By Rabbi Moshe Bloom
Torah VeHa’aretz Institute
When Hashem placed Adam in Gan Eden, initially everything looked rosy. Optimal opening conditions were given to Adam, G-d’s ultimate handiwork. Adam lived in Gan Eden and was charged with “tending and preserving” it, a job precisely tailored to his abilities and drives. He was given one prohibition alone: not to partake of the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge. It was Adam’s transgression of this command that sabotaged the whole plot. Adam knew that it was forbidden to eat from the tree, but he and his wife, Chava, before him, were not able to withstand the test and partook of the forbidden fruit.
Every Jew performs many mitzvot and avoids transgressing many prohibitions, as it says, “Even the empty [Jews] are full of mitzvot like a pomegranate” (Sanhedrin 37a). Most people do not murder their neighbors, even if some are noisy at crazy hours of the night. And most Jews will not hesitate to help if they see an elderly person on a bus. Although many do not necessarily put on tefillin every day, if offered many will willingly do so unless they have a good reason to object. These mitzvot, which come naturally to us, are part of our drive to “tend and preserve.”
Adam wanted to do good, and his innate drives propelled him to take care of the Garden and to avoid destroying it. However, when it came to the Tree of Knowledge, the situation was different. Here, Adam knew that it was forbidden to eat from its fruit, but the rest of his internal drives felt differently. “And the woman saw that the tree was good for eating and a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was desirable as a source of wisdom” (Bereishit 3:6). The human being is not composed of intellect alone, even if it is our defining feature distinguishing us from other physical creations. In any event, it is not the strongest force that dictates our actions all the time.
Man Deals With Conflicting Messages
Often, mankind — Adam first, and all of his descendants after him — faces an incredibly difficult situation: the facts in the field pull him in one direction and lead him to feel that this direction is proper, pleasant, and correct. But then the intellect cries out desperately: “Stop! Don’t do it! It’s a mistake!” Among the multitude of voices and experiences that man hears and feels, this scream gets muffled, to the point that it is barely audible. It is extremely difficult to tune out all the other vying voices to heed only the true voice of the intellect, which is not necessarily the loudest. Chazal were well aware of this phenomenon, and one of the most practical Talmudic statements is brought down in Berachot 5a as follows:
“Rabbi Levi bar Ḥama said in the name of Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish: One should always incite his good inclination against his evil inclination … if victorious, excellent, but if not, study Torah … if victorious, excellent; if not, recite Shema … if victorious, excellent; if not, he should remind himself of the day of death, as it says: ‘And be still, Selah’ (Tehillim 4:5).”
We won’t analyze this awesome statement in full. We will focus, though, on several points. First, Reish Lakish, one of the greatest ba’alei teshuvah of all time—a powerful bandit who went on to become one of great Talmudic Torah giants of Eretz Yisrael—tells us that we should “incite our good inclination against our evil inclination.” When our yetzer ha’ra is convincing us to disobey G-d’s will, the first thing we need to do is to declare war on it. This way we do not let the yetzer ha’ra get its way immediately. If we surrender from the outset and fail to put up a fight, we don’t stand a chance. Reish Lakish then maps out the following stages of warfare, each with a more potent weapon than the next. The final stage, the Doomsday arsenal, is remembering the day of death.
Remembering The Day Of Death
Throughout our lives we have various experiences, both real and imaginary. At times, from among the internal cacophony of vying voices, it is difficult to know what is true and what is not, if what seems to be good and pleasant is indeed so, or if the water we are about to drink is actually sea water that would make us only thirstier. In such situations, we need to tune out all the surround sound and imagine ourselves after 120, with all our desires, lusts, and dreams already behind us, now facing the stark truth.
In this state there is no longer any confusion between truth and falsehood; the only problem is that when we actually get there, it will be too late. The wisdom needed here is for us to recognize the truth within all of the confusion, which is our primary job in this world. When there is no more confusion, then it’s no longer an issue. However, when we are able to conjure up the day of death during our lives, we can mute our surroundings momentarily, and recognize the truth without all of the surrounding confusion.
Adam — who, until his sin, was not supposed to ever die — could not extricate himself from the cacophony of foreign voices engulfing him. For this reason, it seems, there was a need to create the reality of death, where these voices cease to exist. Remembering the day of death is meant to be a tool for Adam and all humankind after him to face the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.
Rabbi Moshe Bloom is head of the English department of Torah VeHa’aretz Institute. Torah VeHa’aretz Institute (the Institute for Torah and the Land of Israel) engages in research, public education, and the application of contemporary halachic issues that come to the fore in the bond between Torah and the Land of Israel today. For additional information and inquiries, email email@example.com or call 972-8-684-7325.