Talmud Sanhedrin 89b:
“On the way [to sacrifice Isaac] Satan came towards Abraham and said to him, ‘If we assay to commune with you, wilt you be grieved? Behold, you have instructed many, and you have strengthened the weak hands. Your words have upheld he that was falling, and you have strengthened the feeble knees. But now it calamity has come upon you, and you faint.’ Abraham replied, ‘I will walk in my integrity.’
‘But’, said Satan to him, ‘should not your fear be your confidence?’ ‘Remember’, Abraham responded, ‘I pray thee, whoever perished, being innocent?’
Seeing that Abraham would not listen to him, Satan said to him, ‘Now, a thing was secretly brought to me [from heaven] thus have I heard from behind the Curtain, ‘the lamb for a burnt offering, but not Isaac for a burnt-offering.’ Abraham replied, ‘It is the penalty of a liar, that should he even tell the truth, he is not listened to’.”
As the Rabbis teach, Satan refers to our instinctual drives. Since it “counsels” us, it is personified. In this account, Abraham is on route to slaughter his precious son Isaac, at God’s command. This Talmudic portion describes three attempts Abraham’s emotions (Satan) propose to him to deviate from God’s command. What was each of Satan’s arguments, and did they progress with any rhyme or reason?
Satan’s first argument is, that although Abraham directed others in the correct philosophy, Abraham will not be able to apply this in his own trial: he will fail. This means that Satan’s first attempt was to simply reject God’s command from an argument of difficulty. In other words, Abraham’s emotions were seeking to save his son by a compelling feeling of inability. “You can help others, but when it comes down t it, you can’t abide by your own counsel”. But Abraham countered this first internal impulse by rethinking his philosophy, and holding steadfast to his “integrity”. Integrity refers to one who practically applies to his emotions and actions; those abstract truths arrived at through one’s mind. Abraham directed others on the correct philosophy. And refused to listen to his emotions, even when it meant that he would suffer. He transformed his abstract convictions, into his personal behavior.
Satan’s second argument was relegated to the arena of justice: “Should not your fear be your confidence?” This means, “Shouldn’t your confidence, i.e., living properly, protect you from mishap?” Satan was seeking to get Abraham to reject God’s command, since now, living according to God is causing the death of his son. Again, Abraham responded, “Whoever perished, being innocent?” With this response, Abraham countered his emotions’ second attack, reiterating to himself that no one innocent suffers. “There must be justice in all of God’s commands, including this trial.” Abraham’s commitment to his mind’s grasp of God’s perfect justice dissuaded his emotions. Although practically this was severely painful, Abraham was even more attached to his knowledge, his knowledge that God is perfectly just. He did not allow his subjective, emotional experience cloud his clear convictions in a just God.
Finally, Satan attempted to confuse Abraham’s perception of the command, “the lamb for a burnt-offering, but not Isaac for a burnt offering.” Abraham’s emotions presented a doubt, “Does God truly desire Isaac’s death?” Abraham knew Isaac was righteous, and did not see any sin deserving his slaughter. “Perhaps”, he thought, “God has a different intent than what I perceive it to be.” This is what is meant by “I heard from behind the curtain”. Meaning, Satan – Abraham’s emotions – are suggesting there is a different plan, which God has: “Isaac is not truly to be sacrificed.” This is certainly a possibility since man cannot know God’s thoughts, but Abraham replied (to himself), “It is the penalty of a liar, that should he even tell the truth, he is not listened to.” This means that although the emotions can touch on to some real truth concerning God’s commands (“behind the curtain”) regardless, since this counsel originates in the emotions, he thought, and emotions lie to gain their objective, Abraham discounted this “liar’s” words. He would not act based on an emotional decision, even if it smacked of some doubt. Abraham would not act in accord with emotions, as his was a life of love for God and truth. He knew what he was commanded. He continued his mission.
We learn a great deal from this small Talmudic portion. It teaches that emotions are relentless, and that even the most righteous individuals possess evil inclinations: every person has a “Satan”, which means to “veer away”. Satan causes man to veer from the correct life.
We also learn how the emotions operate, and in what hierarchy of attack: First, the emotions seek an easy way out, through simple feelings of incapability: no thinking is evoked. If that fails, the emotions incite a “justification”, seen in Abraham’s questioning of God’s justice. He felt on some level what Job felt, that following God should procure a good life, in all ways. Abraham’s Satan questioned why his righteousness was not rewarded with keeping his precious son. But Abraham rejected this thinking, and remained firm that all God does is perfectly just, “even if I don’t understand it, and even if it places me in such pain…but I cannot allow my pain to cloud my convictions.”
Finally, the emotions will push man to question his accepted truths: “Did God really command Isaac to be slaughtered, or is there a different plan behind the curtain [on High]?” Abraham accepted that he does not know God’s knowledge, and even if it was true that another plan might unfold, he refused to follow an emotional appeal. This is what is means by “It is the penalty of a liar [Satan], that should he even tell the truth, he is not listened to.”
Abraham’s emotions progressed from a simple urge of laziness, to the realm of justice (morality), finally culminating in the arena of our metaphysical knowledge (God’s will).
This does not mean that emotions cross the border of their limited scope of function. Emotions can only push forth impulses; they cannot think. So how did Abraham’s Satan generate these questions on God’s justice and metaphysics…how do OUR emotions do this?
The method is as follows: at first, we sense an emotion pull. This is based on the fact that God designed us in a certain way, and nothing else. This is not due to upbringing, environment, or other influences. Although outside influences can increase the ‘quantity’ of emotion we feel towards a given desire, there exists in each person a set of natural desires. This quality of being an emotion being is planted in our hearts while in the womb: no one needs to “learn” the desire for intercourse, food, or friendship. Now, once we sense an emotional pull, let’s say to degrade a fellow human being publicly, the correct course is to recognize God desires that we refrain, and we should follow what our minds tell us is God’s will. But this is not always the case. People do speak against others. How do our emotions cause us to deny God’s word? How does it get us to question God’s justice, and even His knowledge?
Once we have a strong emotional pull, if our minds are not convinced that God’s word is an absolute good for us, our other feelings of rationalization, justification, and “I’ll repent later” allow the emotions to become stronger. We are literally drawn by both; the magnetism of the emotions, and our sense of what is right. But since “man’s inclination is evil from youth”, he senses greater familiarity, ease and pleasure, to again, follow what “feels” good. And rejecting an emotion feels bad. Until one educates his mind clearly, and fully grasps and becomes convinced how detrimental sin is to his soul, his emotions will win. The draw of the emotions has a head start in our lives, and inherently, emotions feel better than logic, since logic is a cerebral experience, and acclimating to that lifestyle takes time.
In the end, the only path to following a good life, first and foremost is Torah study. It may be that a person with urges can equally quell his urge. But that is not an internal value change, rather, merely a temporary restraint. Inside, he still values sin, so his soul is still corrupt. Only through the knowledge of how sin damages one’s soul, will a person make an internal change, which is what true Teshuva is.
So the emotions do not think, but they operate within each of us, side by side with our intelligence. Both bring information to the person “in the middle”. But the ‘language’ of their respective information is of two types: emotional urges, and cerebral truths. God designed us in a manner that even though emotions have a head start, we will follow our minds over our emotions, if we educate ourselves, and arrive at convictions, which takes time. We will eventually value truth, over temporary gratification, as we sustain a schedule of Torah study. We are designed to value truth over all else, but the attachment to truth, is in proportion to our knowledge of truth. The more we learn, the more we will value God’s truths, and the less we will sin. We will understand the detriment of sin, and the pleasure and truths encased in study. We will have altered the course of our lives, as God desires, and as we will see, is most pleasurable. The reality of God’s Will, will propel us to do so, and free our involvements in other pursuits.
Our emotions are no different, and even more corruptible than Abraham’s, since he was far more perfected than anyone alive today. In all areas of our lives, when we seek to oppose our emotions by living in line with God, we will suffer first by an onslaught of laziness, then justification, and finally, questioning our understanding of God’s will. We will seek gratification in all possible means. But, if we are conscious, we can apply this vital lesson to ourselves. We can steer clear of succumbing to false rationalizations. But to do so, to save our souls from further corruption, we require knowledge, as displayed by Abraham’s arguments. Had he not spent decades in thought, arriving at truths, he would not be armed to conquer the falsehoods presented by his emotions. But we are more fortunate than Abraham: God gave us a Torah, which he didn’t possess. Nonetheless, Abraham arrived at these same Torah truths independently.
We must learn more so we are equipped to deal with the daily trials, albeit nothing compared to sacrificing our sons.