Sixty-five years ago, in high-school, I learned a powerful mussar lesson, but I did not realize it at the time.
Ulysses was a hero and traveler in Greek mythology. He heard of the “music of the sirens.” This was music that was heard at a particular harbor, and it was so enchanting, so attractive, that it drew sailors to the shore. However, there were sharp, ragged reefs in the harbor, and the ships would crash into them and were destroyed. Sailors knew this, and passing by the harbor, they would see the wreckages of the ships that had been destroyed, but once they heard the music of the sirens, they were helpless and headed into the harbor to their own destruction.
Ulysses wanted to hear the fabled music of the sirens, but knew that this would be fatal. He, therefore, stuffed his sailors’ ears with wax so that they could not hear any sounds, and he told them that they were to sail by the harbor and pay no attention to anything he said. He then had himself tied securely to the ship’s mast so that he could not move.
As the sailors approached the harbor, Ulysses began hearing the music of the sirens. He began shouting to the sailors to head for shore, but of course, they could not hear him. He began screaming at them, “I am your captain! You must obey my orders!” As he heard the music of the sirens, he struggled to free himself from the ropes. “Head for the shore!” he shouted. “I will have you hung for mutiny!” But the sailors rowed on.
After they had passed the harbor and the music was no longer heard, Ulysses fainted from exhaustion. The sailors then untied him, and he realized how helpless he had been, and had he not rendered the sailors unable to hear, they would have all been destroyed.
Much later I realized that the “music of the sirens” is the yetzer hara. It can enchant a person and render one almost helpless to resist its temptation. Seeing the wreckage of the ships did not prevent sailors from rowing to their destruction.
One cocaine addict worked in a mortuary, and buried people who were killed by cocaine, but that did not stop his use, and he died from cocaine at age 33. Cocaine, music of the sirens, lust, the yetzer hara – they are all the same.
There is no way we can “stuff our ears” to the “music of the sirens” that can be heard almost anywhere in our environment. The Talmud cites Hashem as saying, “I created the yetzer hara, and I created Torah as its antidote” (Kedushin 30b). It is our only defense. However, just holding on to Torah is not enough, just as Ulysses’ holding on to the mast would not have been enough. We must tie ourselves so tightly to Torah that we can not break loose from it. This is why Moses repeatedly stressed, “But you who cling to Hashem-you are all alive today” (Devarim 4:4), “to Him you shall cleave,” (ibid. 10:20) and “To love Hashem, to listen to His voice and to cleave to Him (ibid. 30:20). King David says, “I have clung to your testimonies (Tehilim 119:31). To cling and cleave means to be inseparably attached to Torah.
Learning Torah and doing mitzvos is of greatest importance, but does not yet result in the necessary fusion. The Talmud says that the single verse that the entire Torah depends on is “Know Hashem in all your ways” (Mishle 3:6, Berachos 63a). Cleaving and clinging is not accomplished by relating to Hashem just in Torah study and in performance of mitzvos, but in everything we do – eating, sleeping, transacting, socializing. The works of mussar tell us how we can accomplish this. It is this kind of observance of Torah that can save us from the destructive attractions of the yetzer hara.
When you pick up a fruit, think of what borei pri ha’etz means. Hashem designed a tree that would sprout from a tiny seed and produce succulent fruit, and feel gratitude to Hashem. When you say the beracha “poke’ach ivrim” think of the wondrous ability that Hashem instituted within protoplasm that it can have vision, and feel gratitude to Hashem. If we bring Hashem into all our activities, we are cleaving and clinging to Him, and when we tie ourselves securely to the mast, we can avoid the yetzer hara‘s “music of the sirens” that would pull us to our own destruction.