Dealing With Desire
This week’s Torah portion starts off with a unusual situation that is highly unlikely to happen to us in our lifetime but offers an important lesson nevertheless. It speaks of a situation in war where a 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 wishes 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 pedi for this lady – dress her in bland clothing and have her hang out in his house like this for a full month. The whole times she will 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 “engagement”.
Commenting on this affair, the Talmud states, לא דברה תורה אלא כנגד יצר הרע – the Torah is responding to the (power of) the Evil Inclination. What it is saying is 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. The desire or lust will have a momentum and force so powerful that meeting it straight on will do no good.
This is the sort of thing that happens when someone is far from their family, society, friends and especially in a war scenario – a situation where all societal norms one is used and that keeps one in check – are set aside as one even has a license to kill. It is the reason that men and women often behave badly when they are away from home on a business trip, no longer under the watchful eyes of their loved ones. And so what are we do to when confronted in those moments, as 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 by some means. 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 again, given the situation, that will not work. Rather the view is an, “Ok, however…” attitude. Let’s see if you are still as passionate about her once those moments of powerful lust have subsided and you are now back in your home town. One can only imagine the scene, being on the receiving end of 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!”
And then let’s further see if that desire for this woman remains when she isn’t the babe you 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 of your dreams 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 in your precense?
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 negative traits. 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 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 we have come to the realization that 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 does not expect us to be so holy and righteous to always successfully overcome them head on in every occasion. We need to use our wits, our friends and our society to help us along. In the example the Torah narrates, it is showing the fellow that the woman whom he desiress is not a two dimensional caricature who is there just to fulfill his fantasies but a real person with real feelings, family and history and created in God’s image like everyone else and is deserving of respect and dignity. And let’s face it, she is not always going to be “looking like a queen in a sailor’s dream” (Sundown).
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 do not take over our lives and cause irreparable damage. Sometimes is just a question of shaving its head to expose it for what it really is to give us 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
She grabs the remote control