There is a story in the Talmud about Rav Amram Hasida, aka Rav Amram “The Pious.” He was given the title “The Pious” because he knew what the next right action was and was firm and disciplined in his capacity to choose God’s path.
So Rav Amram was entrusted to watch over the security of women who were taken captive after a military victory.
As it says in our Torah portion, Ki Teitzei:
When you go out to war against your enemies, and the LORD your God delivers them into your power and you take some of them captive, and you see among the captives a beautiful woman and you desire her and would take her to wife, you shall bring her into your house, and she shall trim her hair, pare her nails, and discard her captive’s garb. She shall spend a month’s time in your house lamenting her father and mother; after that you may come to her and possess her, and she shall be your wife. Then, should you no longer want her, you must release her outright. You must not sell her for money: since you had your will of her, you must not enslave her (Deuteronomy 21:10-14).
According to our Torah, once the army secures a military victory, and one of the soldiers sees a beautiful woman among the prisoners, there is a process that must be fulfilled in order to make that woman his wife. While in its contextual understanding of the verses, it strikes harsh, the Torah is addressing our impulses at their most raw, creating a form of protective rights to avoid the common practice of raping and pillaging that typically, and unfortunately, befalls women during war time.
So Rav Amaram was chosen to safeguard and house these women who were taken captive.
In fact, the women were placed in the attic above the house and the ladder, which required ten men to move, was removed so no one could reach them. They were captives but they were protected.
But the Talmud recounts what happens to Rav Amram. “A ray of light pierces through the skylight and Rav Amram catches a glimpse of one of these beautiful women.” And in that instant, his impulse takes over. His desire and lust for the woman he saw overrides the namesake he has earned all his life. A lifetime of discipline, surrender, and piety undone in an instant. In a fit of strength, he picks up the ladder all by himself and rushes up, rung by rung, ready to lust and indulge in the very thing he is entrusted to forbid. About halfway up, he catches himself. He wraps his legs around the rungs of the ladder and cries out to the heavens, “There is a fire in the house of Amram.”
Upon hearing this cry, the Sages of the city come in and see Rav Amram, holding onto the ladder for dear life, unable to move. They say to him, “What have you done? Don’t you see that you have embarrassed us? You were to be protecting these women, but instead you have brought shame to us!”
Rav Amram, still glued to the ladder replies, “Better that I embarrass you in Amram’s house in this world, and not be ashamed of him for all time in the world to come.” In other words, he tells his colleagues, I stopped myself. Yes, there is shame and embarrassment because I lost control, but there was a greater “hit the mark” that I didn’t continue the act. That would have caused shame for eternity. This is only temporary shame.
Still perched on the ladder, Rav Amram makes an oath demanding his evil inclination to emerge from him. The Talmud recounts that “a pillar of fire emerges from him and he says to his evil inclination, ‘See, you are fire and I am mere flesh, and yet, I am still superior to you.’”
There is a fire that burns within each of us. That fire can lead to incredible passion and can fuel us for creation and piety but at any moment can also lead us to destruction and pain. It is within each and every one of us to wield this power, this fire that left unchecked results in the objectification and subjugation of the dignity of another. If left unchecked, we brutalize the people we love, and diminish those we resent to less than human, to property, to means that justify terrible ends. And most of all, we diminish the light and dignity within ourselves.
As the events of these past two weeks in Afghanistan have unfolded, I can only hope and pray for the women, children and all who are being held captive. It is a reminder that while our texts may seem ancient and outdated, they are still relevant today. The truth is, it’s not just the wicked or the Taliban but also the “pious” who need protective measures and boundaries against our evil inclination.
Our Sages say that the greatest war we are ever to face, the greatest enemy each of us have is our evil inclination. It’s not physical enemies in the battlefield, it is our internal demons that plague us when we are not true to our recovery and to our Higher Power. Our demons that patiently lie on the sidelines only to spring upon us when we least expect it. All it takes is a glimpse of light, a fleeting moment and memory for it to strike.
Sometimes it feels like there’s no way to stop that fire, that it will rage on forever. And indeed, there is no extinguishing the flame of our evil inclination; it is an integral part of us. We can battle with it, we can wage war against it, but ultimately it needs to be directed to a higher purpose.
There is a fire in our house. Does that fire consume us? Are we able to overcome it? Are we able to channel it into the service of the Almighty?
Imagine the world we would live in if we all re-directed our resources, energy, and time to the inner battlefield, waging the war of recovery for our whole selves, evil inclination as well as good.