Rabbi Yaakov Bronsteyn

“The Israelites shall camp each with his standard, under the banners of their ancestral house; they shall camp around the Tent of Meeting at a distance.” (Num. 2:2)

In today’s society, the prevalence of succumbing to indulgence has become an epidemic. Objective speculation from an observational standpoint would conclude that this practice is due to a fallacious belief that one can eschew any pernicious effect upon their stellar character — even if they periodically dabble in some minuscule deviance.

Imagination may conjure some rosy portrait of one’s impeccable moral standard and declare, “I’m a good person.” But the prophet Elijah’s cry reverberates throughout the generations, “How long will you keep hopping between two opinions?” (Kings 1 18:21)

The colloquialism mimicking this query is true. One cannot straddle the fence. A side has to be chosen.

This is the lesson of Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel, “A Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.”

The book is a fantasy about a researcher who has developed a drug that can catalyze a transformation in people such that their evil part becomes the dominant character to the point where even the physical features are reflective of that persona.

He then switches to that character to facilitate his own unbridled indulgence in every desire. What he fails to realize is that one can’t compartmentalize evil and, at will, retract to his sensible self.

Eventually, the drug fails to be efficacious and he rebounds to his evil self without conscious purpose or the drug. His evil self emerges to the fore and submerges his sensible side.

He doubles the dose of the drug and forcibly conquers his evil self. But, eventually his resolve falters. Then he is forced to take extreme measures which spiral to his doom.

If one permits dominance of one’s inclinations, as the title character does, it will not be a momentary indulgence. But, rather his entire being will become subsumed in its parasitic consumption.

That is to say that if one straddles the fence, the evil side will eventually ravage all opposition. As the indulgence compounds, less space is left for the sensible side until there’s no room at all. This is the meaning of the Talmud’s statement, “Rav Asi said: Initially, when it begins to entice someone, the evil inclination is like a strand of a spider’s and ultimately it is like the thick ropes of a wagon.” (Succah 52A)

We humans possess the capacity to identify this issue, diagnose its exact catalyst and employ our faculties to overcome these formidable invasions of our psyche.

That’s why identity is paramount. When one is able to isolate the framework of their identity they become cognizant that urges, desires, impulses and lusts are tertiary to who they are.

This is why in this week’s Torah portion, according to the Haamek Davar, it is stressed that identify is essential. The Haamek Davar states that each Tribe, in their encampment, had a flag that was specific to their identity. The Tribe of Reuven had mandrakes, the tribe of Yehuda had a lion, etc. (Num. 2:2)

Presumably the standard’s purpose was to emblazon one’s identity upon the mind: There was an Avraham, Yitchak, Yaakov and the Tribes and a historical development of mind, spirituality and monotheistic belief that eventually set the groundwork for the development of a people that would be ready, deserving and qualified to receive the Torah on Mount Sinai from God Himself.

The sentiment is summed up well in the lyrics of a famous singer: “It’s all a part of me. That’s who I am.” JN

Rabbi Yaakov Bronsteyn is a rabbi in the community. To listen to his podcast, go to https://tinyurl.com/5jc4zx8r.