Taming the Beast

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

With this week’s Parsha, Vayikra, we begin a new book — perhaps the book that is most well-known for giving us the laws directed at curbing our sexual appetites: Leviticus.

In actuality, Leviticus addresses much more than merely our sexual impulses — it also provides the rules for indulging our gastronomical appetites as well, as we will see when the laws of kosher are presented two weeks from now in Parshat Sh’mini.

But let’s look, for a moment, at the common denominator between our appetite for food and our appetite for sex.

Both sexual need and physical hunger are very important and healthy impulses, without which we could neither live nor reproduce. On the other hand, both food and sex are pleasures that excite us to the point of overindulgence. It tastes so good, it feels so good, we simply have a hard time saying “no.” So, denying ourselves food or sex is not an option; but total indulgence is just as destructive. What is one to do?

The profound — if obvious — answer is that we must learn and impose controls upon our impulses, so that we may receive and enjoy the benefits of of these life-sustaining elements without drowning in them. There simply is no other way.

Kabbalah teaches that this force inside of us, the source of these urges — which are themselves healthy and wonderful, but which are also powerful and wild, and in need of control and moderation — is our animal soul. Like an untamed animal, without bridle or burden, this soul acts on instinct alone. It seeks survival, comfort, reproduction, pleasure. It is not evil, it is not bad — it is simply a raw and unchanneled force.

Taming this animal, domesticating it from the wild, is to achieve mastery over it. It is to set controls and parameters for the animal’s behavior. Sit. Lie. Fetch. Get down from the table. No peeing in the house. Stuff like that. It is what we do when we train the animal to curb its purely-instinctive behavior in favor of a set of rules and conduct that we regard as superior. And we work to create new instincts, so that the animal will not suppress its energy, but rather will come to instinctively deploy it in the way that we deem appropriate.

It’s as Pavlovian as it gets.

So how do we train our own, internal, animal?

Well, within each of us, our animal soul, which is based in our heart and our emotive energies, is the animal; our mind is the human master. When we wield the power of our intellect, we our able to control our animal, to guide its behavior, and to gradually shape a new set of instincts. In Freudian terms, as we discussed here, this is the ego, leading our super-ego to our id, so that we can achieve the appropriate psychological harmony.

Beyond our own mental and emotional health, however, achieving mastery over our animal is something that G-d expects of us; it is an important part of our Divine mission, our journey through the elaborate curtains and veils that conceal G-d’s presence from us.

This is something that G-d announces at the very beginning of this week’s Parsha. Now that the Tabernacle has been built, and G-d has taken up a form of visible residence among His people, His very first commandment is: Speak to the children of Israel, and say to them: “When a man brings from [among] you a sacrifice to G-d; from the animal, from cattle or from the flock you shall bring your sacrifice.” Leviticus, 1:2.

The Chassidic masters, however, saw far more than mere physical sacrifices in this commandment.

The Hebrew word for sacrifice — Korban — is a word that literally means “a bringing close.” Indeed, the Hebrew word for “he sacrificed” is identical to the word meaning “he drew near.” See, e.g., Exodus, 14:10.

Read this way, and adjusting the commas, the verse says: “When a man [wishes] to draw near, from you shall come the sacrifice to G-d, from the animal.”

In other words, when a person wishes to draw close to G-d, one should sacrifice one’s own internal animal; one should surrender the freedom of one’s animal soul.

The Torah elaborates: “From cattle or from the flock you shall bring your sacrifice.”

For just as in the physical world there are different kinds of animals, so too, in the world of souls, we all have different animals. Some may have an animal soul akin to an ox: raging and passionate, easily excited, yet powerful and potentially very productive. Some may have the animal of a goat: quietly stubborn, unimpressed, unmovable. Still others may have the soul of a sheep: docile, impressionable, laid back. Cattle are generally regarded as a more dense, thick kind of animal. In contrast, some may have more of a birdlike soul: light, flighty, and easily distracted.

In terms of sexual natures, one person’s animal impulses may create a base urge for purely physical, no-strings-attached, sex. Another’s may seek a more nuanced intellectual or emotional satisfaction in the eroticism of different qualities of encounters. For some, the challenge might be monogamy, preferring the flighty freedom of jumping from partner to partner. For others, the challenge might be invigorating and infusing excitement into an otherwise comfortably-dull and predictable relationship.

Whatever our particular animal may be, however, taming it, training it, and tasking its wild energy to a higher purpose, is how we focus ourselves and being the journey of drawing close to the Divine.