Rav Kook Torah

Psalm 3: Enemies from Within

Both the second and third chapters of Psalms speak of enemies, but different types. While the second chapter derides nations who foolishly conspire against God and Israel, the third chapter records a much more personal challenge:

“A psalm of David, when he fled from his son Absalom. O God, my tormentors are so numerous; many rise up against me.” (Ps. 3:1-2)

Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai compared these two psalms, noting their different tone. In chapter two, David belittles the conspiracies of the nations: “Why do the nations convene, and the kingdoms utter absurdities? ... He Who dwells in heaven laughs; God mocks them” (Ps. 2:1,4). The threat of his son’s rebellion, however, is a far more serious matter: “O God, my tormentors are so numerous!” (Ps. 3:2).

Rabbi Shimon taught:

“From here we see that a bad upbringing [i.e., a rebellious child] in one’s house is worse than the war of Gog and Magog” (Berachot 7b).

Are rebellious children really worse than the cataclysmic wars of the End of Days?

The Danger from Within

Rabbi Shimon is teaching us an important truth: our most dangerous adversary is the enemy within. And this principle, Rav Kook wrote, applies to both the individual and the nation.

A person may suffer from external opponents — antagonistic enemies, or adverse natural conditions such as inclement weather. But they are less dangerous than one’s internal adversaries — namely, self-destructive behaviors and tendencies, unrestrained cravings that can destroy body and soul. It is harder to protect oneself from these inner vices; they require greater vigilance due to their proximity and constant presence. As the eleventh-century author of the Chovat HaLevavot cautioned: “Our enemy lies between our ribs” (Sha’ar Yichud Hama’aseh).

Rabbi Shimon’s lesson is equally true for the Jewish people. Worse than the trials and tribulations from our external enemies is the destructive potential of our ‘homegrown’ heretical sects and slanderers, evil shoots that sprouted from within the people. The greatest troubles that befell the Jewish people were not from enemies from without, such as Amalek, but from the nefarious inside influence of the Erev Rav, those mixed multitudes of slaves who joined Israel when they left Egypt.

The Talmudic sages found it necessary to add Birkat HaMinim to the daily prayers — the only negative prayer in the entire liturgy — to counter the enmity of the heretics. Our internal opponents may be numerically smaller than our external foes, but they have a much greater capacity to inflict damage and cause the Jewish people to be distanced from their Father in heaven.

For this reason, the redemption of Israel requires the nation to be purified of its internal adversaries: “I will purify you of your dross.” Only then, “You will be called ‘the city of justice'” (Isaiah 1:25-26).

(Adapted from Ein Eyah vol. I, p. 35)

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