Ki Teitzei & Rembrandt
Years ago I read a book by Anthony Storr, “Churchill’s Blackdog and Kafka’s Mice,” an exploration of how mental illness plays a role in creativity and achievement.
Dr. Storr describes how Churchill’s battle with depression empowered him to assume the role of prime minister in the darkest time in Britain’s history. Young Winston decided to name his depression, “Blackdog,” enabling him to treat his dark thoughts as something outside of himself. Once he was able to interact with his depression as an “Other,” he was able to fight it.
I decided to use a similar approach to my Yetzer Harah, or, Evil Inclination: I name it “Rembrandt,” because the artist was able to express so much even in black, the darkest color. I practiced interacting with my Yetzer Harah as an external enemy: When Yetzer Harah begins to speak, I immediately address it as Rembrandt, someone else, and find that I am better equipped to listen to his arguments and argue back.
“When you will go out to war against your enemies, and God, your Lord, will deliver him into your hand, and you will capture his captivity: And you will see among its captivity a woman who is beautiful of form, and you will desire her, you may take her to yourself for a wife.” (Deuteronomy 21:10-11) “The Torah spoke only in response to the Evil Inclination.” (Sifre)
The Torah takes the Evil Inclination seriously. It does not demand that we ignore his seductions, or simply stand up to him. There are times when we lack the power to meet him face to face in battle. We need to strategize against him, even to the point of allowing him some small victories now and again. (See Zohar at the beginning of Bo that describes Job’s battle with his Evil Inclination.)
So, “Rembrandt,” “Blackdog,” or whichever name you may choose, we are ready to fight you for what you are; an external enemy. “When you go out to war,” the first step is to realize that the battle is external, and can be fought there. We don’t have to allow him to enter.
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