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In Pirqei Avot last week, we read the famous Rabbinic dictum "Who is mighty? He who conquers his evil inclination." Most people take this statement in a metaphoric sense. Really, they assume, the quality of "gevurah" (mightiness) means just that - the possession of brute, physical strength. But, they claim, the Rabbis transformed the concept into something spiritual in order to put a more positive spin on it, and to make it seem more worthy of admiration.
I disagree with this approach. I think that the Rabbis are providing us with a tremendous insight into gevurah that is intended quite literally.
The average person goes to great lengths to appear powerful and "in control" of his life. When we reflect upon the epitome of "coolness" in our culture, we envision an individual who is unswayed by environmental influences - he calls the shots, so to speak, and others carry out his bidding, while he remains consistently detached, calm and collected.
Yet beneath that veneer of mastery he exhibits in the outside world lies a turbulent inner life, dominated by passions and emotions that are very much in the "driver's seat" of that individual's decision making processes. He is not as powerful or well-put-together as he would like us to believe. His desire for instinctual and psychological pleasures of all kinds rages within him and influences his conduct on an almost constant basis. Whereas the external elements of his life appear orderly and well managed, his soul is a bundle of petty emotions that are his true "masters" in life. Only a person who has command over his internal world is really in control.
We encounter examples of this dichotomy in the media all the time. Recently, right here in the Washington, DC area, several high profile businessmen and politicians were disgraced when their names were found on the customer list of an upscale escort service. These purportedly mighty individuals are in reality putty in the hands of their instinctual drives. Once their indiscretions become public knowledge, it is difficult for them to regain the respect of the masses - respect that, it seems, was predicated on an illusion from the outset. These characters were admired because people believed they embodied genuine gevurah; the dispelling of this misconception is a source of great humiliation for all involved.
This insight into the concept of gevurah can also help us to explain a fascinating occurrence at the beginning of the Book of Joshua. When Joshua sends spies to Jericho to assess the morale of the locals, they stop in at the home of Rahav, the proprietress of an inn which also functioned as a 'house of ill repute'. The Midrash tells us that Rahav was not just any member of the world's oldest profession - she was the equivalent of the premiere "upscale" escort in Biblical times, who enjoyed relationships with all the rich and famous of Canaan.
The question is often raised - why did these righteous men see fit to lodge in a place of immorality and prostitution? Couldn't they have stopped in a more wholesome location?
In light of our analysis, the answer seems clear. The powerful leaders of Canaan had no problem maintaining a public image of coolness and detachment before their constituents. The common people may have been blissfully unaware of the private insecurities and deficiencies of their kings and princes. But Rahav saw these influential figures for who they really were - weak men, addicted to and enslaved by base pleasures and fantasies, who nonetheless sought to present themselves as larger-than-life heroes worthy of admiration.
Like many prostitutes and "adult entertainment" workers, Rahav had no respect for her customers and may even have despised them. She became disillusioned with the culture of falsehood and deception created and perpetuated by these lustful and immature men. Her recognition of the hypocrisy of the smooth-talking politicians of Canaan enabled her to appreciate the truth of the Torah's message and inspired her to cleave to the Nation of Israel.
We can see, then, that the Jewish spies selected their destination based upon a sound knowledge of psychological principles. They realized that the person who would be able to provide them with the most accurate assessment of the morale of the Canaanites would be Rahav. Because of her profession, the madame of Jericho had countless opportunities to interact with the most influential personalities in the region when their guard was down and their true colors were on display.
Although the leaders of Jericho appeared mighty on a superficial level, they lacked true gevurah. Their artificial image of confidence and control obscured the fact that, in truth, they were not the masters of their own destiny at all. These ostensibly powerful men allowed themselves to be enslaved by the most ignoble elements in the human psyche.
Visiting Rahav gave these men the chance to drop the charade, step out of character and be themselves for a while. And during these moments of weakness, they found comfort in sharing their hidden insecurities and fears with their professional paramour. Rahav was disgusted with the disingenuousness of the Canaanite power brokers and was more than happy to reveal what she learned from them to the invading Israelites.
The Rabbis teach us that mastery over one's environment is no substitute for gevurah. Only a person who rises above his passions and makes his decisions with wisdom and forethought is truly in control of his life.