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Written by Sender Rozesz. Sender Rozesz is a practicing attorney with a background in Jewish pluralistic education for adults. Sender Rozesz is Jewrotica’s resident Double Mitzvah columnist. The views reflected in his writing represent his own personal views, and are not intended to reflect the views of any organizations, institutes or associations with whom he may be affiliated.
Self-control is a noble virtue and discipline. But as Jews, what exactly are we supposed to have self-control about?
Generally, the areas in which we usually talk about “self-control” tend to be our diet; exercise; addictive substances, such as alcohol or drug use. However, exercising self-control in these areas, are really an exercise in self-preservation. Resist excess today, so that you can live longer and better tomorrow. This is not an altruistic self-control for the benefit of some higher, supernal being; it is taking the long view of what is best for ourselves, rather than indulging in a short-sighted, momentary pleasure without regard to the long-term costs.
Do we have any examples of exercising self-control when it is not for our own health and survival, but simply because someone else asks us to?
To some degree, we might control ourselves by refraining from certain actions that would damage our relationships — but isn’t that also really self-preservation? Those relationships matter a great deal to our emotional and mental health, which is why we take great care to maintain them. It is not altruism or a higher calling that drives us.
As it turns out, though, the self-control demanded by the Torah is very much the same.
In this week’s Parshah — Nitzavim — G-d says as follows:
“Behold, I have set before you today life and good, and death and evil . . . I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. You shall choose life, so that you and your offspring will live.” 
Commentaries note several interesting aspects of this verse. First, there is the way that G-d equates good with life, and evil with death. Then there is the fact that He directs us to make what would appear to be an obvious choice: “You shall choose life.” This prompted Rashi to make the following observation: “G-d says: ‘Even though you have free choice, nevertheless, I instruct you to choose the portion of life.’ This is like a man who says to his son, ‘Choose for yourself a fine portion of my estate,’ and then directs him to the best portion, saying to him, ‘This is the portion which you should choose for yourself!’”
In other words, G-d does not suffice with simply expressing His will, and then leaving it to us to find the inner strength and fortitude to be faithful to His laws against all of our natural instincts. Rather than being merely authoritative, and commanding us to obey Him simply because He is our Creator, or because He is all-powerful, G-d acts as our parent, guiding us to the choice that He knows is right for us — even if we don’t always see it.
And isn’t this how we were trained by our parents, and how we train our own children as their parents? Long before a child has the wisdom to appreciate the impact of refined sugar on his body and teeth, we limit the amount of candy he can eat. Then we use that small candy ration to bribe him to eat things that we know nourish his body. He hates peas and loves candy, and doesn’t understand why we have it backwards; yet we know that a candy-filled and pea-empty diet is unhealthy, and we impose our superior wisdom of what his body needs to grow and remain healthy on a resistant child. When he matures, however, he grows into the wisdom of the controls that we imposed on his diet, and is then is a position to exercise self-control, and to take responsibility for his own health.
Sexuality is another good example. We recognize sexuality as an extraordinarily powerful force; we also recognize, however, that children do not yet have the tools to harness this force. So we take steps as parents to limit their exposure to sexuality; but we also train them to develop the self-esteem, self-discipline, emotional balance and value system necessary to one day safely navigate the sexual universe. We tend to be extremely — and perhaps even overly — cautious when it comes to this kind of education, because sexual pleasure is far too intense to control without having the right system already in place; and can be fairly destructive without it. But our children are too young to comprehend this, and so we try to prolong the developmental period before releasing the Kraken.
Oh, we try to explain why “no, you can’t do this,” or “no, you can’t do that”; but we know that our children do not yet have the maturity or wisdom to really understand our explanation. And so we put as much love as we can into our “no”s, hoping that our children will at least know that the restrictions that we place on their behavior are designed for their own health and well-being.
In much the same vein, in this week’s Parshah, G-d gives us the following message:
My child, I know that it’s not always easy to distinguish good from bad and right from wrong, and that the distinction is not always intuitive. Often, what is good and righteous may appear bland and lackluster, whereas evil and decay may masquerade as vigorous and vibrant.
Trust me, however, when I tell you that the things that I have told you to do are good, and are healthy for you; whereas the activities that I have told you to avoid are neither good nor healthy. Because I love you, I exhort and beg you: Make the healthy choice.
I have trusted you with the freedom of choice. There is nobody who will force you to make the right one; and I will not use My lightning bolts to strike down an exercise of poor judgment. It is up to you.
Please – choose life.
May each and every one of us be inscribed in the Book of Life for a happy and sweet New Year!