It is axiomatic in Judaism that as time progresses, each generation further removed from the giving of the Torah is on a lower spiritual rung than the generation that preceded it. The immense Divine revelation that entered the collective consciousness of the Jewish People at Mt. Sinai has become more and more dilute with time. This has left us progressively more susceptible to the inroads of evil into our subconscious mind on the one hand, and less capable of combating evil, especially in its more subtle forms, on the other. Thus, as history progressed, the emphasis in the Jew's personal process of self-refinement shifted gradually from directly uprooting his inner evil (which he could accomplish easily because there was less of it in him and he was psychologically stronger to begin with) towards ignoring it (since it was already very entrenched within him and he was not healthy enough to do battle with it directly).
Thus, on the one hand, we find ourselves at the spiritual bottom of long, protracted descent from the spiritual heights our nation experienced at Mt. Sinai, plagued by more dark, inner evils and anxieties than any generation of Jews before us. On the other hand, the imminent dawn of Redemption is already awakening us to our higher and surer selves, and thus we feel the power of the messianic order already coursing through our veins. This call to power, albeit tempered by mature prudence, emboldens us to attempt to face evil in a way that previous generations were rightly reticent to do.
Since we are capable of this, it becomes our responsibility, for the advent of the Messiah is dependent upon the release of all the sparks of good trapped within evil. Thus, revealing the evil within us in order to transform it into good becomes not only our own best interest but our sacred duty as well.
The power evil possesses over us, making us sin, is the power of illusion. No intelligent person willfully and purposely does things that would harm himself. It is only when he has convinced himself (or others have convinced him) that this particular sin is really not going to hurt him, or it will only temporarily, or the damage will be far outweighed by the advantages it brings, that a person allows himself to sin. Probably in the majority of cases, evil succeeds because it convinces the person that it is in his best interest, even his higher interests to succumb to its temptations. The pleasure it presents offers promises of sublime upliftment that, we become convinced, will improve our lives immeasurably.
Afterwards, however, reality hits, and we admit, to our chagrin, that we were duped. This enticement was a ruse; the lift was only momentary and in its wake we were left with feelings of debasement and cheap betrayal. There are two ways to react to such an awakening. Based on his regret of having so clumsily stumbled, a person can resolve never to make the same mistake again. The fear of betraying G-d (and the G-dliness within himself) motivates him to identify and resist the ploys of evil the next time around. Now that he has risen to a level of consciousness of G-d at which it is clear that his previous failings were the result of him being deceived, he has effectively transformed those previous intentional sins into unintentional ones. Had he known then what he knows now, he never would have sinned; therefore, the only reason he sinned then is because he was operating under an illusion. He never intended to cause what the sin in fact effected.
On a deeper level, a person can look back at the sin he now regrets and consider what it was that caused him to succumb. The way evil enticed him into committing the sin was by promising him some thrill, some rush of exuberance sorely missing from his lackluster life. Since G-d is the source of all true life, evil was in effect disguising itself as holiness and thereby luring him into its clutches. Thus, it was the promise of G-d in the sin that duped him into committing it. Evil was playing to the desire innate in every Jew to know G-d in the fullest way possible. The context of the ploy was indeed evil, but the kernel of it was the spark of holiness within it. Once a person succeeds in isolating the holy kernel from the evil context, he may then focus on it and see what fascination it holds for him.
For example, let's say a person is plagued by a psychological complex we'll call wanderlust. He dreams constantly of leaving his wife and family and traveling around the world, exploring picturesque and breathtaking sights. The thought of doing this haunts him constantly, not letting him concentrate on anything or anyone else, forcing him to spend his last cent on travel magazines and waste hours upon hours watching travel programs.
Now, if we look at this individual's life a little more closely, we may see that he has straight-jacketed himself into a very workday existence, leaving little if no time for relaxation or outlets. The first step, then, might be to get him to go on a trip once or twice a year if he can.
Beyond that, however, we could isolate at the bottom of this evil the legitimate need for stimulation and excitement that make life interesting and challenging. G-d wants our relationship with Him to be both disciplined and inspired, regular and spontaneous. Perhaps when this person comes across an interesting idea in his Torah studies that he would like to research or pursue, he pushes away the thought, saying, I have no time for this; I have to first finish my daily study obligations I have set for myself, and then I have to work to provide for my family. Or perhaps he does not allow himself to become as engrossed in his prayers as he might like, for fear of missing work (during the week) or keeping his family waiting for him (on the Sabbath). He denies himself the excitement of letting his imagination take him to uncharted realms of his own personality or his relationship with G-d and the world.
Such a person has stifled an aspect of his personality for noble reasons. However, these facets of his soul are crying out for attention. If the soul is not allowed to get what it needs in a wholesome, holy context, it will produces urges to get it in other contexts. By denying himself a holy outlet for his legitimate urge for stimulation, he has forced this urge to surface in more destructive ways. The solution here would be for him to allot himself some time for himself, to follow the trail upon which his Divine soul wishes to lead him once in a while.
So, beyond the first reaction of never again, the deeper response is to isolate the kernel of good within the sin and reorient the search for it from its evil context into one of holiness. The sin then serves as the motivation to seek out G-d in a more intense way than the person was aware of prior to having sinned. When a person does this, he has effectively transformed his intentional sins into merits. Because of the sin, he is now pursuing and loving G-d at a higher level than he did before.
When the flight from sin is based on the fear of its consequences, the atmosphere we live in is one of bitterness and paranoia. When it is based on the transformation of evil, the atmosphere we live in is one of joy, love, and forgiveness.
We originally described the therapeutic process as one in which each successive stage was seen as an increasingly reluctant acquiescence to the necessity to confront the evil within. The progression to each successive stage was necessitated by the failure of the previous stage to dispense with the problem. In the context we have just described, however, each stage brings us closer to our ultimate goal the absolute baring of the hidden evil in all its meanness and its transformation into good. Each successive stage is thus a preparatory phase that leads us on to the next phase, as we will describe in the next chapter.