One of my favorite Saturday Night Live sketches begins in one of those exotic import stores, filled with incense holders, meditation bowls, handmade musical instruments and the like. A stoner-type guy who works there comes up to some customers, starts showing them all the crafty knick-knacks and says (stoner voice): “This is a Senegalese lute carved from deer wood, used for fertility rituals… oh and you can put your weed in there!”- indicating that a bag of weed could fit in one of the flute holes.
They move from one knick-knack to another. Each time, after the stoner guy describes the intricacies and history of each item, he concludes by showing them some hole or little compartment and says, “oh, and you can put your weed in there!”- and stuffs a baggy of marijuana into it.
Finally, a cop comes into the store. When the stoner sees the cop, he anxiously tells his customers to say nothing about weed. The cop walks over to them and says, “how you doing?” The stoner clenches his jaw, trying to restrain himself, and then busts out uncontrollably: “WEED!! WEED!! WEED!!”
The cop says, “Why are you yelling that?” He then examines whatever object the stoner is holding, finds the weed and arrests him.
The Talmud says, (Sukkah 52a) “A person’s yetzer (drive, inclination, desire) grows stronger each day and desires his death.”
In the sketch, all the stoner guy had to do to not get caught is nothing. But he can’t help it- he yells, “Weed! Weed!”
How often are you given the opportunity for life to go well, to go smoothly, and somehow you find yourself messing the whole thing up? As I look back on my life, I can think of plenty of such times. In fact, I think it’s safe to say that the most dangerous person to me has been myself!
Why do we have this yetzer hara- (the “bad inclination”)- this drive toward self-destruction?
In his introduction to Pirkei Avot, HaRav Yochanan Zweig proposes something I find very compelling: He says that the reason we tend to sabotage ourselves is actually because of our unbelievably enormous potential. We know, on some level, that our potential is enormous, and that creates a kind of psychological pressure. We are terrified of not living up to our potential.
So, to avoid the pain of not living up to our potential, we try to convince ourselves that we have no potential, that we are worthless, and all our self-destructive behaviors are aimed at proving our worthlessness to ourselves.
This week’s reading begins with the aftermath of a self-destructive incident, when the Israelites are on the threshold of entering the Promised Land. All they have to do stay focused and keep on track. But what happens? They are seduced into an orgy of idolatry and adultery! It’s the golden calf all over again! Dang.
The fellow for whom the parsha is named, Pinhas, has just wielded his spear and killed two particularly hutzpadik offenders who were flaunting their orgiastic idolatry right in front of the Ohel Moed, the holy “Tent of Meeting” (where the Divine Presence would manifest and communicate with the people). This week’s parshah then begins with Pinhas getting rewarded for his heroic murder, and he is given a Divine Brit Shalom- a “Covenant of Peace.”
For many, it’s hard to see anything positive in this story. Most would say that murder in the name of religious zealotry is an unfortunate, evil and embarrassing part of our humanity and religious history.
And yet, if we dig deep into the underlying currents of the narrative, an urgent message appears: There is a powerful drive toward self-sabotage, toward self-destruction. It is seductive, sexy, exciting and relentless. It will disguise itself in all kinds of ways to trick you and lure you into its power.
But, you can overcome it, if you are aware of it!
In fact, if you are aware of it, it has no power at all. The Talmud says that in the future, the Yetzer hara will be revealed for what it really is. When the wicked see the yetzer hara, it will appear as a thin hair. They will weep and say, “How is it that we could not overcome such a thin hair?”
The key is being conscious, and clearly holding the intention that you are not trying to serve your ego, you are not trying to live for your own gratification, but rather you are here to serve the enormous potential for wisdom and love that are your essence, your divine nature.
This spirit of holy intention is actually the way to quench the inner thirst that the yetzer hara thrives on. When you live in holy intention, that needy, fragmented self that reaches for wholeness in unwholesome things can ultimately dissolve.
And that is the good kind of self-destruction!