Chukat – Activity Versus Accomplishment

The Parsha ends with a history of how the Jewish people came to conquer the city of Cheshbon from the Emorim.  It had previously been part of Moav until Sichon, King of the Emorim,  defeated Moav and acquired Cheshbon.  With regard to that war, the Torah tells us, “Therefore say the ‘Moshlim’, come to Cheshbon and the city of Sichon will be built and set up.[1]

The simple understanding of this passuk is that the ‘Moshlim’ are those who say mashalim (poems), Bilaam and Beor, and they were telling Sichon to come and conquer Cheshbon from the Moavim.  However, the Gemara sees a hidden message in this passuk:  “Therefore, say those who rule their inclinations, come and let us make an accounting of the world; the loss [incurred through doing] a mitzva against its benefit, and the benefit of a sin against its loss”.

The commentaries ask, why is it that only those who ‘rule their inclinations’ say that one should do a cheshbon (accounting), implying that those who do not rule their inclinations do not believe that a person should participate in such a cheshbon[2]

The Mesillas Yeshiarim explains that those who rule their inclinations are people who have developed a deep understanding of the yetser hara and are aware of the need to constantly remain vigilant against its tactics by undertaking a regular cheshbon hanefesh.  Consequently they exhort people to make a cheshbon hanefesh.  This cheshbon involves a review of what a person’s overall goals in life should be and assessing whether he is living in accord with those goals.  A person who does not ‘rule over his inclination’ has no awareness of how the yetser hara is constantly tricking him into an undesirable lifestyle.  He is so blinded by its powers that he stumbles along life like a person who walks in the darkness blissfully unaware that there are numerous traps awaiting him.  He does not recognize the need to do any kind of cheshbon and has to be motivated to do so by one who does rule his inclination. 

The Mesillas Yesharim discusses the main factors that cause a person to fail to grasp the true purpose of life.  He writes that the most basic problem is that one can become so engulfed in his activities that he never has the opportunity to step back and assess the direction that his life is taking.  This is one of the main tactics of the yetser hara – he knows that if one were to step back and analyze his actions then he will recognize that drastic changes are needed.  Therefore, it makes him so busy that he does not have any free time with which to think about his life direction.  He compares this to the plan of Pharaoh when he perceived a threat that the Jews were beginning to think about freedom.  His response was to make their workload heavier so that they would have no time to think about rebelling against him, rather, “he tried to distract their hearts from all contemplation with the sheer constancy of the work which never ceased.” 

So too, the yetser hara sends us all kinds of distractions that cause us to be constantly busy to the extent that we can never step back and look at the general direction that our life is taking.  One observer, noting this succinctly stated, “there is a difference between activity and accomplishment;” people may be extremely busy but were they to step back and examine what they actually accomplishing in a meaningful sense, they may be disappointed.  This dilemma is demonstrated by the following observation by a person who had just arrived at the realization that he was caught in this trap:  “I’m busy – really busy.  But sometimes I wonder if what I’m doing will make any difference in the long run. 

This busyness can manifest itself in a number of ways. The following stories provide two examples of how his can occur: One father was very involved in his work, to the extent that he even worked on Sundays, the one time when he could spend quality time with his son.  Every Sunday his son would ask him if they could spend some time together but the father answered that he had to work.  Finally, the son asked his father how much money he earns in one hour of work on a Sunday.  The father answered, $100 – the son replied that he had saved $50 and was willing to give that to his father so that he would spend half an hour with him!  It may well be that the father’s intentions in working so hard were noble and included providing a stable financial upbringing for his son.  However, he missed sight of the fact that he was sacrificing a meaningful relationship with his son and therefore any benefit of the extra work was outweighed by the damage it was causing.  Only after the father’s eyes were opened by his son’s desperate efforts was he able to step back and reassess his role as a father.

Another example is about the Rebbe who asked one of his top talmidim how often he thinks about G-d.  The talmid answered, “Rebbe, I get up at 3.00am every morning and learn continuously until I daven Neitz, I have a very quick breakfast, and learn all morning, only to stop for a brief lunch and mincha, and then I learn all afternoon and through the night until I collapse with tiredness – Rebbe, when do I have time to think about G-d?!”  This talmid had got so involved in his ‘Avodas Hashem’ that he had missed sight of  the overall purpose of what he was doing – to develop a relationship with G-d.

If these nisyonos (tests) were so strong in the time of the Mesillas Yesharim[3] then all the more so it presents a formidable challenge in the modern world.  Society is saturated with gadgets and technology that can keep people busy and distracted throughout the day[4].  There is barely a conversation that is not interrupted by someone receiving a call on their cell phone or an email on their blackberry. The consequences of such developments are that there is barely a moment where a person is free from all distractions to assess his life direction.

In order to overcome the efforts of the yetser hara to never think about our life direction, The Mesillas Yeesharim strongly suggests that a person make a regular cheshbon hanefesh.  The purpose of this is to remind himself of what his goals in life and to assess whether he is living according to them or has lost sight of the overall goal and is caught up in details that are distracting him from his true life purpose.  A useful time in which one can escape from the numerous distractions of daily life and contemplate his life is Shabbos.  That is the one day when an observant Jew is free from many of the technological advances that hinder cheshbon hanefesh.  Therefore, this is a fitting time when one can look back at the past week and assess whether he lived in line with his life goals or not. 

As we have seen, the yetser hara is desperate to prevent us from true self-contemplation.  As a result, one may find it harder to do a 5 minute cheshbon hanefesh once a week than to learn for 10 hours a day!  The yetser hara does not want a person to learn but if it cannot prevent this, then he tries with all his might to prevent  a person from utilizing what he learns in order to live a lifestyle with Torah true goals.  He primarily does this by stopping a person from stepping back and thinking about his life direction.  Consequently, it requires a strong effort to being a cheshbon hanefesh, but as we know, one who tries to purify himself receives great help from Shamayim and can surely succeed in this difficult area.


Notes and Sources

[1] Chukas, 21:27.

[2] See Mesillas Yesharim, Ch.3; Nesivos Shalom, Chukas.

[3] Its author, Rav Moshe Chaim Luzatto lived nearly 400 years ago.

[4] This is not to say that there are no benefits to such technology.  Rather, like everything in life, it can be used for the good or for the bad.  The point made here is that the yetser hara tries to utilize the technological advances to distract people from what is meaningful.


From The Book “The Guiding Light 2”



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