In the beginning of this week’s Torah reading, Esav (Esau) sold his first-born status to his brother Yaakov (Jacob), in exchange for a dish of lentils. The verse says that Esav despised the first-born status, meaning, he despised the special service of God which was granted to the one who had the first-born status. In the end of this week’s Torah reading, he regretted the sale, and claimed that Yaakov had tricked him for having him sell the first-born status.
This, says Rabeinu B’chayei, is a typical example of how the Yetzer Hara (Evil Inclination) works. The Yetzer Hara convinces a person to follow his lusts and fulfill his desires in life which causes him to despise the service of God. At the time that he does so, he feels like he is taking advantage of life and enjoying himself, but in the end, he will regret it and feel very pained about what he has done. Heeding the Yetzer Hara provides a fleeting sense of pleasure and satisfaction, but in the long run, he will not be happy with himself.
The Birchas Peretz adds that Esav claimed that his brother Yaakov had tricked him, but in reality, he is the one who tricked himself. He fooled himself into thinking that he was getting the better end of the deal, as the Midrash says (63:14) that he mocked Yaakov and felt like he was taking advantage of Yaakov. And in the end, he realized that he acted foolishly, but it was too late.
It wasn’t just Esav who acted like this. People decide to indulge in materialistic pleasures, instead of taking the time to study Torah and pursue other Mitzvot (good deeds). At the time they do so, they feel good. They feel like they succeeded in “living it up.” But sooner or later, they are left with a feeling of emptiness and are consumed with guilt; ill feelings which outweigh all the pleasure they had at the time. They also tricked themselves. And as bad as one feels in This World, the real regret will be in the Next World, when one sees with clarity how foolish he was for giving up infinite goodness for some fleeting pleasure.
Rabbi Yitzchok Blazer of Peterburg relates an astonishing insight. Our Sages say (see Shevet Mussar, chapter 25) that the wicked are full of regrets. Rabbi Blazer asks that this would seem to contradict that which our Sages tell us, that the wicked are led by the Yetzer Hara (Brachot 61b, as explained by the Gra, quoted in Ma’alot Hatorah). If the Yetzer Hara leads the wicked, why would he let them regret their sins?
Rabbi Blazer answers that these feelings of guilt are generally not productive feelings which lead a person to repent. They are just feelings of pain which make a person feel disgusted with himself over what he had done. The purpose of these feelings of guilt is to eradicate any pleasure one had from the sin he committed. Once the sin is over, there is no reason for the Yetzer Hara to make the sin seem attractive. Now the Yetzer Hara wishes to deprive a person as much as possible from having any more pleasure. The way he does this is by making a person feel guilty and bad about himself. The Yetzer Hara wants a person to sin and to also feel pain. It’s only worth it for him to provide some pleasure at the time of the sin in order to entice a person. But once the sin is over, he is not interested in your happiness.
A lecturer on Torah subjects once asked his audience, “Who do you think will have more reward – I, who used to live a life free of Torah obligations for many years before I repented and committed myself to a life of Torah, or someone who grew up living his life according to the Torah from the time he was young?” The crowd all answered unanimously, “Obviously, you, who had to change your life around, and give up all the pleasures you were used to enjoying.”
The lecturer disagreed and said, “In my opinion, a person who has been following a Torah life from the beginning will receive more reward. Because such a person always imagines that without restrictions, life would be so much more enjoyable. He is constantly sacrificing living a life of pleasure for the sake of following the Torah. I, on the other hand, have ‘been there, done that.’ I know from experience that by choosing to live a life of Torah I’m not losing out on anything, I’m only gaining.”
This is a concept of which we need to constantly remind ourselves. The Yetzer Hara is always tempting us, promising us real enjoyable pleasure, if we only would listen to him instead of pushing ourselves to act the way we should. But it’s just a trick. Yes, it may feel good at the time, but it’s not long-lasting. The pleasure we might gain will be greatly countered by feelings of guilt and emptiness. By being disciplined, we only gain true, lasting happiness in life.
By Rabbi Yitzchok Aryeh Strimber firstname.lastname@example.org