Slowly absorbing the fantastic scenery, you take a deep breath of the cool, fresh air. From your perspective, you are on the top of the world, and you are going to enjoy it while it lasts.
Slowly absorbing the fantastic scenery, you take a deep breath of the cool, fresh air. From your perspective, you are on the top of the world, and you are going to enjoy it while it lasts. You look out through the windshield of your car, again taken aback by the spectacular view that your position atop the mountain affords you. Your only qualm is exactly how you are going to maneuver through the twisty, rocky road that leads to the bottom. You have two choices: Either you can grasp the steering wheel and rely on your 25 years of driving experience to get you safely to the bottom, or you can switch the gear into neutral, let go of the controls, and trust your car to bring you down safely, all by itself. It's your choice.
At the end of this week's Torah portion, Hashem tells us, "For I am Hashem who took you out from the land of Egypt to be for you a G-d; you shall be holy, for I am holy" (Leviticus 11:45). This verse seems to tell us two totally unrelated points. What is the connection between the fact that Hashem took us out of Egypt to be our G-d and the idea that we should be holy because Hashem is holy? The Sforno, a classic 16th century Italian commentator, explains that Hashem's purpose in removing us from Egypt was for these exact reasons that He could be our G-d and that we should emulate His ways. Now that He took us out, we have an obligation to do these things, and one of His ways that we try to emulate is His attribute of holiness. Just like Hashem is holy, so should we be.
Rabbeinu Bachya, a classic 14th century commentator, clarifies exactly how we go about being holy. He explains that one is considered holy when he is not controlled by his physical desires. This doesn't only refer to desires for things that are forbidden, but even things that are permitted should be used only in moderation. For if a person is overly involved in earthly pleasures, he can harm himself in both body and spirit, and it can lead him to defile the Torah. For example, eating meat and drinking wine are permitted by the Torah. However, by overdoing it, one can harm himself, come to do sins (because he is drunk or over-satisfied), and be considered a glutton or a drunkard. This is not holiness. But instead, if one controls his desires and is not overly involved in physical pleasures, that is a person who is holy and fulfills this fundamental mitzvah. Furthermore, if a person is holy, Hashem's spirit rests upon him to a certain degree.
Another dimension to this idea of fulfilling desires is described by the Midrash. Our sages teach that the average person leaves this world without having fulfilled even half of his desires. The idea behind this is that desires feed off of themselves. If a person fulfills a desire, he naturally wants more of whatever it is that he's just had. Since a person's desire for something grows with each time he is involved in it, he will never be able to catch up to his level of desire and will go to his grave still craving for more pleasures. However, if a person controls his desires, he will be satisfied with what he has and will not crave the unattainable.
We see this concept in Pirkei Avot (Ethics of Our Fathers 4:1) when Ben Zoma concludes that a rich person is one who is happy with his lot. This is because when a person is content with what he has and does not desire more, in his own eyes he is the richest person in the world. Likewise, a person who controls his desires and thus reduces the level of pleasure that he wants, will be both happy and "rich" because he is a person who has everything that he wants. For these two reasons of being holy and being happy it is worthwhile for a person to control himself. While it is a difficult task, it is not impossible. In fact, if one makes the effort to purify himself, it will become easier as he goes along because Heaven will assist him in his efforts.
Let us return to the parable of the car on the mountain with which we began. The road is life, its bumps and turns representing the spiritual trials that life presents a chance to eat something improper, a chance to see something immoral things that a person has desires for. The car is one's desire and the driver is you. As one goes down the road, he has two methods by which he can proceed. One can use his intellect, grabbing the steering wheel tightly and controlling his desires around the bends, or he can put the car in neutral, letting go of his controls and allowing his desires to drive him off the cliff. If one works the controls, there are so many benefits he'll be happy, "rich", holy, will have Hashem's spirit rest upon him, and will be fulfilling his purpose in having come out of Egypt in the first place. If he doesn't, and instead lets his desires take him in whichever way they lead, he will be lacking all of these benefits and, like the person in the car, will be putting himself in a dangerous situation. It is all just a question of who's driving. Are we driving, or are our desires driving? It's our choice. We decide.
This article has been an encore presentation from a previous volume of Torah from Dixie.
Mendel Starkman, a native Atlantan, is attending the Yeshiva Chofetz Chaim in New York.
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