Dealing With Desire
This week’s Torah portion begins with a scenario most of us would not find ourselves in but is highly instructive nevertheless. It speaks of a situation of war where a Jewish soldier sets his sights on a beautiful foreign, captured woman and is overcome with desire for her to the point that he has made up his mind that he wants to be with her forever in marriage. The Torah outlines a procedure of what he must do before we allow him to wed her.
He has to bring her back with him to his home, shave her head, let her nails grow – no mani pedis – dress her in bland clothing and have her reside in his house in this state for a full month. The Torah mentions how she will most likely be weeping for her mother and father and lost homeland, life and all that she is used to. Lovely scene, no? And if after all this he still wants to marry her, he may. Otherwise he must send her back to her people. He is not allowed to be intimate with her during this month; no “fringe benefits” during this waiting period.
Commenting on this affair, the Talmud states, לא דברה תורה אלא כנגד יצר הרע – the Torah here is speaking in response to the (power of) the Evil Inclination. What that means is that we are getting instructions on how to deal with that part of all of us when we are overcome with a powerful physical lust and desire for something that might not be in our best long-term interest. The Torah recognizes that there are certain times and situations in life when we will not be able to just say no to an overpowering desire, as this bloke finds himself in. The desire will have a momentum and force so strong that just trying to beat it down and completely avoid it will do no good.
And so what are we do to when confronted with those moments since fighting them straight on then and there may prove fruitless?
The Torah’s example is showing us that we need to figure out a way to finesse the situation. To acknowledge the powerful impulse on the one hand, but to not let it ruin us on the other. And it provides us with a model for doing that. It does not instruct this fellow to “just say no” because given his reality of time and place that will not work. Rather there is an, “Ok, however…” attitude.
Let’s see if you are still as passionate about this woman once those moments of powerful lust have subsided and you are now back in your home town and back in your normal life. One can only imagine the scene and the looks he gets from friends, family and coworkers. “So, Shloimy, how was the war? I see you brought a little something back with you!”
This month long delay to be with her in any meaningful way tests his real commitment to the relationship. It’s a test of love versus lust and to see if that desire for this woman remains when she isn’t the babe he saw on the battlefield but is now very meh with her bald head, ugly dirty nails and dressed in her Kmart special. Moreso, what happens when she is no longer the two dimensional pin-up girl who is “looking like a queen in a sailor’s dream” but instead is a real person, with a history, a family and a people whom she sorely misses and for whom she weeps day and night? There is a very good chance that once this fellow has to go through this process, he will have come to his senses and changed his mind.
And herein lies an important message the Torah is trying to get across when it comes to desires and bad habits. For let’s face it, everyone has their battles that they are dealing with in life. It might be sex, it might be food, it might be cigarettes, it might be alcohol or pain pills, it might be money or it might be laziness. We all have our lusts and desire and struggles. Some we are born with, some we acquire later on in the course of our lives, but it really makes no difference how they got there. The simple fact remains is that there are times we need to be a little clever in dealing with them because they are sometimes too powerful to overcome with a simple no.
So if you are on a diet, don’t walk into a bakery just to look or smell. And if you have trouble exercising, get a partner or trainer who will push you along. And if gambling or overspending is your thing, let someone else have the rights to your purse strings and only allow you money when you need it. If you need a 12-step program, then get a 12-step program.
But the bottom line is that Judaism recognizes the power of our lusts and desires and doesn’t expect us to be so holy and righteous to always successfully overcome them on every occasion. We need to use our wits, our friends and our society to help us along.
King Solomon writes that there is no such thing as a perfectly righteous person who never sins. We all have our baggage. That is how God created us. But that doesn’t means we cannot come up with intelligent means and systems to create fences for ourselves so they don’t take over our lives and cause irreparable damage.
We all have our lusts to overcome. Sometimes all you have to do is shave its head and expose it for what it really is to have a change of heart.
A hotel room is a hotel room is a hotel room…
5:04 no morning’s broken
The minibar is always open
She lays her head and waits for dreams
These sheets are clean, these sheets are clean
The TV’s flickering red and blue
A voice suggests what she could do
Against the signs of getting old
(Instead) She grabs the remote control