Thursday, December 3, 2009

Preparing for Defeat

Those who study human behavior have found an interesting phenomenon they call the Abstinence Violation Effect. They observed that many times when a person takes on a certain commitment, say to abstain from eating sweets or to abstain from drinking alcohol, if that person succumbs to temptation and violates his/her commitment by eating or drinking even a little bit, s/he is likely to then follow-up by binging on that from which s/he was trying to abstain and relapsing entirely to his/her former behavior or sometimes even worse.

I suspect many of us know the AVE phenomenon first hand. Perhaps we went on a diet or attempted to begin a regimen of exercises. We might have been successful for a period of time and thought to ourselves "Yes, I have this licked". Then we get invited to a wedding and a sumptuous feast of calories is before us and we compromise our resolve or we go on vacation and lose our exercise routine for a week. There is a great likelihood that the guilt we feel over our 'slip' will cause us to lapse into a total free-fall and not only will the diet or exercise plan fall by the way-side but we will indulge our appetites more vigorously than before feeling that we are hopeless.

I guess you are wondering why am I telling you this. Well Rebbe Nachman understood this human response long before the behaviorists of today wrote about it and he found its source in this week's parsha.

At the reading's outset Yaakov is about to meet his brother Esav, the very same brother who swore many years earlier to kill Yaakov over the blessings he stole. We are told that Yaakov was very much afraid. In preparation for the encounter he divided his camp in two. The Torah tells us that Yaakov thought "If Esav will come to one camp and slays it then the other camp will at least be a remnant".

Now we know Yaakov did more than prepare for a defeat. The Torah tells us that he prayed a powerful prayer and that he gifted Esav to appease him. Yet Yaakov, still and all, did not assume all would go well. If it did not, he wanted to at least minimize the damage done so it would not be a total loss.

Rebbe Nachman saw in our father Yaakov's behavior something relevant for us each time we confront our own challenges, in particular with the yetzer hara, the evil inclination. Rebbe Nachman taught that we should not be so confident in ourselves that we will always prevail over our temptations to do wrong. At times we may be vulnerable and succumb. Yet what is most important is that if defeated we not lose hope and make the loss a total loss. We need to minimize the implications of the defeat so that while we lose a battle we do not lose the war.

Worse still then committing an aviera is letting the sin cause us to lose faith in ourselves and our ability to be good so that we give in to the wrongful behavior. A single moment of weakness must not cause us to surrender. We should not give away more than we have to even when we are compromised.

For some years when I lived in the States I offered support to Orthodox young men whose sexual orientation was homosexual. These young men valiantly tried to live within a Torah framework and suppress their sexual desires that ran counter to halacha. It was often so difficult for them. They had no kosher outlet for there sexual desires. Often they felt guilty over a compromise, so much so that they struggled to find hope and to maintain resolve not only with sexual discipline but even with the entire call to shmirat ha'mitzvot.

Rebbe Nacham would have said to them, "Yes, you did wrong. But don't be m'yaeish, lose hope.
Your struggle is a holy one. And the failure in one part of your life or in one moment should not be seen as devaluing all the effort you make to do what Hashem wants for you. Learn from our father Yaakov. Prepare for defeat by making sure you not lose more than necessary".

How vital that lesson is for all of us. We all have our spiritual point of vulnerability. We all have midot that need correction behaviors that are unacceptable. Many times we give up on changing them because we have tried and failed. Rebbe Nachman would challenge us to not lose faith and give up the effort to change. To surrender would be the greatest tragedy.

We need instead to do like Yaakov and do battle knowing at times we may well lose. And yet make sure, even when we lose, the loss is not total and we continue our effort to improve.

Our sins are not the enemy. Its our attitude towards our sins that represents the real danger. We dare not lose hope. We dare not surrender.

Shabbat Shalom

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