Note: Aside from yesterday’s post, which included both dappim, today’s post is a repeat from Psychology of the Daf Moed Kattan 17. That posting included a significant line in our Gemara Amud Beis, which implied that sometimes a person can be faced with urges that cannot be controlled.

People often repeat this line, “Hashem does not give you a nisayon (challenge) that you cannot overcome.”  While this might inspire some to work even harder to overcome it, what about those who fail to overcome it?  Shall they now feel like a double failure, that they failed in whatever challenge, and on top of that, it really was something that could have been overcome, and God even promises that?  If this is a theologically incorrect and misinformed statement, which I believe it is as I shall demonstrate, what can be more cruel than to perpetuate such a belief?  

There are psychiatric conditions that compel people to behave in particular ways, and if they do not, they experience unbearable and unrelenting anxiety.  For example, there is a condition called Trichotillomania whereby those suffering from this illness feel an intense urge to pull at their hair or pick their skin.  Since this is forbidden to do on Shabbos (according to the halacha these prohibitions exist to varying degrees and may even be medoraysa, which is beyond the scope of this discussion), if people suffering from trichotillomania pick their skin or hair on Shabbos, are they halachically liable?

Furthermore, what about various forms of addictions and compulsions such as alcoholism, drug addiction, gambling addiction, food addiction, sexual addiction and even internet addictions.  To the degree that these addictions compel people to behave immorally, are they halachically considered to be in a state of oness (beyond their control)?  For those who have no experience with addictions it may sound beyond belief, however, the power of addictions must not be underestimated. Do not judge others until you have been in their shoes.  Many people refer to addiction as a “cunning, baffling and powerful disease”, which is an apt description. 

There are psychiatric conditions whereby people lose control of their functioning, and their perception of reality is so disabled that they cannot be held liable, such as when a person is delusional.  This is not a matter of halachic debate, such people simply have the status of a shoteh.  However, it gets murkier when we consider illnesses such as depression.  People who are depressed find it difficult to do anything and lose the will to perform even the simplest of activities.  Is someone who is depressed obligated in davening or other mitzvos?

Our Gemara on Amud Aleph (as well as Kiddushin 40a and Chagigah 16a) discusses a person who feels an overwhelming desire to sin, and cannot seem to control himself.  The text states the following:

Rav Ilai states, “If one sees in himself that his inclination to sin is overwhelming him, he should go to a place where no one recognizes him, wear black, wrap his head in black, and do what his heart desires and not publicly desecrate the Name of Heaven.”

The simple reading of the Gemara seems to be that assuming a person is in a state where he feels he can no longer control himself, it is better to sin in a manner that hides his identity so that at least it does make a chillul Hashem.  The behavior of a random, oddly dressed individual will not encourage others to sin, nor bring shame on any particular community or group.  

However, this reading also implies that it is indeed possible that a person can be in a state where he can no longer control himself.  If not for this Gemara, one might have figured that the best advice for such a person is to “just say no '' and try to overcome his desire. In fact, another Gemara (Berachos 5a) advises precisely along those lines: “Rav Levi ben Hama says in the name of Resh Lakish: A man should always use the Yezer Hatov to fight against the Yezer Hara…If he wins, well and good. If not, let him study Torah…If he wins well and good. If not, let him say the Shema’…If he wins, well and good. If not, let him remind himself of the day of death.”  Indeed, many meforshim cannot accept the implications of a simple reading of Rav Illai’s prescription to “Wear Black etc and do as his heart desires”, and therefore understand it differently.  For example, Tosafos (Op. Cit.) quotes Rabbenu Chananel as follows:

“Chas V’shalom that the Gemara is permitting one to sin.”  Rather, the Gemara is suggesting a tactic to break down the person’s pride, by wearing humble clothes and going to foreign place, he will lose his desire.  When the Gemara states, ‘do what his heart desires’ it means what his heart truly desires, that is to follow the Torah.”

This clever interpretation of the Gemara certainly makes sense psychologically.  Because it employs a tactic of delaying the sin (in having to travel to another place) and distracting the person.  Furthermore, by making him wear different clothes and traveling to a foreign place (perhaps experiencing danger or at least poverty and frustration), he will have a better chance to re-evaluate his priorities.

Having said that, the Tosafos (Chagigah 16a, “V’Ya’aseh) rejects this reinterpretation and favors the simple reading of the text, as the context of the Gemara in Meod Kattan indicates that Rabbi Ilai’s prescription was actually used by a sage and sins were committed. The “intervention” was useful in it actually allowing for some kind of forgiveness in the afterlife as it secured his admittance to the burial spots reserved for judges (or those judged and forgiven see Ritva), though not for pious ones, as the Gemara explained. Therefore, there is clear support for the idea that indeed one can experience challenges and nisyonos that are beyond a person’s ability to manage.  

Tosafos in Eiruvin (41b, “Miy”) implies that though a person can reach a point where they have urges that they can no longer control, they are responsible to catch their state of mind at an earlier point before they lose control. A good way to understand emotions is kind of like a horse whinnying in the barn. At first when the horse is only slightly agitated, you can stroke its hair, give it a sugar cube, and soothe it. However, if the horse gets too anxious and breaks the barn door down, it’s very hard to stop it once it’s at full gallop.

There is also a section of the Torah which deals with Eishes Yefas Toar, which the Gemara (Kiddushin 21b) sees as a necessary concession to the unmanageable urges and lusts that ensue during times of war, and especially during the blood lust of battle.  Tzidkas Hatzadik (40 and 100) has a radical theology that all sins are de-facto divinely ordained, as all that happens is God’s will.  Repentance merely involves regretting that the sin was done out of personal desire instead of a wish to serve Hashem.  In fact, on this basis, he offers an explanation of how Chazal can say that true teshuva is able to turn sins into mitzvos.  Since the deed itself was God’s will, once the person repents for the lust, and accepts to only do G-d’s will, then the picture is complete, doing God's will with the correct intention.  Of course, none of this is to say one can assume that, when faced with a desire to sin, that he ought not fight it.  A sin is still a sin and must be viewed as such.  However, after the fact, it may indeed have been a desire or compulsion that could not have been controlled.

Some more examples from Chazal that hold that indeed, not all compulsions or nisyonos can be overcome:

Gemara Kesuvos (51b), discusses a situation where a woman is being forced into a forbidden relation and the act was begun against her will. Even if she experienced some pleasure or desire during the act, and even if after a time she no longer tried to resist and in fact resisted attempts to save her, she is still exempt from liability.  The Gemara explains, “Yezera Albesha” -- “She became enveloped by desire.”  What is clear in this circumstance is that Chazal felt that arousal can reach a level where a person is no longer liable.

Similarly, the Chofetz Chaim in his sefer Shmiras Halashon discusses the possibility that when a person is being verbally or physically assaulted it may be permitted to respond in a likewise fashion (see “Lavin” section, Be’er Mayim Chayim 8:9).  Although it is praiseworthy to resist the temptation to react, and to instead remain calm, the Torah may consider it acceptable and human to respond in kind, even if it is violent.  

Of course, how people behave when they lose control may be hurtful and destructive and I am not endorsing physical or verbal violence.  The question under discussion is not if this behavior is good or proper, rather if it is possible that a person can be provoked beyond his or her control.  Also, this should not be mistakenly compared with situations of domestic violence, where the perpetrator holds far more power than the victim, and the “provocations” are a result of the distorted and narcissistic thinking of the perpetrator.

Despite the ample proofs I have provided for a strong trend in Jewish thought that indeed there are situations where a Nisayon is too great to resist, Bereishis Rabbah (55:2) appears to contradict this:

Hashem tries the righteous; and His soul hates the evil ones and those who love violence (Ps. 11: 5). Rabbi Yonasan said: When a flax worker knows that his flax is of good quality, the more he beats it the more it improves and the more it glistens; but if it is of inferior quality, he cannot give it one knock without it splitting. Similarly, Hashem does not test the wicked - why? Because they cannot withstand it, as it is written "And the evil ones He expels like the sea" (Isaiah 57:20) and who does God test? The righteous, as it says "Hashem tries the righteous." "And it was, after these things, his master’s wife cast [tisah] [her eyes upon Yosef and said, “Lie with me."(Gen. 39:7)" "And it was, after these things" - Rabbi Yonason said: A potter does not test defective vessels, because he cannot give them a single blow without breaking them. What then does he test? Only strong vessels, for he will not break them even with many blows. Similarly, the Holy One of Blessing does not test the wicked but the righteous, as it says, Hashem tries the righteous.’ Rabbi Eleazar said: When a man possesses two cows, one strong and the other weak, on which one he puts the yoke? Surely on the strong one Similarly, God tests only the righteous, as it says, Hashem tries the righteous.’

This does seem to say that God only gives tests that a person could withstand, and this might be the support for Rabbenu Chananel’s position. However, it is not really a contradiction. The situation in Bereishis Rabbah is discussing a test specifically sent by God. Such as the tests sent to Abraham or Job. We may agree since God is wise and just, He will not send a test to someone who is unable to withstand it. On the other hand, there could be so called ordinary challenges in life having to do with natural desires and natural capacities. In those situations, there still might exist a poor combination of natural ability and strength versus the instinctive drives. Just as a person might be too weak and unable to stay physically healthy, a person can suffer weaknesses of the soul and character that interfere with spiritual and moral health. Just as in regard to physical strength a person might be able to overcome it with extra effort but also may just be past his limit, so it is possible with moral matters that it may beyond his character strength and emotional strength. A depressed person may not be able to overcome his depression and put on tefilin. An alcoholic might not be able to overcome his cravings for alcohol, and so too a sex addict might not be able to overcome his desires.

This interpretation is a dangerous invitation down a slippery slope and can be misused.  Not only is it rationalizing immoral behavior, but it also can be misinterpreted as encouraging leading a hypocritical double life -- behaving piously and then at various intervals acting out forbidden desires incognito.  This bears eerie resemblance to internet addicts who lead anonymous on-line lives completely out of bounds from their normal moral standards. The online world is basically anonymous like the protagonist of Rabbi Ilai’s advice.

In the end, we all must answer to Hashem.  He knows if we are sincerely struggling to overcome compulsive or addictive behaviors, and only He can forgive.  A person struggling with compulsions and addictions can draw comfort from the above Gemara to recognize that at times a person may succumb – yet not despair or give up hope or use it as an excuse for moral laxity.  It is helpful to keep in mind Step two of the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, “We came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.”  This sentiment is echoed by the Gemara Kiddushin (30b), “The desire to commit sin overpowers a person on a daily basis, and if not for Divine assistance it would be insurmountable.”  Just as a person who is physically unwell may be temporarily exempt from mitzvos but is responsible to seek out healing, so too a person who is in the throes of addiction must seek help and guidance.



Translations Courtesy of Sefaria, (except when, sometimes, I disagree with the translation cool.)