The High Holidays are a massive spiritual mountain. Wherever we are on that mountain, we have a lot of climbing to do.
“How can man be pure, when even the heavenly legion is not pure in Your eyes? …. The days of his life are desolate, his nights are void and his concerns are vanity. He is likened to a dream that is gone upon awakening; terrors always frighten him. By night he cannot sleep; by day he cannot rest … until he slumbers in the grave.” (Yom Kippur Morning Prayer)
Do I stand a chance against the Yetzer Hara (the Evil Inclination)?
“So remember your Creator in the days of your youth, before the evil days come … before the sun, the light, the moon and the stars go dark and the clouds return after the rain, in the day when the guards of the house will tremble … So man goes to his eternal home, while the mourners go about the streets…. Thus the dust returns to the ground, as it was, and the spirit returns to G-d Who gave it. Havel havalim …. Futility of futilities, said Koheles, all is futile!”
When I was a child, I had never heard the term “Yetzer Hara,” but I actually saw the Yetzer Hara in front of me! I felt completely powerless, like a slave controlled by an unconquerable force. It is no coincidence that the primal event in Jewish history is the Exodus from Egypt, which freed our nation from slavery, because slavery is the default condition of man ever since we left the Garden of Eden.
You would think that, after I found Hashem, I would have been freed from subjugation to the Yetzer Hara, but it is not true. I find that I am still struggling with a force which pushes me away from the life I want to live. Why do I speak loshon hara (negative speech directed against others)? Why do I get angry? Why do I run from Torah obligations which are so clearly to my benefit? The Yetzer Hara is the most fearsome and ubiquitous enemy in the world!
And now, we meet our Father Abraham! What strength! How did he do it? He not only subdued his Yetzer Hara, but he disregarded jeers, threats and mockery in order to adhere to what he had discovered. And what did he discover? That there is a Creator and Ruler to Whom we owe total allegiance. But you cannot even see Hashem! You cannot prove to any scoffer that He exists! People will think you are crazy!
The amazing fact is that, in proportion to our Father Abraham’s devotion to Hashem, the results of that devotion became visible to all. He became the Prince of the World.
“G-d chose Avraham but did not draw him close. Rather, Avraham drew close of his own accord.” (Bamidbar Rabbah 3:2, quoted in Encyclopedia of Biblical Personalities)
There is a wonderful athletic trainer in Borough Park named Yoel Gottehrer. His motto is “Improve one percent every day!” The Zohar (1:129a) says, “Avraham did not draw close to Hashem in one day or at one time; his deeds drew him one step closer every day….” (ibid)
Our Father Abraham demonstrates that a real person can struggle with his Yetzer Hara and prevail! This may be the most important fact in the entire world. The result of this unending effort was that, just as Avraham had overturned his Yetzer Hara, so Hashem overturned physical “reality” and made him young again at the age of one hundred. “[Avraham] grew old, turned white and abstained from the way of the world. Then his hair turned black, his youth returned and [he] became like a young man.” (Tanna d’Bei Eliyahu Rabbah 6, ibid)
My friends, all this can really happen! Abraham did it and we, his children, can do it!
“When the Holy Temple was destroyed, Hashem found Avraham standing in the Temple. He said to him, ‘What is My friend doing in My house?’ [Avraham] replied, ‘I have come concerning my children.’ Said [Hashem], ‘Your children sinned and were exiled.’ Said [Avraham], ‘Perhaps they transgressed unintentionally.’ Said [Hashem], ‘They acted intentionally.’ [Avraham] laid his hands on his head, wept and wailed. ‘Perhaps there is no remedy for them.’ [Then], a Heavenly Voice rang out, ‘Hashem called your name a leafy olive tree, fair with goodly fruit.’ Just as the olive achieves its purpose in the end [even though it is a very lengthy process from the time the tree is planted until all the fruits are ready], so will Israel achieve its purpose in the end….
“Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said: Why are the [Children of] Israel compared to an olive tree? To tell you [that], just as the leaves of the olive tree do not fall in the summer or the winter, so Israel will never be subject to nullification, neither in this world nor in the World to Come.
“And Rabbi Yochanan said: Why are the [Children of] Israel compared to an olive tree? To tell you [that], just as the olive tree does not release its oil except [when its fruit undergo] crushing, so Israel will not return to the right path except through suffering.” (Menachos 53b, ibid)
In other words, our struggles have meaning! Perhaps we can actually ascend the Holy Mountain! “Why do you … declare, O Israel, ‘My way is hidden from Hashem?’ …. The Eternal G-d … neither wearies nor tires…. Youths may weary and … young men may … falter, but those whose hope is in Hashem will have renewed strength…. Fear not, for I am with you … For I, Hashem, grasp your right hand! (Isaiah 40:27ff; Haftaras Lech Lecha)
Our Father Avraham taught us to struggle, endure and prevail … ad Moshiach!
Olive tree in Tel Dan National Park, Israel