I love children’s books. I have read them countless times (to my kids, not just to myself!). I love Dr. Seuss and Curious George and Lillian Hoban’s Frances books, to name just a few. I like books that are just entertaining and some with a message if it’s done right and not too pedantic.
One of my favorite books that manages to convey an important idea yet maintain a sense of whimsy is the less well-known ArtScroll offering Eli and His Little White Lie. When Eli tells a lie he creates a small fluffy white creature that seems like a cute companion. But the more lies Eli tells, the bigger his fluffy companion grows (no, it is not a variation on Pinocchio!) until it is no longer cute or fluffy. It becomes big and ugly. And – here’s the rub – instead of Eli controlling it, it controls him.
Of course, since this is a kid’s book with a message, Eli gains control of himself and starts telling the truth, causing the “creature” to shrink and ultimately disappear. The authors of the story suggest that the lesson is to keep far away from lying.
The more we give in to our appetites, the bigger they get.
While this is certainly an important teaching, I think the point of the story goes much deeper. The fluffy white companion is a metaphor for the yetzer hara, our negative inclination. If we feed it, if we indulge it, it grows. The more we give in to our appetites, the more we allow our egos to dominate, the greater our lust or jealousy or quest for honor or power, the bigger it gets.
We don’t even notice. We make sophisticated rationalizations and intellectual justifications for our actions. “I had to say that; it was for her own good.” “I didn’t really cheat; I just cut corners a little.” “The government takes too much of my money; I’m just taking it back when I fudge a little on my tax return.” “It’s really better for the organization if I wrest power away from him and take over as president.”
And so it grows – bigger and bigger. Until, just like Eli’s little white lie, it begins to control us. Our sages likened our struggle with our body's drives to that of a horse and rider. When the rider controls the horse, the horse can be a useful tool. So too, our body drives can lead to creativity and accomplishment when harnessed to the rider/soul.
But if the horse controls the rider, then all is lost. The animal is leading the person, the body governing our soul. We become the victims of our drives instead of the disciplined rulers of them.
It’s just a children’s book but it’s a deep and profound lesson for all of us. And we have to remain constantly vigilant. There is no room for complacence. If we aren’t moving forward in our battle with the yetzer hara, then we will be pushed backward. It can be subtle. It can be invidious. We have to remain constantly on alert.
It can be a cute little white lie. But we ignore it at our peril. Our job is to rise above it, to use its power in our service of the Almighty. No one ever said it was going to be easy! It’s the challenge of living and it’s the arena where we can achieve real success. Ethics of Our Fathers asks “Who is the strong man?” and responds, “The one who conquers his drives.”
We need to use all the tools we have at our disposal to fight this battle. We need to avoid situations that trigger inappropriate behaviors and to channel the drive in productive directions. We need to invoke the behavior of Josef who, when confronted with the temptation of Potiphar’s wife, conjured up the image of his righteous father. We too have people we don’t want to disappoint, in front of whom we don’t wish to be embarrassed, whose belief in our potential we wish to validate.
There are many books and stories that teach us the same lesson as Eli and His Little White Lie. But none of them make the point quite as real or quite as much fun.
A Postcript: A Moment of Unity
I had an unusual dining experience the other day. For one moving instance, everyone in the restaurant was united. Even though we didn't know each other, we all experienced a moment of connection and intimacy. And everyone wiped away a tear.
What was the occasion? A young woman (i.e. my age!) had brought her grandmother out to lunch. For her birthday.
As is the wont in today’s restaurants, at the end of the meal a piece of cake appeared with flaming candles atop.
But this time it wasn’t just the waiters who gathered to perform the (usually acutely embarrassing) ritual of singing Happy Birthday. The head waiter (and part-owner) banged on a glass, raised his voice and requested the attention of all the diners.
“Could everyone please join us in singing Happy Birthday to…It’s her 105th birthday!”
That’s right -- 105 years old and out for lunch with her granddaughter. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house.
We all recognize the hand of the Almighty when we see small children. There is something so awe-inspiring about any infant with those tiny fingers and toes.
This was an awesome moment on the other end of the spectrum. To have lived so long. To have garnered so much wisdom and experience. To have seen so much – two world wars, the Holocaust, the creation of the state of Israel, the inventions and/or common usage of planes, cars, phones (from rotary dial to cell!), televisions, computers, Tylenol(!) -- it simply boggles the mind. What she could teach us! What gifts the Almighty has given us.
No one in the restaurant spoke. There were really no words. But for that short period of time, around 1:00 p.m. on Tuesday afternoon, in a kosher restaurant in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood of Los Angeles, we were one and all was right with the world.