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 and starts showing them some crafty knick-knack import. He says in a stoner voice:
“This is a Senegalese lute carved from deer wood, used for fertility rituals… oh and you can put your weed in there!”
They move from one knick-knack to another. Each time the stoner guy describes the intricacies and history of the item, he concludes by showing them some hole or little compartment in it 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 like that?” He then examines the knick-knack he’s 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 has 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? Why do we have this yetzer hara- this “evil urge”- this drive toward self-destruction?
In his introduction to Pirkei Avot, HaRav Yochanan Zweig proposes something unique and 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 knowing our great potential and not living up to it, 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 as well.
The Israelites had just been dwelling peacefully in their camp. Then the Midianites come along and try to seduce them into an orgy of idolatry and adultery. The Midianites didn’t attack them militarily; all the Israelites had to do is say “No thank you,” and they’d be fine. But what happens? They are easily seduced and the Divine wrath flares up. It’s the golden calf all over again! Dang.
The fellow for whom the parshah is named, Pinhas, then wields his spear and kills two particularly hutzpadik offenders who were flaunting their orgiastic idolatry right in front of the holy “Tent of Meeting.” 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. Murder in the name of religious zealotry? Embarrassing.
And yet, if we dig deep into the underlying currents of the narrative, an urgent message emerges: 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 were we ensnared by such a thin hair?”
The key is being conscious, and clearly holding the intention that you are not living for your own gratification, but rather you are here to serve the enormous potential for wisdom and love that is your essence, your divine nature.
At the same time, it’s crucial to acknowledge that you do have needs and desires.
While it’s true there are times when our impulses are so destructive that they must be completely halted as represented by Pinhas and his spear, in most cases our thirsts can be quenched in moderation, with balance and wisdom. Our desires, after all, are like the impulses of an animal. Don’t let the animal take over, but don’t torture it either. You have the power, through your awareness, to give the animal enough so that it let’s you have peace, without it taking over and pulling you toward self-sabotage.
There’s a story of a simple man who came to Maggid of Koznitz with his wife, demanding that he be allowed to divorce her.
“Why would you want to do that?” asked the Maggid.
“I work very hard all week,” said the man, “and on Shabbos I want to have some pleasure. Now for Shabbat dinner, my wife first serves the fish, then the onions, then some heavy main dish, and by the time she puts the pudding on the table, I have eaten all I want and have no appetite for it. All week I work for this pudding, and when it comes I can’t even taste it- and all my labor was for nothing!
“Time after time I ask my wife to please put the pudding on the table right after Kiddush (the blessing over wine), but no! She says that the way she does it is the proper minhag (custom).”
The Maggid turned to the woman.
“From now on, make a little extra pudding. Take a bit of the pudding and serve it right after Kiddush. Then, serve the rest of it after the main dish, as before.”
The couple agreed to this and went on their way.
From that time on, it became the minhag (custom) in the Maggid’s house to serve some pudding right after Kiddush, and this minhag was passed on to his children and his children’s children. It was called the Shalom Bayit Pudding- the “Peace-in-the-House Pudding!”
On this Shabbat Pinkhas, the Sabbath of Peace, may we be aware of the needs of our hearts an bodies, giving and receiving the pleasures of life without being controlled by them. May we know that we are infinitely more vast than any particular impulse or want. May we see that all impulses come and go, and that we need not identify with them.
And that is the good kind of self-destruction!