Wednesday, January 30, 2008


People have different natures. Some are active while others are passive. We each know our nature; we know how we respond to different situations. Some of us immediately want to do something, to somehow act in order to better whatever it may be. Others among us desire merely to let the situation blow over, and let it pass.

The idea of restraint is portrayed as heroic according to Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik (it is his entire idea of self-defeat under certain circumstances.) I find it interesting that we look at the Torah and see the mitzvot as asei and lo ta'asei. The ones that are lo ta'asei are inevitably worse or carry harsher punishments if transgressed. This is because restraint is so incredibly difficult for us. In a word, restraint can at times be superhuman.

There's a story I really enjoy that beautifully explains this idea.

21. o4 Educating the Stomach

Related by the Rav in the Tonya Soloveitchik Memorial Lecture entitled "The Nine Aspects of the Haggadah," Yeshiva University, March 23, 1977.

The Greeks considered eating an animal function. A man, they felt, should not exhibit animality. Aristotle could not understand how you could serve God with your stomach. Aristotle held that you can serve God only with your mind.

Jacob Schiff [1847-1920], an American Jewish philanthropist, once visited the Yeshivat Rabbi Isaac Elchanan. He walked into a room where Rabbi Binyamin Aronowitz was saying a shiur on Yoreh Deah [the division of the Shulhan Arukh that includes the dietary laws]. Old-timers still remember Rabbi Aronowitz. The philanthropist asked his guide: "What isthe old man saying? What is he teaching his students?" The guide answered that Rabbi Aronowitz was teaching about melihah [how to salt meat in the kashering process.] Jacob Schiff declared that he did not support religious institutions that were interested in the stomach.

Of course the first section of Yoreh Deah is concerned with the stomach. No question about it! That is the greatness of Judaism. To teach the stomach, indeed the human body, to behave in the presence of God is more difficult thatn to teach the mind to behave properly in the presence of God. If you start with the mind you will fail; if you start with the body you might succeed.

~235 in The Rav: The World of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik by Aaron Rakeffet-Rothkoff


I find that beautiful. In many ways the laws in the Torah teach us to strike a balance between our desires and what we may have, and hence teach us restraint, or self-control. In many situations where people sin in the Torah, it is because they follow their passions, or do not exercise this self-control. All things may be channeled and expressed properly, and it is upon us to see that our desires and ideas are communicated in just that way.

In a way, this is what the statement "Ezehu gibor, hakovesh et yitzro" means. He who conquers his desire, and himself; he who is in control of himself and exercises restraint, is the one who is termed gibor, mighty. But it's very hard. Like most other things, it wouldn't be worth it if it were easy.


Anonymous said...

when I was a college student, I made the same contrast that you did in this post -- between active and passive. A professor noted that a better contrast was between active and contemplative -- suggesting that a lack of action is often a sign of thought or reflection....

BrianInNYC said...

very cool to have found this, Rabbi Aronowitz was my great-grandfather!