Introspection Imperative

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Adapted by Channie Koplowitz Stein

The forty years of Bnei Yisroel wandering in the desert are coming to an end, and Bnei Yisroel are preparing for entry into the Promised Land. While there will be conquests, Hashem has instructed Bnei Yisroel not to conquer the lands belonging to Amon and Moav, for they were our "cousins." Even for most of the other nations, Bnei Yisroel were first to send out peace emissaries in hopes of avoiding war. Among the kings Bnei Yisroel sent emissaries to was Sichon, king of the Emori. But Sichon, instead of accepting the peace initiative Israel sent him, gathered his forces and went out to battle against Bnei Yisroel. With Hashem's help, Bnei Yisroel defeated Sichon, captured its capital Cheshbon, and settled in the territories.

The the Torah seems to digress to give us some local history. This entire area, from Cheshbon to Arnon, was once part of the Moabite Kingdom. Sichon had attempted to unsuccessfully wage war against Moab, finally succeeding and capturing these lands when he engaged the prophet Bilaam to curse the Moabites. The Torah here makes it quite clear that now these were Emorite lands, not Moabite lands, and Bnei Yisroel was free to conquer and annex it.

However, the text in the Torah is confusing. It states, "The moshlim/poets would say, 'Bou Chshbon/Come Cheshbon-- let it be built as a city of Sichon. For a fire has come forth from Cheshbon... ' " While the simplest translation would be to add "come to Cheshbon," the fact that the word/letter is missing here gives rise to the homiletic interpretation in the Baba Basra Gemara. Let us begin with the word moshlim. In our above translation, we wrote that these are the poets like Bilaam who give meshalim/analogies. But an even simpler translation would be that the moshlim are those who rule, in this case over their desires. Rabbi Shmuel bar Nachman is here telling those who rule over their desires to make a cheshbono shel olam/accounting of the world, of the loss from a sin against the gain of a mitzvah. This accounting will keep you on the right path. You will be built up in this world and you will be well established in the world to come.

However, as Rabbi Nevenzahl notes, there must be some linguistic connection between this homiletic interpretation and the battle being discussed. Further, what is meant by an accounting of the world, what world?

The Netivot Shalom explains that there is indeed a battle between ourselves and the yetzer horo. The battle can take two forms. If someone is already in the battle zone itself, the intellectual arguments of cheshbon will not prevail. The passion and desire from the yetzer horo are already an integral part of him. Greater force than external, intellectual argument will be necessary to subdue the yetzer horo here. However, when the yetzer horo is "crouching at the door" waiting for the opportunity to enter your world, that is a time to make an accounting, to check how far you are to your target and what equipment you have to help you reach the goal of bringing Hashem into our personal world. By defeating Sichon and Og, we are eliminating the final blockages that keep us from this goal.

The blockages and challenges of our times are very great writes B'Yam Derech. We have so many "kosher" ways to indulge in our desires, whether it is kosher certified foods or technology that skirts the edges of propriety. Do we stop to ask ourselves not if it is permissible, but if it is also healthy and conducive to our spiritual well being.

In Yirah Vodaat, Rabbi Segal of Manchester encourages us to ask ourselves what is our essence. Are we basically a physical body, or are we a spiritual soul encased in a body? That pure neshamah within me is trying to make the connection to its Source. When we daven, are we involved in dialogue with our Creator, or are we distracted by the visions and thoughts of the physical world around us?

In Netivei Shalom, Rabbi Schechter relates an experience of Rav Schwadron to help understand this constant battle. Standing outside the wax museum, he observed two guards in uniform who were constantly being asked questions. Only after the guards did not answer for several minutes would the tourists realize that these guards were not real and were also made of wax. The yetzer horo uses similar tactics. The person is like a small city, and its inhabitants are all the different part of the body. A king, trying to invade the city, uses many soldiers. But a wise man, the yetzer tov, realizes that these were just wax, toy soldiers designed to scare the city into surrendering. The wise man informs the body/city, and the city remains strong and resolute. But the invading king doesn't give up easily. Each day, he uses a different tactic, soldiers dressed differently, but each day we must seek the advice of the "wise man" and realize that the enemy is no more than wax ready to melt at the approach of our fire.

The yetzer horo is crouching at the door waiting patiently for permission to enter. It is easy to slide from checking the email for five minutes to surfing the web for an hour, or from checking the refrigerator for a small snack to finishing a pint of ice cream. Don't open the door to the "permissible," or put checks into place before beginning, like a timer near the computer, or individual packets of snacks. Hopefully, you will listen to their wise counsel. Even better, take the battle away from the "city." Don't let the enemy enter your territory. Make a preemptive strike instead, which is what we learn from Sichon who went out to battel in the desert notes Bobover Rebbe.

Another tactic, suggests Rabbi Shraga Grosbard, is to make a cheshbono shel olam/a calculation of how the world around you will view your actions. What will the people say?

We must also recognize our personal greatness. After all, each of us is a son/daughter of the King, and we must act according to our station. Both in physical behavior and in spiritual behavior, we must always refrain from anything beneath that dignity, writes Rabbi Yoffe.

It is always helpful to take a long view instead of the short view when evaluating events and actions, writes Rabbi Nevenzahl. After his victorious battle with Moav, Sichon was on a high. Little did he realize that he was merely a pawn in Hashem's long-range plan to deliver this land, originally belonging to Moav, to Bnei Yisroel. He would be only the medium of transmission.

When we are tempted to act, we must also take a cheshbon shel olam/a long, worldview position, continues Rabbi Nevenzahl. How will a temporary inconvenience in my schedule to do a chesed affect the long range, eternal portrait of my life? The Otzrot Hatorah cites the Chofetz Chaim and says that we spend so much time acquiring and doing, but we should also ask ourselves what really makes us happy long term. To get a small sense of eternity, suggests the Steipler Gaon, imagine the entire world filled with sand, and once every million years a grain of sand is removed. How long would it take to empty the world of the sand? Be honest with yourself if you want to live a meaningful life. Are you living in the complacency of Moav who believed that since everything was going well now, they would continue this way, and Bnei Yisroel would never get this land out of their possession? The yetzer horo tries to keep us in this state of complacency, in a mindset that only reflects the here and now rather than the future.

Rabbi Nevenzahl presents an idea that Rabbi Hillel, in Ascending the Path, then further develops for modern times. Using the verse from Isaiah 27:13: "...And those who are lost in the land of Assyria and those cast away in the land of Egypt...," they explain that the yetzer horo uses two different tactics. Sometimes he keeps us so busy with work that we cannot think of any higher values. This was the method Pharaoh used in Egypt. We must complete our quota of straw and bricks. Today our minds are so preoccupied with relatively meaningless problems and issues, even when they are not negative, that we leave no room or energy to think of our higher purpose. If we have amassed enough "straw and bricks," we don't realize how meaningless this is in the great scheme of our lives. We are lost in our acquisitions, and we want more. Even positive pursuits like Torah study can be done in such a compulsive way, perhaps to complete a certain regimen, that the student does not contemplate his spiritual growth, or that he might need to make changes even in his study habits or study partners to continue to grow rather than to remain stagnant. This compulsion to keep moving without contemplation is also the work of the yetzer horo, so that we do not examine our own middot/character, or the effect of our words or actions on others.

Every person has twenty-four hours in a day. Great people recognize that every action and every thought at each moment is weighed and accounted for, writes Rabbi Scheinerman in Ohel Moshe. One who lives in this mindset is doing a constant accounting, living in cheshbon. When Chazal saw the Cheshbon in our parshah as the name of this major city, they thought of the translation and meaning of the word itself, calculation or accounting. This literal translation triggered the interpretation of the passage in the homiletic style we have been discussing.

In Chochmat Hamatzpun, Rav Yechezkel Levenstein is recorded as explaining cheshbono shel olam to be the accounting each of us will be called upon to do at hise yom hadin/ day of judgment at the end of his time in the olam/world. Our excuses will be of no avail at that time. But even as we live in this world, writes Rabbi Yoffe, we must account for our actions not just as they impact us personally, but as they impact the olam/world as a whole, for no action remains in a vacuum, but has a ripple effect in the balance of the world.

How do you self-check? How much love do you have for the mitzvoth? Do you remember to recite a brachah regularly? Even more, do you go out of your way to recite the brachah so someone can respond Amen? Do you search for opportunities to do chesed? Hashem runs the world, He coordinates all the events, but Hashem still wants us to be involved, to do our personal accounting. The world we can impact is limited, but Hashem can coordinate our limited world with the eternal world. While Hashem does His accounting, we are nevertheless tasked with doing our own, personal accounting. Only with our own accounting can we hope to emerge victorious in our own battles against the yetzer horo.