Elul & Setting Limits
The Ba’al Shem Tob (Rabbi Yisrael Ben Eliezer, founder of Hassidism, 1700-1760) taught that our primary struggle against the Yeser Ha’ra – our evil inclination – must be waged in the inherently "neutral" areas of life, meaning, in the realm of permissible activity. He explained that the Yeser Ha’ra will not likely succeed in persuading a committed, observant Jew to eat non-kosher food, to work on Shabbat, or to stop wearing Tefillin. The Yeser Ha’ra is shrewd, and knows full well that a typical observant Jew will not suddenly decide to abandon these vital Misvot. Instead, the Yeser Hara focuses on the area of permissible conduct – activities such as eating, leisure and recreation. It works to lure us to indulge, to focus inordinate amounts of time, money and attention on our mundane activities. Here’s where the Yeser Ha’ra has an edge. After all, it is entirely permissible to enjoy comfort and luxury. But excessive involvement in material pursuits leads us to let our guard down. As we indulge, we feel at ease, knowing we are not doing anything wrong, but as we are not focusing our attention then on G-d and spirituality, we are vulnerable. It is when we indulge in physical enjoyment that the Yeser Ha’ra can catch us in his trap and lead us to enjoy that which is forbidden, as well.
The Mishna in Pirkeh Abot (2:3) warns, "Havu Zehirin Ba’rashut," which literally means that we should be wary of government figures. Politicians appear well-meaning when they need our support, but will not necessarily continue treating us kindly when we are no longer needed. Thus, we should exercise caution when dealing with political figures. Additionally, however, the Mishna urges us to be wary of "Reshut" – of permissible activities that we engage in, things that are neutral, neither forbidden nor obligatory. If we engage excessively in mundane activities, we expose ourselves to the schemes of the Yeser Ha’ra, which is always looking to ensnare us and lead us to sin.
We recite in Keri’at Shema each day that we must recite the Keri’at Shema text "when you reside in your home, and when you go on the way." The Gemara comments that the phrase "U’be’lechtecha Ba’derech" means that the Keri’at Shema obligation applies only when we are involved in "Reshut" – optional activities, as opposed to Misvot. When the Torah speaks of reciting Shema "when you go on the way," it refers to times when we are involves in optional matters. It has been suggested that this explanation of the word "Derech" sheds light on a verse in Sefer Debarim (19:3), "Tachin Lecha Ha’derech" – literally, "prepare for yourself the way." The Torah here advises us to prepare ourselves for judgment before Rosh Hashanah specifically through "Derech" – by paying close attention to the optional areas of life, to our spiritually neutral activities. We need to ensure that we are not focusing excessively on food and other material luxuries, that we are able to enjoy ourselves in moderation and set appropriate limits so we do not overindulge or lose sight of our true priorities. This is where the struggle against the Yeser Ha’ra is waged, and this is where our attention must be directed during this time of year, as we prepare for Rosh Hashanah.
This is especially important in our day and age, when food and other comforts are so readily available, and when so many people are able to afford luxuries. We must remind ourselves of the need to set limits on our involvement in materialism. We do not need to eat whenever food is available. We do not need to go on every luxury vacation that we can afford, or always ensure that we are driving the newest, most cutting-edge car or using the newest, most cutting-edge phone. The more we immerse ourselves in materialism, the more difficult it will be for us to refrain from forbidden activities. Children, too, must be taught limits. If they grow accustomed to receiving everything they want, they will not learn to limit themselves to that which is appropriate and permissible.
"Tachin Lecha Ha’derech." As we prepare for Rosh Hashanah, let us bear in mind this crucial message of "Derech," of moderation in the pursuit of permissible comforts and luxuries, so we can live the truly meaningful life that we are meant to live.