Wednesday, April 25, 2012

How to Blow Up a Demon

By Susan Esther Barnes

We’ve all seen it in the movies, and we’ve read about it in books, too. Demons have been released, and the hero of the story has to get rid of them. If you were to believe these tales, it’s hard to get rid of a demon. It involves pentagrams, or circles, chanting, candles, and all sorts of fancy stuff.

Imagine my relief when, in Talmud class last Sunday, we were reading about how pairs attract demons, and I learned how easy it is to get rid of one. As a Public Service Announcement, I present to you the Talmud’s solution on to how to get rid of a demon (Quoted from Daf 110 Amud A, translation by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz):
The Gemara asks: And if one forgets and it happens and he goes outside after having had an even number of cups to drink, what is his solution? The Gemara answers: He should take his right thumb in his left hand and his left thumb in his right hand and say this: “You, my thumbs, and I, are three,” which is not a pair. And if he hears a voice that says, “You and I are four,” which makes a pair, he should say to it, “You and I are five.” And if he hears it say, “You and I are six,” he should say to it, “You and I are seven.” The Gemara relates that there was an incident in which someone kept counting with the demon until a hundred and one, and the demon burst in anger.
One more reason, I guess, to be thankful for our opposable thumbs. It’s also a good explanation of why we don’t run into demons much these days. All it takes is a two-handed person and a little persistence to blow one up.

It’s easy to make fun of something like this, if it is taken literally. But as a religious Jew, I am challenged to determine if I can get anything valuable out of it. And, taken in a non-literal sense, I have found there is some wisdom in this story.

I find it interesting that if I say, “We are three,” and the demon says, “You and I are four,” I am not supposed to stick to, “We are three,” but instead I move on to five. Similarly, the demon doesn’t stick with four, but goes on to six.

I can see this sort of non-repetition in the kinds of arguments we have with our own personal demons. If the demon stuck to one thing, it would be easy for us to stick with one answer. But instead, they keep trying different arguments, to which we must continue to invent different answers.

For example, consider a person fighting against a personal demon of alcoholism. First, the demon might say, “Let’s get drunk,” to which the person might reply, “No, I don’t want to do that any more. It always ends badly.” At this point, the demon won’t repeat, “Let’s get drunk,” but might say, instead, “Ok, let’s just have a couple of beers then,” to which the person might counter, “No, if I have a beer, I’ll start to get a buzz, and then I’ll lose track of how much I’ve had, and I’ll end up drunk.” Then, the demon might try, “How about just a glass of wine. That won’t do anything.”

The bad news is that our personal demons can be persistent. If one argument doesn’t work, they are likely to try another, and then another, in order to get us to do what we know we shouldn’t do. We need to stay on guard so we can recognize when it is our demon doing the talking, trying out a new way to lead us astray. We need to continue to find new ways to resist.

The good news the Talmud is trying to teach us is that we can be as persistent as, and even more so than, the demon. If we continue fighting the demon, if we keep listening for it and answering it, eventually, it will give up. Persistence will conquer our demons. It may seem to take one hundred and one tries, or even more, but it can be done. I have blown up a demon or two that way, myself. Maybe you have as well. Suddenly, the Talmud story doesn’t sound so silly, after all.


  1. Excellent Post.
    Also, this ties in very nicely with the story that people who do not conquer their yetzer in something imagine it like a mountain, discover after their death that it was a tiny little nothing. Once one learns to firmly answer the yetzer, suddenly it seems so less hard....

  2. Very inspirational, thank you! I really like the way you have re-read and interpreted the Gemara. It also shows how useful our personal demons might be - after all, they had been created for some reason, hadn't they? ;)