Parashas Mikeitz

This week’s parashah describes Yosef’s rise to power. The Gemara in Berachos 20a teaches that the evil eye has no dominion over Yosef’s descendants. The Gemara explains that since Yosef held his eye back from partaking of what was not his – Potifar’s wife – the evil eye is held back from causing his descendants harm. The Maggid elaborates on this teaching.
The Mishnah in Avos 4:1 teaches: “Who is a mighty person? One who has subdued his evil inclination, as it is written (Mishlei 16:32), ‘He who is slow to anger is better than a person of might, and he who rules over his passions [is better] the conqueror of a city.” The Maggid states that the Mishnah is not speaking metaphorically; it is making a statement that is true in the literal sense. He then proceeds to explain how we can understand the Mishnah literally.
Our Sages teach that just as just as it is only through the evil inclination that a person is led to sin, so, too, it is only through the evil inclination that a person is punished for sinning. Thus, the Gemara in Bava Basra 16a teaches that the Adversarial Angel (Satan), the evil inclination, and the Angel of Death are one and the same. All the misfortunes that a person suffers at the hands of robbers, extortionists, and other similar evildoers stems from their evil inclination, which, as it lures them into engaging in perverse behavior, exacts punishment from the person for his sins. Just as a person’s evil inclination incites him to wrong others, so, too, it incites others to wrong him. The one depends directly on the other.
If a person subdues his evil inclination and stirs up his good inclination against it to keep it from luring him into evil, as an automatic result the evil inclination is held back from prompting others to harm him. Although we cannot clearly infer this pattern on the basis of reasoning, the Gemara in Berachos that we quoted at the outset tells us that it is so. Just as Yosef kept his evil inclination from leading him to sin, so, too, other people’s evil inclination is kept from wielding power against him and causing him harm.
Along the same lines, the Midrash in Bereishis Rabbah 78:12 relates that when R. Yehudah HaNasi’s grandson complained to R. Shimon ben Lakish about government officials constantly pressing him to give them things, R. Shimon ben Lakish told him: “Don’t take anything from anybody, and you won’t have to give anything to anybody.” That is, if a person keeps himself from envying other people’s assets, other people will not envy his. Similarly, Iyov declared (Iyov 31:9-10): “If my heart was [ever] seduced over a woman, or if I ever lay in wait at my neighbor’s door, may my wife grind for another man, and may strangers kneel over her.” This statement reflects the following principle: If a person’s evil inclination leads him to commit a wrong to someone else, others will be led to commit the same type of wrong against him. As Abaye declared (Pesachim 28a): “When the maker of stocks sits in his own stock, he is repaid by the work of his own hands.”
David HaMelech pleaded to Hashem (Tehillim 17:8-9): “Guard me like the apple of the eye, shelter me in the shadow of Your wings, from the wicked who plunder me, the enemies of my soul who surround me.” We can interpret David’s words homiletically as a plea that Hashem guard him from the evil incitements in his heart – the enemies within his soul – so that he will be securely protected from wicked men who seek to harm him.
From the above discussion, we can derive a wondrous concept: It is within a person’s power to fight and defeat all his enemies and all those who lie in wait for him, near and far, including even those who he does not know and therefore cannot be beware of, by maintaining a state of wholeheartedness and barring the evil inclination from ruling over him. Through such action, he can drive away – without need for any weapon – the hordes of evildoers whose evil inclination might lead them to harass him, and dwell in peace and tranquility. The psalmist declares (Tehillim 46:9): “Go and see the works of Hashem, Who has wrought devastation (שַׁמּוֹת) in the land. He causes wars to cease from the ends of the earth; He will break the bow and cut the spear – He will burn chariots in fire.” We can interpret the word שַׁמּוֹת homiletically as a term signifying dominance, along the lines of a teaching of our Sages in connection with the phrase שׂוֹם תָּשִׂים עָלֶיךָ מֶלֶךְ (“you shall surely set yourself a king”) in Devarim 17:16. [Apparently the teaching builds on a word similarity; I was unable to locate the teaching.] A person does not have to wage war against his enemies. He need only fight his own evil inclination, and he will thereby drive away from him all who might rise against him. This fact is hinted at in the psalmist’s speaking not of subduing enemies but rather of causing wars to cease.
We can now well appreciate how we can understand literally the teaching in Avos 4:1: “Who is a mighty person? One who has subdued his evil inclination, as it is written (Mishlei 16:32), ‘He who is slow to anger is better than a person of might, and he who rules over his passions [is better] the conqueror of a city.” By subduing his evil inclination, a person causes all opposition against him, from wherever it might come, to cease.
Hashem had a discussion with Kayin (Cain) about the evil inclination. He told him (Bereishis 4:7): “Its desire is cast toward you, but you can rule over it.” The Midrash expounds (Bereishis Rabbah 22:6):
R. Chanina bar Pappa said: “If your evil inclination comes to play tricks on you, push him off with words of Torah. If you do so, I consider it as if you have created peace. For it is written (Yeshayah 26:3, homiletically): “The evil inclination that is nearby to you guard him with peace, peace.” … It is not written “peace” but rather “peace, peace.” And if you say that the evil inclination is not under your dominion, the verse continues: “for with you it is secure.” And I have already written in the Torah: “Its desire is cast toward you, but you can rule over it.”
We can understand the verse from Yeshayah as saying: “If you want to guard yourself from the evil inclinations of others distant from you, you must guard yourself from the evil inclination that is nearby to you, within your own heart, and then others will also make peace with you.” We have no direct control over the evil inclinations of others, but we do have direct control over our own evil inclination. As the Torah says: “You can rule over it.” And thus we can guard ourselves indirectly against the evil inclination of others. Yeshayah’s repetition of the word “peace” reflects this idea: If others have peace from our evil inclination, then we will have peace from theirs.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

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