A Lion of Fire

“And they cried out in a great voice to Hashem their G-d” ((Nechemiah 9:4. The gemara’s quote is corrected here to match verse. The standard text reads “ויצעקו אל ה’ אלקים בקול גדול”.)) – what was said?Rav, and others say Rav Yoshanan, said [that the Anshei Kenese haGdolah cried out]: Woe, woe, it is [the yeitzer hara for idolatry] who has destroyed the Beis haMiqdash, burnt the Heikhal, killed all the tzadiqim, driven Israel from their land, and is still dancing around among us! You have given him to us for nothing but our receiving reward through him. We do not want him, nor do we want the reward.
A note fell to them from the heaven, upon which was written “Emes”. (Rabbi Chanina said: from this we hear that the seal of the Holy one is “Emes.”)
“וַֽיִּזְעֲקוּ֙ בְּק֣וֹל גָּד֔וֹל אֶל־ה֖׳ אֱלֹקֵיהֶֽם” —מאי אמור?אמר רב, ואיתימא רבי יוחנן: בייא, בייא! – היינו האי דאחרביה למקדשא, וקליה להיכליה, וקטלינהו לכולהו צדיקי, ואגלינהו לישראל מארעהון, ועדיין מרקד בינן! כלום יהבתיה לן אלא לקבולי ביה אגרא. לא איהו בעינן, ולא אגריה בעינן.
נפל להו פיתקא מרקיעא, דהוה כתב בה “אמת”. (אמר רב חנינא, שמע מינה: חותמו של הקדוש ברוך הוא אמת.)
They sat in fasting three days and three nights, and then he was given over to them.He came forth from the Holy of Holies like a fiery lion cub. Thereupon the prophet said to Israel: This is the evil inclination for idolatry, as it says: “And he said: This is wickedness! ((Zechariah 5:8)) אותיבו בתעניתא תלתא יומין ותלתא לילואתא, מסרוהו ניהליהו.נפק אתא כי גוריא דנורא מבית קדשי הקדשים.
אמר להו נביא לישראל: היינו יצרא דעבודה זרה! שנאמר: “וַיֹּ֙אמֶר֙ זֹ֣את הָרִשְׁעָ֔ה!”
When they grabbed it, a hair of its mane fell out. [The drive for idolatry] raised a cry, and his voice reached 400 parsa.They said: What shall we do? Maybe, ch”v, they will be compassionate for him in heaven?
בהדי דתפסוה ליה אשתמיט ביניתא ממזייא, ורמא קלא, ואזל קליה ארבע מאה פרסי.אמרו: היכי נעביד? דילמא חס ושלום מרחמי עליה מן שמיא?
A prophet said to them: Trap him in a lead cauldron and seal its mouth with lead. Because lead absorbs sound. As it says [in the rest of the verse]: “… ‘This is evil!’ So they threw it into the middle of the eifah [a unit of measure], and placed the lead stone to its mouth.” ((Yoma 69b, Sanhedrin 64a))
אמר להו נביא: שדיוהו בדודא דאברא, וחפיוהו לפומיה באברא, דאברא משאב שאיב קלא. שנאמר, “וַיֹּ֙אמֶר֙ זֹ֣את הָרִשְׁעָ֔ה וַיַּשְׁלֵ֥ךְ אֹתָ֖הּ אֶל־תּ֣וֹךְ הָֽאֵיפָ֑ה וַיַּשְׁלֵ֛ךְ אֶת־אֶ֥בֶן הָעֹפֶ֖רֶת אֶל־פִּֽיהָ׃” …

A very enigmatic gemara, basing itself on quotes from Nehemiah and Zekhariah as hints to a story about the end of the drive for idolatry. (The story continues with them trying to do something similar to get rid of the yeitzer hara for sex. But because heaven doesn’t grant favors in half-measure, that was far less successful. The world can survive without idolatry, but not without procreation.) They don’t kill the desire, they left it trapped, its voice muffled by a led cauldron, soldered closed.

But why would the desire for idolatry live in the Beis haMiqdash, that that is where it would emerge from when summoned? Why does it look like a lion cub? Or of fire? And the whole thing about losing a hair from its main… What does it mean? Why does it hurt so much to lose a single hair? Why did they trap the yeitzer hara rather than eradicate it? And what’s the significance of the 400 parsa from which the desire’s scream could be heard?

A navi recognized the fiery lion’s cub, as anyone would an old enemy. By placing the yeitzer hara in the Beis haMiqdash, we are being told that there is a holy component to the desire. When we muted the call of idolatry, we ended the spiritual battle whose victory could earn one the power of prophecy. Thus, as the gemara says, “We do not want him, nor do we want the reward.” They volunteered to lower the stakes in our battle for spirituality, even knowing it would cost us our nevi’im.

The leaders of the generation at the time were the Men of the Great Assembly. And the events happened within a generation of those of Purim. And not only did idolatry cease to be the Jewish People’s greatest distraction from our calling in that generation, that generation also saw the last of the prophets and overt miracles. Something of profound significance changed in how the Sinai Covenant expressed itself.

The Ya’aros Devash ((1:6)) relates the fire in our gemara to pride. And it emerges from the Qodesh haQadashi just as human haughtiness lives in the heart. Fire also has a connection to prophecy – it is the centerpiece of Moshe’s first vision in his unique quality of prophecy. ” וַ֠יֵּרָא מַלְאַ֨ךְ ה֥׳ אֵלָ֛יו בְּלַבַּת־אֵ֖שׁ מִתּ֣וֹךְ הַסְּנֶ֑ה וַיַּ֗רְא וְהִנֵּ֤ה הַסְּנֶה֙ בֹּעֵ֣ר בָּאֵ֔שׁ וְהַסְּנֶ֖ה אֵינֶ֥נּוּ אֻכָּֽל – An angel of Hashem appread to [Moshe] in a fiery flame within the bush; he looked, and here the bush is burning in fire, and the bush is not consumed.” Moshe turned to look why and Hashem Himself now calls him “מִתּ֣וֹךְ הַסְּנֶ֗ה – from within the bush.” ((Shemos 3:2-4)) When Moshe can perceive that the angel, the fire, and now G-d confine themselves to within the bush, not a fire that burns larger than the wood, he truly becomes Moshe. Constraining the fire is emblematic of tzimtzum, the Qabbalistic idea that Hashem “constrains” Himself to create room, opportunity for us. Similarly “וְהָאִ֥ישׁ מֹשֶׁ֖ה [ענו] עָנָ֣יו מְאֹ֑ד מִכֹּל֙ הָֽאָדָ֔ם אֲשֶׁ֖ר עַל־פְּנֵ֥י הָאֲדָמָֽה – And Moshe the man was very humble, more than any person on the face of the earth.” ((Bamidbar 12:3)) The fire is the fire of pride.

A lion is a natural animal to represent pride; in English we even use the same word “pride” to refer to a group of lions. But the yeitzer hara appears as a lion cub, a youth, a symbol of potential growth rather than something in completion. A yeitzer hara stands to tempt us so that we can overcome him. The lion cub serves Hashem by making the internal battle and thus the potential growth, possible.

Prophecy requires the constraint of pride, in imitation of Hashem’s tzimtzum; getting one’s own perceptions and biases out of the way so that one can “hear” Hashem’s call, and “see” what He shows the navi of reality. In contrast, the idol offered man gods who would tell him what he wanted to hear. They are both the same battle.

Rav Yaaqov Emden relates the hair of the lion’s mane to one in another gemara. ((Sukkah 52a)) At the end of history, Hashem will slaughter the yeitzer hara, and show it to humanity. To the righteous, it will look like a large mountain, and they will weep in wonder that they could possibly have scaled it. To the wicked, it will look like a single hair, and they will cry in shame that they couldn’t overcome a single hair. The Yaavetz explains that the wicked stumble on the one hair that escaped being trapped in the cauldron. Or, as we have been developing this aggadita, on the one element of prideful distortion of our spirituality whose call was not muffled. The righteous may face more ego, but because their spirituality is intact and unadulterated, they “placed the lead stone to its mouth.”

This one hair has a call that could be heard 400 parsa. 400 x 400 parsa of Israel shook when Rav Yonasan ben Uziel started his targum of Navi and Hashem demanded “Who is revealing My secrets?” He was revealing truths to people unready to hear them undistorted; the egotist couldn’t hear the targum over the cry of the lion’s hair. At the end of the Second Temple, when a pig dug its hooves into the wall of Jerusalem, again an area of 400 x 400 parsa shook. We are told that when Amaleiq come to attack the Benei Yisrael in Refidim, it’s not because we were a nearby threat; in fact the Amaleiqim came from 400 parsa away! These are not merely cases of egotism, but egotism inferring with spirituality. In medrashic terms, 400 amos is as far as an ego inflates, as far as the spiritual dimensions of Israel.

And so they silenced the call of gods who tell us what we want to hear, whose service is thinly disguised feeding of one’s ego. “We do not want him, nor do we want the reward.” No struggle to keep one’s voice in check meant no one developing the skills necessary for prophecy. No more overt national miracles.

Even prayer changed. As R’ JB Soloveitchik writes in Lonely Man of Faith, “Prayer is the continuation of prophecy . . . . While within the prophetic community God takes the initiative — He speaks and man listens — in the prayer community the initiative belongs to man.”

Man, in taking the initiative climbed out from under the mountain.

“And they [Bnei Yisrael] stood under the mountain [Sinai]” (Shemos 19) — R. Avdimi bar Chama bar Chisda said, “This teaches that HaQadosh Baruch Hu flipped the mountain [Sinai] over them [Bnei Yisrael], like a barrel, and said, ‘If you accept the Torah, good, and if not, there will be your graves.’”

Acha bar Yaakov said, “This provides a major complaint against the Torah.” Rava said, “Even so, the [whole] generation accepted it in the days of Achashveiros. For it says ((Esther 9)), “the Jews fulfilled and accepted”, they fulfilled that which they had already accepted. ((Shabbos 88b))

Purim, the holiday of apparent happenstance, is reflective of this new changed life.

And on Purim, our entire national identity shifted. In the book of Esther, we are no longer called “Benei Yisrael”, the children of the one the angel named “יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל כִּֽי־שָׂרִ֧יתָ עִם־אֱלֹהִ֛ים וְעִם־אֲנָשִׁ֖ים וַתּוּכָֽל׃ — for you have battled with powers and with people and succeeded.” ((Bereishis 32:29)) “אִ֣ישׁ יְהוּדִ֔י הָיָ֖ה בְּשׁוּשַׁ֣ן הַבִּירָ֑ה וּשְׁמ֣וֹ מָרְדֳּכַ֗י בֶּ֣ן יָאִ֧יר בֶּן־שִׁמְעִ֛י בֶּן־קִ֖ישׁ אִ֥ישׁ יְמִינִֽי׃ — A Jewish man was in Shushan the capital, and his name was Mordachai the son of Ya’ir, the son of Shim’i, the son of Qish, a man of [the tribe of Ben-] Yamin.” ((Esther 2:5)) We are not Yehudim, Jews, after the dominant remaining tribe, who was named because “הַפַּ֙עַם֙ אוֹדֶ֣ה אֶת ה — this time I will thank / acknowledge G-d.” The focus is no longer on the struggle to encounter G-d, but the accepting His presence within our limited ability to do so.

And, after all, as Yaaqov blessed his son, “גּוּר אַרְיֵה יְהוּדָה — Yehudah is a lion cub.” ((Bereishis 49:9))

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