That Elusive Self-Control – Part I

Double Mitzvah Jewrotica Parsha

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.

Rated PG-13

We are now well into the month of Elul, and the High Holidays are right around the corner. A more somber, introspective mood sets in, as many take the opportunity to reflect upon our deeds and character.

Consistent with this theme, this week’s column is intended to be the first of a three-part essay regarding that most elusive and precious of qualities: self-control. This is a topic that is far too broad to be given adequate attention in three short essays, and is far too complex to be properly addressed by one such as myself, without a psychology degree or mastery of Judaism’s moral and mystical texts.

Nevertheless, I hope that what follows will serve to highlight some of the different considerations that Torah gives toward the topic, each serendipitously provided by the particular Parshah of the week.

This week’s Parshah — Shoftim — provides the Torah’s baseline expectations of how we are generally to conduct ourselves.

The opening verse of the Parshah is:

Judges and enforcement officials shall you set up for yourself in all your gates that the Lord, your G-d, is giving you, for your tribes, and they shall judge the people with righteous judgment.[1]

Even though this commandment is directed to the Jewish nation, the Hebrew text uses the singular expression for “you”, “yourself”, “your gates”, and “your tribes” — not the plural expression that you would expect of a directive given to a large group of people as to how to structure their communities.

The Kabbalistic take on this commandment is that it is specifically directed to each individual to allude to as different set of “gates”, and to “judges and enforcement officials” of a more personal nature.

Our senses are “gates”. They are the portals through which we experience the world around us. Our sense of touch, of smell, of taste. Our vision, our hearing, our mobility. Some of these senses are used for intake — they are how our surroundings infiltrate our system, and enter our person. Others are exits — they are the gates through wish we express and project ourselves outside.

I’m biased of course, but it seems that the single activity that most uses the swinging door of our senses — taking in and experiencing, while simultaneously expressing and impacting — is sexuality. Sexuality is a truly sensual experience, in which we touch and are touched, we taste and are tasted. We hear the sounds of pleasure, and we contribute our own, whispering sweet nothings and everythings. We are perpetually aroused by the erotic visuals of our experience, and we bask in the scent of our passions. When it comes to sexuality, our gates are flung wide open.

The Torah then commands us to set judges and enforcement officials at our gates. Not to bar them, or to build a wall, but to have a process by which entry into — or exit from — our gates is authorized. We must be discriminate regarding who or what is allowed access to our innermost recesses, or what of ourselves should be exposed to the outside.

In the words of the Kabbalah, not all sexual prospects should become our partners — some are forbidden to us. Not everything that is said is good for us to hear. And not every thought that occurs to us is worthy of being spoken — particularly when it reflects poorly on another. Not everything or everyone should be touched, not every scent should be inhaled, and not every lascivious gathering should be attended.

Instead, we must set an internal judge, who will preside over such questions as: Should I or should I not allow this particular thing, person or expression into or out of my gates?

Yet even after the judge makes that decision — especially if the judge says “No — your gates should remain closed for this one” — it may still be difficult to implement. After all — this may be a temptation that we would really like to indulge in, notwithstanding the judge’s ruling.

So the Torah therefore instructs that we also appoint enforcement officials; that we put into place tools and methods to enforce our decisions to not allow negative influences inside, or to keep our own fleeting negativity from being actualized and polluting the world outside.[2]

There is an interesting anecdote told of a Chassid who went to visit his Rebbe with a problem: How can G-d expect us to exercise control over our very thoughts, when they enter our mind unbidden?

Instead of answering him, the Rebbe sent him to pay a visit to one of his older disciples, who we shall call Reb Moshe. Red Moshe did not live nearby, however, and it was in the dead of the Ukrainian winter that the Chassid made the trip, so that when he finally arrived at Reb Moshe’s home, it was past midnight, and the Chassid was fleeced with snow and chilled to his very bones.

To his pleasant surprise, however, he saw through the front window that that Reb Moshe was still awake, studying at his table, with a blazing fire dancing merrily in the hearth.

He knocked on the door. Through the window, the Chassid saw Reb Moshe look up from his books toward the door, and the Chassid expected him to rise and answer the door. But after a moment’s consideration, Reb Moshe returned his attention to his books. Thinking that perhaps Reb Moshe had dismissed his knock as some trick of the weather, the Chassid knocked again, this time more forcefully. Once again, Reb Moshe lifted his head — and once again he dismissed the sound and returned to his books. The Chassid’s pounding on the door changed the situation not in the slightest; Reb Moshe continued to study as though oblivious to that shivering man outside. The Chassid gave up knocking, and simply leaned against the house, too tired and cold to make any further effort.

Eventually, Reb Moshe closed his books, rose from his chair, and opened the door. There was no mistaking the warmth with which he greeted his visitor. He graciously invited him in, bid him change out of his cold clothes, sat him in front of the fire, and brought him a hot glass of tea. He peppered him with questions about his family and the health of the Rebbe, until, sensing that his guest was sleepy, he led him to a warm room and bed in which to spend the night. The Chassid remained in Reb Moshe’s home for several days, and Reb Moshe was the consummate host, attending to his guest’s every need and comfort.

After several days, the Chassid decided that it was time that he returned to his own home, and finally broached the topic that had brought him to Reb Moshe’s door.

“Tell me, Reb Moshe,” he asked. “How is it that G-d expects us to control our very thoughts? The Rebbe suggested that I visit you for an answer.”

Red Moshe smiled, as he responded.

“This question I answered the very first night that you knocked on my door. Is a man any less a master of his own self than he is of his home? You came to my house, after midnight. You felt a very great need to enter; perhaps you even felt that you were entitled to come in. Yet it is my house — and nobody enters my house whom I do not wish to enter.”

That is self-control.

Easier said than done, though.

Certainly we’d all like to have that kind of control. But often we are faced with temptations that not only test us, but seem overwhelming in their force; a veritable battering ram at our door. And after our door splinters under the sheer force, we rebuild it, and promise ourselves that this new door will withstand whatever pressure is brought to bear — until the next battering ram seeks entry.

So is self-control really that simple?

To be continued next week.

Shabbat Shalom!

Works Cited

[1] Deuteronomy, 16:18.
[2] See Sefer Halikutim, Shoftim