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Psalm 4: Controlling Negative Impulses

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We are often tempted by destructive or selfish impulses. How can we control and resist these urges?

When King David called upon his opponents to repent, he counseled them:

רִגְזוּ וְאַל-תֶּחֱטָאוּ. אִמְרוּ בִלְבַבְכֶם עַל-מִשְׁכַּבְכֶם, וְדֹמּוּ סֶלָה. (תהילים ד:ה)

“Tremble and do not sin. Speak in your hearts upon your bed, and be still forever.” (Psalms 4:5)

According to third-century scholar Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish — himself a well-known penitent — this verse outlines a four-step program how to master the temptations of the yeitzer hara, the evil inclination.

  • First, רִגְזוּ וְאַל-תֶּחֱטָאוּ, you should “tremble and not sin.” Awaken your innate positive nature, your yeitzerhatov. Use your positive traits to counter any bad impulses.
  • If this does not work, then אִמְרוּ בִלְבַבְכֶם — “speak in your hearts” — i.e., engage in Torah study, which should be עַל־לְבָבֶֽךָ (Deut. 6:6).
  • If that is not enough, then say the Shema prayer, which is recited עַל-מִשְׁכַּבְכֶם — “upon your bed” before going to sleep. As it says, “when you lie down” (וּבְשָׁכְבְּךָ) (Deut. 6:7).
  • And if that does not vanquish the negative impulse, then וְדֹמּוּ סֶלָה — “be still forever.” Remind yourself of the day of death (Berachot 5a).

These are four tools to overcome negative urges and unhealthy desires. But if the ultimate weapon in battling evil inclinations is to reflect on our mortality and the transient nature of life in this world, then why not use this method right from the start? Why wait before employing our most effective weapon?

1. Awaken Your Good Traits

All of our characteristics, whether positive or negative, are meant to be used for the good. Even bad traits, such as jealousy, competitiveness, and pride, have their place and can be sublimated for positive purposes. If we weaken these negative traits, they will not be available to help us attain our goals. The ideal is that all of our energies be strong and healthy, while our negative traits are firmly under the control of our intellect and positive nature.

It is natural that negative traits are more readily aroused. Therefore, the first step in subduing them is to “awaken the good inclinations.” We must bring our good traits to the fore so that they will be in control and rule over the negative ones.

2. Learn Torah

For those who have a strong sense of right and morality, it is enough to awaken the soul’s innate goodness. But those who have not adequately refined their character traits must gain knowledge of the proper path. Therefore, Rabbi Shimon’s second advice is “to engage in Torah study.”

This does not refer to the study of Torah in general. Rabbi Shimon meant specifically studying those areas of Torah that we are lacking. By absorbing this knowledge, we bolster our higher aspirations and will be prepared to overcome negative urges.

3. Uplift Your Emotions

For some people, however, knowledge alone is insufficient to awaken their inner good. They need to refine and uplift their emotional faculties. To purify their emotions — which have a stronger impact than abstract knowledge — the third technique is to recite the Shema prayer.

The Shema is not simply a matter of intellectual recognition of God’s oneness. Were that the case, it would be sufficient to recite it at infrequent intervals, perhaps once a year (like the mitzvah to remember the evil of Amalek). The fact that we are commanded to recite the Shema twice a day indicates that this recitation relates to our emotional faculties. The Shema is meant to instill in us feelings of love and closeness to God. We recite it every morning and evening, to constantly confirm and renew this truth in our hearts. It is a continual spiritual need, like air to the soul. As we refine our emotions, we strengthen our positive character and our control over negative impulses.

4. Contemplate Life’s Transience

All of the first three techniques share a common element: they work by strengthening the soul’s positive qualities. But if we have still not overcome these impulses, it becomes necessary to weaken the negative traits. This is the final method: to “remind oneself of the day of death.” When we reflect on our mortality, we dampen the lures of our imaginings that inflate the importance of worldly pleasures.

However, if it is possible to strengthen our positive forces, this is the preferred method. For once we start weakening the forces of the soul, we will also weaken — as may occur with certain medical treatments like radiation therapy — our positive and healthy powers.

(Adapted from Ein Eyah vol. I, pp. 13-14; vol. II, p. 389)

Illustration image: ‘Jacob Wrestles with the Angel’ (Gustave Doré, 1855)

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