In today’s daf (Sukkah 52b) we encounter a fascinating teaching from the school of Rabbi Yishmael relating to how we should respond to the temptation of our yetzer hara (the evil inclination): ‘If this scoundrel (i.e. the yetzer hara) [attempts to] accost you [to tempt you to sin], draw it to the Beit Midrash (study hall). If it is like a stone, it will dissolve (nb. this is because, as the Gemara proceeds to explain based on Yeshayah 55:1, Torah is compared to water, and as we see in Iyov 14:19, ‘water wears down stones’). [And] if it is like iron, it will shatter (nb. this is because, as the Gemara proceeds to explain based on Yirmiyah 23:29, the words of Torah are like fire).’
As you may imagine, this particularly vivid imagery of ‘drawing’ – or as some translate, ‘dragging’ – the yetzer hara to a Beit Midrash has stimulated much commentary. However, what I would particularly like to address, while referring to the insights offered by Rabbi Yaakov Ettlinger (1798-1871) in his Aruch LaNer commentary, is the two ways in which the yetzer hara is described (i.e. stone & iron), the two ways in which the Torah is described (water & fire), and the two results that are expected within the Beit Midrash (i.e. dissolve & shatter).
As Rabbi Ettlinger explains, there are two dimensions of – or as he explains it, ‘two types’ of – the yetzer hara: one that cools us down, and one that heats us up. In terms of that which cools us down, it comes in response to our desire to fulfil the mitzvot (i.e. mitzvot asseh – positive mitzvot) and discourages us – with a variety of explanations and excuses – not to fulfil the mitzvot. And in terms of that which heats us up, it comes and encourages us to transgress aveirot (i.e. mitzvot lo ta’aseh – negative mitzvot).
Significantly, a response to both these dimensions can be found in the Beit Midrash – but each from a different approach within Torah. For the ‘iron’ yetzer hara that cools us (which, as R’ Ettlinger explains, cool water will have no effect upon it), we respond with the fire of Torah which then melts the iron. And for the ‘stone’ yetzer hara that heats us (which, as R’ Ettlinger explains, heat will have no effect upon it), we respond with the water of Torah that will wear it down.
Up to this point are the remarks of R’ Ettlinger. However, there is an important point to be added which is that, based on R’ Ettlinger’s explanation (as affirmed by life experience), it takes considerably less time to wrestle and overcome the dimension of the yetzer hara that discourages us not to fulfil the mitzvot (although for this to occur, we do need a consistent short burst of intense energy comparable to fire), than it does to wrestle and overcome the yetzer hara which encourages us to transgress aveirot (which, though achievable through the regular slow drip of water, takes much much longer).
Yet notwithstanding this point, it seems clear that we each need – in our personal Beit Midrash of Torah study (whatever that may be) – two types of Torah: Torah of fire – which energises us on the inside to do what we’ve made excuses to not do, and Torah of water – which cools us from the inside to avoid doing what we may be tempted to do. For each person, what their ‘Torah of fire’ and ‘Torah of water’ may differ, but whatever it is, it is clear that we each need both.