself to weaken. As the Sages have said: “The evil inclination grows with a man from infancy to old age, and each day it tries to make him fall” (Tanhuma Beshalach 3), “The evil inclination of each man gains the upper hand each day and tries to make him fall. It first presents itself as a guest…and in the end it becomes the master of the house” (Sukkah 52a), and “It tries to seize him in its traps” (Bereshith Rabba 22:11). Each day the evil inclination presents itself differently and uses new arguments in order to make a person commit some offense, leaving him no respite. Until a person dies, the evil inclination tries by all possible means to distance him from G-d and subjugate him as before. However we must be ready to even risk our lives in the fight against the evil inclination, since a man is the “guarantor for the child” – for the child that he once was – and so willful sins are considered inadvertent sins, and they are forgiven and erased. Yet now, “how can I go up to my father if the youth is not with me?” (Genesis 44:34), for now he realizes the gravity of his sins and the justice of his punishment, as well as the reward for obeying the commandments. If he commits a sin now, he is judged retroactively for the sins he committed in his youth, as if he had acted with full knowledge.
This is the reason why a person should declare a continual war against the evil inclination, “which is the Satan, which is the Angel of Death” (Bava Batra 16a) – even though he knows that the Satan is stronger than himself because “he is an angel of fire” (Zohar I:80a) – whereas a person is but “flesh and blood.” In spite of everything, victory is promised to the person who does battle with it, as it is written: “When you go to war against your enemies, and the L-RD your G-d delivers them into your hand” (Deuteronomy 21:10). The person who confesses his sins is like Judah, who was not ashamed to confess his sin, and who actually ended up inheriting the World to Come (Sotah 7a,b).
Once a person has repented and begins to distance himself from the evil inclination, it is essential that he not fall into the traps that it sets out for him. At first the evil inclination present itself as a friend who seeks a person’s good, asking him: “Why do you want to repay me evil for good?” The repentant person should reply that up to now he was unaware that his behavior was contrary to G-d’s will, which was the only reason that he followed its advice. Yet now he prefers to die rather than to listen to it, for he desires to remain G-d’s servant. The evil inclination will then try to persuade him that he lost his job because he chose the Torah and a religious life, but a person must not be taken in by this argument. Rather, he should realize that this new situation atones for his previous sins. In the same way that the evil inclination declares war against us, we are obligated to wage war against it openly and resolutely, for the words vayasigem, vayigash indicate an aggressive approach.
Everyone should realize just how necessary it is to watch out for the traps of the evil inclination and the trials that it sets for us. It is likely to cause us great suffering, to deprive us of a means of living, and to try us with sickness. Nevertheless, we must reject it. The evil inclination whispers to us: “You will succeed as long as you don’t observe the Torah or concern yourselves with good deeds. And now, not only does the Torah not support you, it harms you! You lost your means of living, and you don’t even have the means to do what the Torah commands.”
This test must be overcome and it must be conquered. A person must fight the evil inclination to the point of death, since he has become a guarantor for his past self (the word "93 [“guarantor”] is formed by the same letters as the word 9"3 [“past”]) in order that the sins he committed in the past be forgiven. How great is our loss if we fall into the traps of the evil inclination, which sometimes approaches us as a friend and sometimes as an enemy. We must have faith in G-d, Who comes to our aid and supports us, and we must tell ourselves: “G-d is with me – in me – and I have no reason to fear the evil inclination, even though it is made of fire.” G-d actually resides in each person, and there is no reason to fear the Satan and his enticements. Instead, we must fear G-d alone.