At the end of the last daf we read a verse from Zechariah 12 talking about a great mourning that will come in the future, eschatological time. This next daf begins by discussing what they were mourning.
Here we see the core dispute about what they were mourning over—the death of the Messiah son of Joseph or the evil inclination. This “messiah” is a figure that appears in Second Temple literature and seems to have been a forerunner to the great redeemer, the Messiah of David, who will usher in the final redemption. We should note that we are dealing with eschatological beliefs, ones that do not have the certainty of the more normative halakhic beliefs. As such, there are often less “definitive” answers in sections of this nature. In any case, we will learn more about these figures as we proceed.
It makes sense that the Jews would mourn over the death of the Messiah ben Joseph, and it even may be midrashically alluded to in the verse. But why would they mourn over the end of the evil inclination. After all, shouldn’t the end of evil desires be an opportunity for rejoicing.
In this fascinating midrash, everyone weeps over the slaying of the evil inclination. The righteous weep over how hard they worked to conquer this great mountain. The wicked also weep, for the evil inclination was no more than a hair thread, and yet they couldn’t conquer it. This midrash seems to me to be expressive of how we perceive the difficulty of life. We don’t know how hard something is until we look at it in retrospect. Sometimes tasks that we thought were easy, were actually quite difficult, and we are amazed at the strength we had to surmount those problems (I still don’t know how I finished my doctorate). And sometimes the opposite is true. We fail in our mission, what we are meant to do in life, even though our problems were really miniscule. I think that the wisdom of this saying is that there is no objective reality to our problems, there is really only our apprehension of them.
The point of this saying is that temptation is at first very flimsy, easy to break apart, like the thread of a spider. But as we give in to it more and more, it becomes thicker, the cords become like those used to draw a cart. Once we have adopted bad habits, they become more and more difficult to break.
This midrash presents a dialogue between God and the Messiah, son of David, the Messiah that will usher in the end of days after the slaying of the Messiah son of Joseph. God tells this descendant of David that he can ask anything of him. But the Messiah wisely asks only for his life, which he is granted by God. There may be some Christian overtones/polemics to this midrash, for according to this passage the real Messiah will not be slain.
Today’s section continues to discuss the yetzer hara, the evil inclination.
This section lists seven verses that the rabbis read as referring to the yetzer hara, the evil inclination, each calling it by a different name.
More discussion about the yetzer hara.
In this extended baraita, the rabbis interpret most of the elements of the verse from Joel 2:20 as if it refers to the yetzer hara. Some of these midrashim are based on puns. For instance the verse refers to the “northern one” (although this very word may be a corrupted form of another word). The word for “north” is “tzafon” which can also mean “hidden.” Therefore it refers to the yetzer hara, hidden in the hearts of man.
The yetzer hara will be driven away by God to a place where it can no longer cause any damage to human beings.
The word for “eastern sea” is “kadmoni” which can also mean “ancient” or something like that. Here it is taken as referring to the First Temple.
The western sea is called the “latter sea” which is taken as a pun for the last Temple.
The verse actually refers in Joel to God, but Abaye understands it as referring to the evil inclination, which attacks scholars more than anyone else. In this famous story, Abaye sadly realizes just how strong his yetzer hara is. He suspects the other person of having an evil inclination when he sees him sneak off with others. But he is projecting his own frailty onto others. The old man at the end of the story teaches him his lesson. The greater the man, the worse the yetzer hara.