After laboring in the vineyards of God for many years and struggling to survive all the while, Reb Hayyim, a devout Jew, is determined to go to Las Vegas and win himself a fortune. Of course, it would make a bad impression were he to be recognized gambling in Las Vegas, so Reb Hayyim goes into his hotel room, cuts his hair, changes his clothes, and emerges as just another character in polyester plaid. As soon as he steps off the curb to cross the street to the nearest casino, a speeding car hits him and knocks him to the ground. In his pain and with his last gasps he looks up to heaven and asks: “Master of the universe, I was in Las Vegas for less than fifteen minutes. I didn’t even get a chance to gamble. Is this my punishment?” “Hayyim?” booms a quizzical voice from heaven. “Is that you? I didn’t recognize you in that outfit.”

 

This story is somewhat reminiscent of the statement in the Talmud ascribed to Rav Ilai (Kiddushin 40a) who counsels: “If a person sees that his impulses are overcoming him, let him go to a place where he will not be recognized and wear all black clothes and do what he wants and not desecrate God’s name publicly.” To Rabbenu Hananel, a tenth century North African interpreter of the Talmud (cited in the Tosafot, op. cit.), this advice is not simply curious. It is heretical. God forbid that anyone should ever be counseled to sin! Rather, Rabbenu Hananel explains, what Rav Ilai is really saying is that both weariness from the journey and the wearing of black would in and of itself conquer the evil impulse and deter a person from sinning. It takes effort to sin. So if a person is too tired to make the effort, and if there is an obvious physical reminder of the perils of sin (in this case: black clothing) the person in question will not sin.

 

Impulses can be controlled. That is precisely what God tells Cain (Genesis 4:7). It is also what is implied in Deuteronomy 21:10. “When you go out to war against your enemy, God will deliver him into your hand,” says the Torah. The enemy is not some external threat but one’s internal urges. There is no greater enemy than our own impulses. And yet the Torah assures us that God gives us the power to overcome them. Whether by wearing them down or keeping in mind a consequence of sin, we all have the power to defeat these impulses. We can control them. They need not control us.