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Parshas Shemini: Defeating the Yetzer Hara — The Connection between Snakes and Egypt

Parsha Shmini summary: Frightening deaths of Nadab and Abihu for drunkenly bringing offerings. We also get the laws of keeping Kosher

Chametz represents the yetzer hara — the source of physical desires that promise joy but actually bring an endless source of discontentment.

We make matzah today only because of the mitzvah attached to it — thus, when we eat it, we truly feel the primary reason is not to satisfy our stomachs but to connect to Hashem and our Jewish identities. In so doing, we replace our natural physical desires with desires for growth.

Have a Fantastic Passover!

-Ari Melman

Defeating the Yetzer Hara: The Connection between Snakes and Egypt

Vayikra 11:42 states, “All that goes on it’s belly [גחון]…of every creeping creature that creeps upon the round, you may not eat them, for they are an abomination.” The word גחון has an enlarged vav/ו in the text. Rashi explains that the word also means, “a snake. The term means bending low, for it goes bent low and fallen on its stomach”. The vav is a straight line, mimicking the orientation of a snake, without legs or extensions.

As we know from the Garden of Eden, the snake also represents the yetzer hara, the lure of physical desire. At the end, the snake is punished — “Upon your belly shall you go, and dust shall you eat all the days of your life (Gen. 3:14).” Chazal wonders why this is a punishment — after all, Adam must eat “by the sweat of your brow”, but the snake is constantly surrounded by food, literally living in his sustenance. Many worms and snakes even lay eggs inside fruit and grow inside the fruit, literally living inside their sustenance (R. Bachya). Shouldn’t being surrounded by your food, without too much work, be a dream come true? Isn’t that what Eden was?

To emphasize this even more, when G-d tells the Jews about Israel, he contrasts it with Egypt. In Egypt, the Nile provided all the water you needed, whenever you wanted. But in Israel, you will be completely dependent on the rain, or else you will experience famine and drought. Is such poverty really a selling point?

Here’s the answer: After G-d bans Jews from eating creepy crawlies, he explains, “For I am Hashem Who brings you up from the land of Egypt to be a G-d unto you; you shall be holy, for I am holy (Vayikra 11:45).” Rashi explains, “In all verses that refer to G-d taking Israel out of Egypt, it is written, ‘I brought you out’, but here it is written, ‘who brings you up’. R’ Yishmael taught ‘had I not brought Israel out of Egypt for any reason other than that they do not make themselves impure through creeping things, as do the other nations, it would have been sufficient cause for them to have been redeemed, and abstaining from creeping things is an elevation for them.’”

   When all of our physical needs are provided for, we have a much easier time denying G-d’s presence.

R. Zev Leff tells the story of a 17-year-old who had recently attempted suicide. Why? His rich father was about to remarry, but the new wife would only agree on the condition he boot out his son. So dad handed his son two keys, one to a penthouse apartment, the next to a sports car, and a credit card. His parting words to his son were, “Treat yourself, but never try to contact me again.”

This boy was the most miserable person R. Leff had ever met, even though he had his whole life provided for him. But he was missing the most important component: love. His father’s gifts were the exact opposite of love — ‘I’ll give you everything you need now, so that I never have to see your face again.’ This was Hashem’s punishment to the snake — you so completely opposed me, that I’ll give you everything you need now so as not to have a relationship with you.’

Eretz Yisrael is completely dependent on rain for survival — thus, in every season, we must tap into our connection with Hashem and request help from Him to continue. This reminds us of our true desire, our true source of joy — feeding the soul, not the body.

The Bilvavi writes that the opposite of joy isn’t sadness, but desire. The yetzer hara feeds off the sadness we feel when we slip up, when we sin, and hedges on that to create more desire. If a person breaks a diet and has a small piece of cake, the yetzer hara grows most powerful when it convinces the person they might as well eat the entire cake now that they broke their diet. But the desire for cake won’t bring happiness — it can only bring more desire. What brings happiness is removing the desire and returning to the state where your happiness wasn’t conditional on externals. True happiness is built only on a strong sense of self, purpose, and connection to Hashem, internal measures that nobody and no thing can take away.

That is our blessing — we must work hard to achieve this state, we must toil “by the sweat of our brow”, but we can have a constant connection to Hashem, a constant joy.

May we be blessed to leave Egypt in our minds, to not be among the snakes too comfortable in material comforts, but rather in a constant state of joy, with friends, family, and Hashem.

Have a Fantastic Shabbas and Passover!

-Ari Melman

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