This week’s Torah reading discusses various forbidden relationships, prefacing the topic with a warning that one should not get near such repulsive activities. Rabeinu Yonah (Shaa’rei Teshuvah, 3:80) explains that this is referring to keeping a distance from the actual transgression by avoiding physical contact between a man and a woman who are forbidden to enter into an intimate relationship with each other. Too much closeness between a man and a woman can lead to sinful acts, and therefore the Torah instructs us to keep a distance as a precaution in avoiding inappropriate relationships.
This principle is a fundamental Torah concept: We do not ignore human weaknesses, nor do we shy away from admitting vulnerability of sin. One example of this is the prohibition of Yichud in where it is forbidden for a man to be in seclusion with a woman. (There are exceptions and many details pertaining to this law which are beyond the scope of this Torah thought.) It can be uncomfortable in some situations to avoid Yichud; to someone unfamiliar with this law it may sound like an excessive precaution. But this is the Torah way. Instead of denying our vulnerability and overlooking potential of sin, we make a point to address human weaknesses and publicize awareness of potential spiritual pitfalls.
To stress this point, the Talmud (Kidushin, 81b) relates the following story: Rabbi Tarfon would routinely make a point to caution his household members to be careful that he shouldn’t be alone with his daughter-in-law. One of Rabbi Tarfon’s pupils thought he was being too extreme. Rabbi Tarfon’s concern seemed to him to be farfetched and he made light of it. The Talmud concludes by stating that sure enough, it wasn’t long before this same student ended up engaging in a sinful relationship with his mother-in-law.
The Mishnah in Avos (4:1) says, “Who is a strong one? The one who overpowers his Yetzer Hara (evil inclination).” The Avodas Yisroel notes the wording of the Mishnah which states, “his Yetzer,” and not, “the Yetzer.” The Avodas Yisroel explains that this alludes to the fact that everyone has his own personal Yetzer Hara. Every person has his own weaknesses which he must address on a personal level, creating his own precautions, tailored according to his own vulnerabilities.
Facing our own vulnerability isn’t pleasant. It may even be embarrassing to expose our weaknesses to others in an effort to seek assistance. But this is the way of the wise. The Torah itself goes out of its way to forewarn us about keeping safety measures to ensure we don’t fall prey to inappropriate lusts. The Torah is hereby teaching us to take recognition of the potential of human nature to be lured into traps of immorality.
Avoiding physical contact is just one precaution prescribed by the Torah, but we must take this concept further and apply it to our individual nature. Everyone has a different personality and different weaknesses. We should not shy away from facing our vulnerabilities. On the contrary, we ought to be vigilant in recognizing situations which may lead us to sin, and do our best to avoid them, without shame. This is especially true with temptations of immorality, where one step easily leads to another in the wrong direction. We must keep our distance from potential spiritual hazards even if these measures may be perceived to be excessive by others. A wise person understands that the weaknesses of human nature are not a source of shame but challenges to overcome in achieving greatness. The uncomfortable feelings involved in setting precautions to avoid potential of sin are minuscule in comparison to the benefit one will reap from addressing his vulnerability and setting proper precautions to guard himself from sin.
By Rabbi Yitzchok Aryeh Strimber (firstname.lastname@example.org)