Tuesday, September 26, 2017

The Three Faces of Satan (Derashah, Yom Kippur 5778)

Critiques welcome - especially before Yom Kippur!

Like many Jewish children growing up in North America in the 1980’s, my only real exposure to Satan was via Dana Carvey’s Church Lady on Saturday Night Live. To me, Satan was a Christian concept, a red-skinned fellow with horns, a goatee, a tail, hooves and a pitchfork. You might read about his adventures in Milton’s Paradise Lost.

In truth, Judaism does describe a Satan, but for most of the year we downplay it, barely mentioning it anywhere.[1] That is – until we arrive at Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur. The Yamim Noraim seem to be the season for acknowledging Satan’s influence:
·         Why don’t we recite the monthly Birkat HaChodesh blessing in shul in advance of Rosh Chodesh Tishrei? Some say it’s to avoid alerting Satan that Rosh HaShanah is coming.[2]
·         Why do we stop blowing shofar one day short of Rosh HaShanah? According to some, it’s to confuse Satan.[3]
·         Why does the tokeia blow shofar out of the right side of his mouth on Rosh HaShanah? To combat Satan, who is described in Tanach as attacking on our right side.[4] Why do we blow shofar before musaf? To confuse Satan with multiple sets of shofar blasts.[5] And in some communities a Teruah Gedolah is sounded at the end of davening – you guessed it, to addle Satan.[6]
·         It’s not just Rosh HaShanah, either; our liturgy for Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur mentions Satan, as the chazan pleads with Gd ותגער בשטן לבל ישטינני, to obstruct Satan lest it act against our prayers.
·         And who could forget the שעיר לעזאזל, the scapegoat which is at the heart of the Yom Kippur Avodah, which some interpret as associated with Satan?[7]
Clearly we have heightened concern for Satan at this time of year. Why?

First, we need to know what Satan actually is.

The Talmud[8] states, “הוא שטן הוא יצר הרע הוא מלאך המות” – “Satan is the Yetzer HaRa, and both of them are the Malach haMavet/Angel of Death.”
·         I know what the Malach haMavet does – it kills a person’s body, removing the soul.
·         I know what the Yetzer HaRa does – it kills a person’s actions, by tempting us to sin.
·         But what is Satan? What does Satan do?

A personal Satan appears in three stories in Tanach. If we look briefly at each of them, we will soon see a common thread which will first show us what Satan does, and then, second, answer the question of why Satan is so important at this time of year.

One story involves Dovid haMelech/King David.[9] After putting down a rebellion, Dovid haMelech initiated a military census and a mandatory draft. The Talmud[10] is aghast; how could Dovid haMelech make this basic mistake? Schoolchildren know we are not allowed to count individuals![11] But as Tanach records, ויעמוד שטן על ישראל ויסת את דוד למנות את ישראל. Satan arose and persuaded Dovid to count Israel. Satan told Dovid haMelech, “You have no allies anymore. They deserted you to follow one rebel, and they will desert you again. You cannot lead this nation.” And so Dovid created a military census and a draft.

The second story involves Iyov/Job. The celestial malachim are gathered before Gd, when Satan crashes the party[12] and declares before Gd, “Business is good! I can go wherever I want, and I am welcomed with open arms.[13]” Gd responds by defending the value of humanity, identifying a single champion, Iyov, who is pure in his relationship with Gd. To which Satan responds, “There are no pure human beings; Iyov is as venal and selfish as the rest of them. Take away his wealth, and he’ll blaspheme like everyone else.” This, of course, leads to the great test of humanity that is the Book of Iyov.

The third story involves Yehoshua, the Kohen Gadol at the beginning of the second Beit haMikdash. The navi Zecharyah experiences a prophetic vision of this high priest standing before Gd, wearing stained clothing, and Satan stands on Yehoshua’s right, לשטנו, to block him. As Rashi and Malbim explain, Satan is there to accuse Yehoshua and his family of wickedness, to allege that Yehoshua is unworthy of leading the Jews who have returned to Israel.

Three stories, three faces of Satan, with one thread:
·         Dovid! You are not a legitimate king.
·         Iyov! You are not a legitimate tzadik.
·         Yehoshua! You are not a legitimate kohen gadol.
The word “Satan” means obstruction, and the creature lives up to his name. The Malach haMavet kills the body. The Yetzer HaRa kills the deeds. But Satan is the most sinister of all – by convincing us of our own worthlessness, Satan kills our souls. He robs us of faith in ourselves, he robs us of our sense that we are valuable.

At the moment of Creation, Gd formed a celestial entity[14] whose ongoing role is to challenge us by telling us what we can’t do, to stand on our right side, our best side in the language of Tanach, and to charge, “Is that the best you can do? You can’t cut it. You should just give up.”[15]

Undermining self-esteem may not seem that frightening, more like some watered-down, white-collar version of a devil-lite, but don’t kid yourself; this work of Satan is a global threat. Read what psychologists and sociologists say about 21st century humanity - about rates of suicide and depression among individuals, about entire societies that have imploded under the weight of insecurity and have consequently devolved into racism, xenophobia and death-worship. It all comes down to the same cause: this Satan is wreaking havoc on the lives of people and polities as it preaches its gospel of “You can’t!”

So now we know what Satan does. And to go back to our original question, at this time of year we emphasize Satan because we understand the existential spiritual threat he poses on our Day of Judgment and Day of Atonement:
·         As I listen to shofar on Rosh HaShanah, as I examine myself during the ten days of repentance, as I fast all day on Yom Kippur, I am not tempted by the yetzer hara to repeat my stupidities of the past year. This week, I have had no desire to hurt other people, to take Shabbos or kashrus lightly, to skip minyan.
·         But Satan telling me I can’t do any better, I can’t grow, I can’t change, I will always be a person of anger, I will always be a person of weakness, I will always be a person of inconsistency, I will always be too tired or too stupid or too easily intimidated or too feckless – that’s the threat at this time of year. Hashem promises to accept us back when we return,[16] and to purify us on Yom Kippur[17] – but am I going to take that step when Satan stands on my right side, arguing that I can’t return?
·         Indeed, the Talmud (Chagigah 15a) tells the tragic story of Elisha ben Avuyah, a sage who was lured away from Judaism by Greek theories and who became known as Acher, “the other”. He wanted to come back, but thought he had heard a Divine voice say “Return wayward children – except for Acher.” Acher – you can’t! You have no value! And so he never returned.[18]

But if we look back at those three stories in Tanach, then we will also recognize that Satan can be defeated, so long as we know our own value – not some artificially inflated sense of pride that makes us feel better, but our true value:
·         Yehoshua Kohen Gadol is challenged by Satan and wrapped in filthy garb, but Gd declares, יגער ד' בך השטן! Yehoshua’s valuable merit wins the day. Gd rebukes Satan, and orders the malachim to give Yehoshua pure, clean clothing, befitting his righteousness.
·         Iyov comes under the most furious attack, and he is pushed almost to the breaking point – but he doesn’t break, he wins his family back,[19] and he is identified by Gd at the end as the righteous victor in that terrible battle.
·         Dovid fell prey to insecurity, and carried out a census – but the tragic story ends with Dovid buying a threshing floor and building a mizbeiach for Gd there. Out of Satan’s obstruction, we gain the future site of the Beit haMikdash.

We can win – just as we did throughout Tanach. So even though on Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur we ask Gd, “ותגער בשטן לבל ישטינני, Don’t let Satan attack us,” the truth is that it’s in our hands.
·         We can set our goals in the heavens.
·         We can get our tempers under control, and we can start making people smile.
·         We can learn a masechta of gemara, or multiple masechtot. We can learn Hebrew. We can learn how to daven.
·         We can become people of mercy and benevolence, and stop undermining and putting down people around us to make ourselves greater.
·         We can take care of our parents. We can take care of our children. We can take care of our own health.
·         We can give tzedakah and we can raise tzedakah, for causes from which we benefit personally and for causes which benefit others.
·         We can break off destructive relationships, and establish the foundations of productive ones.
·         We can make that most unhumble commitment in Neilah שלא אחטא עוד, that we will never sin again!
We can be גוער בשטן. Satan is easily confused by resistance, and he has no teeth – Yehoshua and Iyov and Dovid kicked them in long ago! We just need to stop listening to him, and to recognize the value in ourselves that Satan tries to deny.[20]

Rabbi Dr. Abraham Twerski tells the following story regarding a patient of his, a woman named Sybil:[21]
Sybil was admitted for heroin addiction. She was a registered nurse who had not worked for six years because of her addiction. The reason she came for help was that she had used up all her veins and had none left for injecting heroin.
In the first interview, I noticed that she was wearing a locket. “Is that real gold?” I asked. When she answered in the affirmative, I asked, “How come you still have it and did not sell it to get heroin?”
“I’ll never sell this,” she said. “This was my mother’s.”
“Let me see it, please,” I said. Sybil handed me the locket, and I took the scissors lying on the desk and made as though I was going to scratch the locket.
“What are you doing?” Sybil said.
I said, “Don’t get upset. I’m just going to scratch it up a bit.”
“But that’s mine,” Sybil said.
“I promise I’ll give it back to you,” I said.
“But I don’t want it scratched up,” Sybil said. “It is beautiful and very valuable to me.”
I said, “So, if something is beautiful and very valuable, you don’t let it get damaged, right?” I took Sybil’s arms, which were marked by the unsightly tracks and scars of abscesses. “Can you read what that says?” I asked. “It says, ‘I am not beautiful. I am not valuable.’”
Tearfully, Sybil said, “I never thought I was any good.”
Sybil recovered from her drug addiction and became very active in helping other nurses with drug problems. She discovered that she had a desire to help others. Now Sybil knew who she was.

The Malach haMavet and the Yetzer HaRa are small fry; they go after our bodies and our actions. The true enemy, unmasked at this time of year, is Satan, enemy of our souls. But like Sybil, we know who we are, and we know we are valuable. May we, in our davening, capitalize on that knowledge and use it to propel us to unprecedented heights in the year ahead, and may our newfound commitment put Gd in the happy position of being justified in awarding us a גמר חתימה טובה.

[1] A notable exception: our daily prayer to Gd not to let the שטן המשחית harm our actions
[2] I thought it was בכסה, the overshadowing of Rosh Chodesh by Rosh HaShanah, but Taamei haMinhagim 691 co-opts that idea as part of confusing Satan.
[3] Taamei haMinhagim 693, Mishneh Berurah 581:24; note the other approach of distinguishing between customary shofar blowing and the actual mitzvah.
[4] Mishneh Berurah 585:7
[5] Rosh HaShanah 16b
[6] Mishneh Berurah 596:1
[7] See Maharam Rutenberg 4:513, although I must admit some reticence re: linking Samael with Satan
[8] Bava Batra 16a
[9] Shemuel II 24 and Divrei haYamim I 21:1; I am taking Malbim’s read. Somewhat differently, Abarbanel to Shemuel II 24’s suggestions include the idea that Dovid feared his army was too small
[10] Berachot 62b
[11] Indeed, Shaul specifically avoided the census by using בזק and טלאים to count troops in Shemuel I
[12] Moreh Nevuchim 3:22
[13] Daat Mikra Iyov pg. 11
[14] Abarbanel to Shemuel II 24 suggests that it is really Gd talking, but the attack is identified as השטנה - obstruction
[15] Ditto Satan attempting to dissuade Avraham from the Akeidah, and shaking the confidence of Sarah as well as the Jews waiting for Moshe to return from Har Sinai. Even Bilam’s encounter with a malach which is לשטן לו is consistent, although that malach was on our side.
[16] Devarim 30
[17] Vayikra 16:30
[18] Rambam (Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Teshuvah 2:4) writes that teshuvah requires me to say, “I am someone else, not the person who committed those deeds.” But how will I say that if I believe I can’t?
[19] A pshat read of Iyov 42:10
[20] And this may be the secret behind those rituals we reviewed earlier, which confuse Satan.
·         Some of those rituals take the route of lying low. If I don’t play up my desire to change, if I don’t announce that Rosh Chodesh Tishrei is coming, if I stop blowing shofar for a day, then the voice of “You can’t” won’t be awakened until it’s too late.
·         But more powerfully I can also steamroll my Satan directly, because like Dovid, Iyov and Yehoshua Kohen Gadol, I know what my value is, I know Satan is wrong, I know I am capable of teshuvah. So I can channel my inner New Yorker, interrupting Satan, drowning him out with the shofar. If he wants to stand on my right, then that’s where I will blow shofar. If he wants to shout against the shofar, I’m going to blow it before musaf, I’m going to blow it during musaf, I’m going to blow it after musaf, as long as he keeps talking, to proclaim that I am capable, that I can change.
[21] Without a Job, Who am I? pg. 36


  1. No critique, but much to think on. I struggle every day with low self-esteem; even though I'm in a much better place than I was even a year ago, I still beat myself up all the time and won't recognize my good points. I do feel uncomfortable when people talk about "the Soton" or "the Sitra Achra" in what seems to me a very unJewish, dualistic way, as something almost separate from HaShem, but maybe it's appropriate or even necessary to see the critical voice as something external to ourselves, but also almost separate (kavyachol) to HaShem, otherwise we (I) just the see the critical voice coming from myself or HaShem, two voices I would normally believe.

    1. Hi Daniel,
      Thank you very much for reading, and writing. That's a fascinating point, re: dissociating the critical voice from ourselves/Gd; interesting. Gmar tov!

    2. Hi Rabbi,
      My experience with Satan in the workplace gave me insights into the causes of mental illness among healthy people and as a result of my experiences I developed a program on Self-Esteem, Jewish Meditation and music .I took a negative experience and did something positive with it. And instead of feeling bad about myself the experience I had made me realize how good I was .So to Satan I say Too Bad You Lose.