Passion vs. Pleasure

Double Mitzvah Jewrotica Parsha

Written by Sender Rozesz. Sender Rozesz is a practicing attorney with a background in Jewish pluralistic education for adults. The views reflected in his columns 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. For more Double Mitzvahs by Sender Rozesz, check out A Woman’s Vow, Sexual Motive, Choose Your Own Spouse, The Post-Honeymoon Journey, A Wise and Understanding People, The Blessing of Fertility, Abominations, Coitus Interruptus, Sexual Struggles,The Unspeakable Language of Passion, Cut vs. Uncut, The Silence of Bitterness, Sex and the Holiest Day of the Year, Shifting Beds and Sex in the Sukkah,Sex…In the Beginning, A Sexual Reboot, She’s My Beautiful Sister,Kosher Incest?, How They Met, Male-Female Intercourse, The First Kiss, The Power to Transform, Onanism, Daughters-in-Law and Moshiach, Issues with the In-Laws?, The Undoing of Captivity, Shift Beds – Part II, and Pharaoh’s Assimilation Policy.

Rated PG-13

In this week’s Torah portion, Va’eira, G-d visits the first seven of the famous ten plagues on the Egyptians. The first of the plagues, of course, was the plague of blood.

Moses and Aaron did so, as the Lord had commanded, and he raised the staff and struck the water that was in the Nile before the eyes of Pharaoh and before the eyes of his servants, and all the water that was in the Nile turned to blood. And the fish that were in the Nile died, and the Nile became putrid; the Egyptians could not drink water from the Nile, and there was blood throughout the entire land of Egypt.
Exodus, 7:20-21.

We, of course, are not shocked by the odd nature of this plague – we’ve been hearing about it since we were children: in Sunday school, at the Seder on Passover, from Charlton Heston in The Ten Commandments, in The Prince of Egypt.

But imagine if this was your first time reading those verses. What a bizarre plague! How seemingly random! Of all of the punitive miracles that G-d could have chosen, what made Him choose this particular one?

Rashi explains, citing the Midrash as his source, that “since there is no rainfall in Egypt, and the Nile ascends and waters the land, the Egyptians worshiped the Nile. He therefore smote their deity and afterwards He smote them.”

But this itself requires further explanation. Egypt was a land of many gods and deities. In fact we are told that the reason that Egyptians hated shepherds so much, and the reason the Israelites were later instructed to tie a sheep to their bedposts for several days, is because the Egyptians worshiped sheep. And then, of course, there was Ra, Amun, Anubis, Aten, Atum, Geb, Hathor, Horus, Isis, Khepri, Khnum, Ma’at, Nephthys, Nun, Nut, Osiris, Ptah…. Etc.

So why the Nile?

In the mystical/philosophical book Tanya, R’ Schneur Zalman of Liadi explains that everything in our universe – including our soul – is comprised of the four metaphysical elements: Fire, Water, Air and Earth. In fact, he explains, we can trace every one of our soul’s characteristics and predilections to one of the four elements. For example, anger and arrogance – both traits that involve an upward surge and emphasis of self – stem from the element of Fire, which is in a constant state of ascent.

Pleasure, and the appetite for pleasurable things, comes from Water, since water is the source of growth for all pleasurable things. We know this intuitively. Just think of the following words, free-association style (recalling, of course, the website on which you are reading this), and note your reaction to them:

Wet. Moist. Slippery. Steamy.

Contrast those words with: Dry. Arid. Parched.

There’s no contest. Where would you rather live, in the desert or on the water? Caravan or cruise?

Water is the source of pleasure.

Nobody knew this better than the Egyptians themselves. For the Egyptians, the Nile was everything. As Rashi points out, it was their very source of sustenance. In that land of dry skies, the Nile would simply overflow, irrigating the Egyptian’s crops, and making their land fertile. It is surely no coincidence that Egypt was also known as the world’s mecca for pleasure. Relationships forbidden in most other parts of the world were permitted in Egypt. Marriages between family members were fairly common in Egypt prior to the Greek period. Interestingly, after the Greek arrival, one study seems to have found that 24 percent of marriages among Egyptian common-folk were between siblings. Egypt existed and thrived in the water/pleasure dynamic.

But there is another quality to water that cannot be ignored. It is cold. Sure, it can be heated, but it is a naturally cooling substance. Which raises an important point.

When a person totally immerses him/herself in a culture of hedonism, self-indulgence, and the accumulation of pleasures, a cooling process begins. The pleasures become more commonplace, and the heat of passion dissipates. Oh, you’ll still enjoy yourself, but it will be a more detached pleasure, like sitting on the beach under an umbrella, reading a good novel, with a cool Piña Colada at your elbow. There’s no passion in that scenario.Your life energy is not invested in those relaxing moments; to the contrary, relaxation is about not spending energy. It’s not meant to be an intense or hot experience; you’re meant to chill. Being completely submerged in pleasure is incompatible with the intensity and heat of passion.

Water descends, fire ascends. Where they meet, it is steamy, but if you follow the water, you will eventually lose the heat.

This is why Pharaoh ordered that all Hebrew boys be thrown into the Nile. With this particular measure, he was articulating a more profound message. We need to cool off these young Jewish men. Immerse them in the Egyptian coolant. Drown the passion; extinguish the heat. Turn the Hebrews into pleasure seekers, and they will lose the initiative or the passion for a life of greater meaning.

And so G-d turned the Nile into blood.

Blood, which contains our very vitality and life. Blood, which represents passion, and which in fact rushes to be present in every moment of passion. Blood, which maintains a normal temperature of 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit. It is hot, it is passionate, and it is an antidote to a world submerged in the coolness of hedonism.

So passion and pleasure require a balance. Pleasure is amazing, like water, but complete immersion in it will lower your temperature, relax you to the point of inertia, and may ultimately lead to numbing you to all sensation. And it will make your fingers and toes wrinkly. Our lives – and particularly our Jewish lives – require passion, heat, inspiration and vitality. We can and should certainly incorporate pleasure into our lives; but we should be careful not to permit ourselves to drown in it.

Or the bumper-sticker version: Get moist; don’t get soggy.