I confronted the yetzer hara in the flesh yesterday. I prevailed in this round. Or at least I think I did, but with the yetzer hara one really never knows for sure.
The battle began innocently enough with a visit to the only store in which I belong to a membership "club" to purchase a few small items. While there, however, I made the mistake of checking out whether the store's best salesman – we'll call him Asher -- had any suits in charcoal to compensate for a mistake in pre-Pesach shopping when I thought I bought a charcoal suit, which turned out to be an entirely different color in the light.
Soon thereafter I had to leave to conduct an interview nearby, giving Asher more time than he needed to plot his next stratagem. When I returned two hours later, he was ready and waiting for me.
No returning to the familiar racks this time. Asher ushered me into a previously unseen sanctum and let me rub my hands on the Australian wool of a custom-made Italian suit. All my requests for some idea of what price we were talking about were ignored.
"Just try it on," Asher urged. Miraculously, the suit fit perfectly, which is theoretically impossible because my arms are not of equal length, and so at least one sleeve must always be altered. But the yetzer is wily.
Before I knew it, Asher had marked up the suit for alterations, while still refusing to clue me in on the price.
I protested that I could not possibly purchase a new suit when I had forgotten to buy my wife the intended present before Shavuos. "This is a present for your wife," Asher assured me. According to him it was no less than a fulfillment of my Yom Tov obligations: "A woman loves to see her husband dressed elegantly," he informed me.
I was skeptical. Finer men's haberdashery is not exactly my wife's subject. As long as all buttons are buttoned, zippers are zipped, and my tallis katan is not hanging out in back (in such a way as to make me look like the center for the Chicago Bears, with a towel hanging out of the back of his pants for the quarterback to dry his hands on), nothing about the way I dress is likely to catch her notice.
But I was still listening.
"Fargin yourself," Asher urged me. The truth is that I fargin myself a lot, but it's usually on the order of a new 18-shekel Parker pen, or at most, one of the many unlearned seforim that line our living room walls. Not an expensive suit.
Soon I was supplying the yetzer with new arguments from my mouth, not Asher's. "I'm coming up to one of those milestone birthdays," I heard myself telling him, providing him with further ammunition. "I'm days away from finishing a book project that I've been working on for seven years," I then added helpfully.
Price still had not been mentioned. But Asher sensed the kill was imminent. He waved airily at one rack where the suits were priced at more than $1,000, and at another where they were somewhat less expensive. By the time he got to my rack, the suit was practically free, according to Asher. He was little deterred when I pointed out that this purchase would represent a 100 percent price increase on any suit I have ever owned. Perhaps it is better to work one's self up to enjoying the finer things in life, I suggested timidly.
I managed to get out of the store with only a promise to let Asher know whether I wanted the suit sometime that day. But I was by no means free of the yetzer's clutches. My first call was to my son-in-law, a firm believer in the dictum that high quality is cheaper in the long run.
That may be true for my fastidious son-in-law, who never takes off his jacket without hanging it up, and who can wear a suit for ten years without a single trip to the dry cleaners. I, however, am prone to long naps, and even whole nights, on the living room couch still in my Shabbos clothes. And it is a rare Shabbos meal that one cannot discern the menu from an examination of my tie. (Suggestions that I borrow my grandchildren's bibs have not been well-received.)
Fortunately, my son-in-law did not urge me to go for it. We both recognized how far-fetched is any comparison between us.
An hour later, Asher was on the phone. I had forgotten my notepad from the interview in the store, and would have no choice but to go back again and face him in person.
Fortunately, my son Yechezkel, not of the gullible branch of the Rosenblum line, came by toward the end of the afternoon. When he heard my quandary, he snorted, and pointed out derisively that I am the most easily manipulated person he has ever met. He proceeded to rattle off a long line of fiascos in which I had been hoodwinked by salesmen whom I did not wish to disappoint. Since his wife is the family actress, he was likely previewing the skit material for that upcoming birthday.
Mercifully, he did not mention the time an Arab mechanic at a gas station on the climb up to Jerusalem peered at my faltering car engine and told me that I needed some expensive part -- of which I had never previously heard and which his cousin in the nearby village just happened to have. At least he generously agreed to ride into Jerusalem with us to empty the ATM machine.
Yechezkel also pointed out something that had crossed my mind: I could never enjoy an expensive suit because I'd always be petrified of ripping it on some protruding nail or screw.
HE even offered to return to the store to fetch my notepad on the grounds that I was clearly no match for Asher and could not be trusted not to succumb.
BY THAT TIME, HOWEVER, the spell had largely broken. The knowledge that I would, baruch Hashem, be viewed as a laughingstock in the eyes of most of my children – not to mention my more diplomatic wife – spared me the siren call of Australian merino lamb's wool caressing my skin.
Looking back, I can identify a few keys to success that may just have more general applicability. Clearly, not making a decision while in the throes of desire was the most important. Just escaping the store the first time was crucial.
Consulting with others – i.e., my level-headed son Yechezkel -- was no less important. That comports with Chazal's advice to acquire for yourself a friend with whom to consult. Even if he is of no higher madreiga than oneself, on the particular matter about one which is taking counsel he is not subject to the same negios (biases).
Anyone who has ever watched a machlokes from the side knows this yesod. To those not involved it is always evident that all parties are being damaged by the machlokes to a degree far above the value of the issue or item in dispute. That is not because the non-participants are higher level Jews. But solely because they are not nogeah in the matter.
Third, bribe your yetzer hatov. A member of the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah told me many years ago that whenever he finds himself procrastinating on a project he promises to make a donation to some cause for which he bears a strong antipathy if he doesn't finish by a certain day. My bribe to the yetzer hatov came in the form of a laundry list of things I could do with the money saved by not purchasing the suit. Somehow obtaining potentially lifesaving Mobile Eye protection for the car of a son who is often driving home late at night after an exhausting day seemed a little more important than a well-tailored suit.
Fourth, just as the image of Yaakov Avinu saved Yosef in the house of Potiphar, so the image of the mashgiach whose mussar vaad I have been attending for two years helped me. I did not warm to everything he said in a recent series on excessive attachment to the material world. Nor do I aspire to subsist on a diet of a few slices of carrots, cucumbers, and tomatoes per meal, as he does. But my close contact with him put a limit of how ridiculous I was prepared to make myself.
Fifth, consider the consequences of exposure. Every time a new scandal breaks in our world, the first question everyone asks is: Did he really think he could get away with it forever? Didn't he ever think about what the consequences of exposure would be on himself, his spouse, and his children?
In this case, the costs of being revealed to have purchased a suit of a quality not found in the community in which I live (an important qualification) included: How would I ever again be able to teach my children or grandchildren that just because one "wants" something doesn't mean that one has to have it. Or to say with a straight face that material things can never fill up the void that is within us, and therefore cannot provide any deep, lasting satisfaction.
Indeed, one of the happiest moments of this entire episode for me came when I asked one of my younger sons, who is not totally immune to the lure of nice things, what he would have thought had I succumbed. "Not for you, Abba," he responded.
Sixth, whenever one gains the upper hand in the ongoing struggle with the yetzer hara, it is crucial to box oneself in such a way as to make a relapse less likely. I'm writing this piece to make it that much harder to one day slink back into the store just to feel the fine lamb's wool again.
When I picked up the notebook, shortly before the store closed -- just to be safe -- I thanked Asher for being such a great salesman: "Because of you I was able to savor how much sweeter the pleasure of beating the yetzer hara is than any of its blandishments."
On to the next battle.