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Monday, 10 August 2015

How to stay OTD

Daf Yomi Nedarim 75


King Yannai was the high priest and king of the Jewish people.  For many years, he served the people, faithfully devoted to traditional Judaism.   But with time, he began to mix with the wrong crowd.  One day, his Sadducee friend Elazar suggested that he don the headgear of the Kohen Gadol alongside his crown.  The Sages were aghast and told him that one could not serve in both capacities.   Incensed by their insubordination, he was determined to teach them a lesson. 

The special celebration of the Simchas Beis Hashoeivah was held every Sukkos.  Whilst year round, wine was poured as a libation on the Holy Altar, one week a year they poured water.  The Sadducees, however – Yannai’s new buddies – didn’t believe in the water libation ceremony.  And so, just as all eyes were upon him watching and waiting for him to pour the water onto the Altar, he suddenly let it empty onto the ground.  Without missing a beat, the people rose up and began pelting him with their esrogim.  But tragically, that was his excuse to begin his mass execution of the sages and the people.

What happened to Yannai?  Where did he go wrong?  Indeed, according to the Talmudic sage Abaye, he was originally the saintly Yochanan who only departed from the ways of Heaven, at the age of eighty!

Mishnah: One who says to his wife, ‘I hereby revoke any vows that you make from now until my return,’ Rabbi Eliezer says that they are revoked in advance.  But the Sages say they are not revoked.
They said to Rabbi Eliezer: If a mikvah, which has the power to purify impure people, lacks the power to protect the pure from contracting impurity (if they were to immerse in advance), how may a person who does not even possess the power to purify (past misdeeds) protect from future impurity?

Nobody is immune from going OTD – off the derech, off the path of your Divine mission on earth.  It can happen to anyone.  The yetzer hara (evil inclination) doesn’t rest until the day we die.   Yochanan the High Priest may be the archetype who went off the spiritual deep end, but it happens in varying degrees to so many people.  How do you protect yourself from becoming the next Yochanan?  Is there a way to immunize yourself from future impurity?

The Gemara here explains that immersion in a mikvah does not have the power to protect you from future defilement.  The good news is there are other ways to protect yourself in advance.  What are they?  Torah, tefillah (prayer), and keeping good company.

Our Sages declare in the name of the Almighty, so to speak, ‘I created the yetzer hara, but I created Torah as the antidote.’  If you want to protect yourself from sin, immerse yourself in Torah.  The more you envelop your entire being in Torah, the less prone to sin you will be.  Torah creates a force-field which protects you from the forces of impurity.  Nowadays, it’s easy to immerse yourself – just grab a pair of headphones and download shiurim (classes) from YUTorah, Torah Anytime, or Torah Café, amongst others.   Every time you jump into the car, have some Torah playing.  Any time you get on the treadmill, switch on the Torah class!

The second way to protect yourself in advance from impurity is tefillah.  Many of the prayers instituted by our holy Sages were formulated with a view to protecting us from the elements.  For example, in the morning, we beseech G-d, “do not bring us to any test.”  In the evening we say, “Remove Satan from in front of us and from behind us.”  When you focus on the words of prayer, you provide yourself with yet another form of protection from the forces of impurity that abound.

The third method is more tangible.  In Pirkei Avot, Rabbi Yehoshua instructs us that the best path to choose in life is ‘good friends.’  We are creatures that travel in packs.  We are incredibly susceptible to the influence of the environment and the friendships we maintain for ourselves.  Yochanan’s downfall stemmed from the new company he began to keep.  If you want to stay on the spiritual straight and narrow, make sure you have spiritually likeminded buddies.


We are all OTD.   Some of us are a little more ‘off the derech.’  Others of us are more ‘on the derech.’  But none of us are immune to the snares of the yetzer hara.  May you immerse yourself constantly in Torah, tefillah, and good friendships, and thereby stay true to your holy mission on earth!