At the end of this week’s Torah portion, Shmini, the Torah lists the various types of animals which are kosher, and those which are not kosher. Amongst the forbidden foods are insects. Parshas Shmini concludes with a warning (11:44- 45), “And you shall not contaminate yourselves with the insects which crawl on the earth. I am God who took you out of Egypt to be your God.”
What does going out of Egypt have to do with refraining from ingesting insects? Rashi brings a Medrash on Shmini which tells us that the verse is alluding to the significance of which this commandment holds: Even if God would have taken us out of Egypt to observe this one law alone, it would have been worthwhile.
Rabbi Leib Chasmin (in Ohr Yahel) derives from here the magnitude which the Torah attributes to exercising self-control in the proper way. Insects, in general, are not all that enticing. Yet the Torah is telling us that merely by refraining from consuming them when we might be tempted to do so, (i.e. neglecting to avoid infested food products,) we are worthy of redemption.
How much more so, says Rabbi Chasman, is the greatness of one who curbs his lusts when facing strong temptations of other forbidden foods. Furthermore, someone who restrains himself from indulging in permissible pleasures for the sake of elevating his soul by restraining his desire for materialism, is performing an unbelievable act of service.
The Ra’avad (in Ba’alei Hanefesh, in the introduction and in Sha’ar Hakedushah) expounds on the importance of restricting one’s desires and explains that a person possesses within him an animalistic nature which is constantly drawn to fulfilling its lusts. This inborne drive does not have boundaries on its own, and does not care about what it will take to attain that which it desires. This attribute of Man is driven to attain whatever it wants, whether it is permitted or not. A righteous person goes to battle against these innate inclinations and makes sure to keep them under control. A person who is used to getting all that he craves when it is permissible, is only one step away from crossing the line and indulging in pleasurable acts which are prohibited.
One who is accustomed to yielding to pursuits of everything he desires, will find it very challenging to defy his lusts and restrain himself when he must do so to avoid transgressing a Torah law. Therefore, says the Ra’avad, it is imperative to practice curbing one’s desires, in order to keep this animalistic nature under control.
The Ra’avad goes on to recommend that a person should make it a habit to refrain from fulfilling his desires to their fullest extent. While a person should eat appetizing and healthy food, it would be a great achievement for one to constantly control his consumption and limit himself somewhat. By doing so, one elevates himself by rising above his animalistic instincts and will acquire control of himself. As a result, he will not be tempted so easily to give in to his inclinations when it is improper to do so.
Story on Shmini
It was a long day for Ruty. The kids were finally settled in their beds, and Ruty still had a great deal of work ahead of her before she would call it a night. Almost instinctively, her hands reached for a chocolate bar as she sat down, and was about to bite into it. But before she got a chance to reveal the contents of the enticing wrapper, she was struck with a thought. “Why should I treat myself to this? I know it’s unhealthy and unnecessary. Just because I feel like indulging must I heed my desires?!” And with that, she returned the chocolate to its place.
This is a concept we find difficult to incorporate. It is extremely hard to voluntarily say “No” to yourself when you crave something and there is no prohibition against it. Yet, on the other hand, it is a very powerful attribute. This is what differentiates between Man and animals. Gaining control of our desires is a most fundamental Torah principle. Even exercising self-control in one area alone is a tremendous accomplishment. To refrain from finishing a good drink to the last drop or the like is a great starting point. By flexing our self-restraint muscles, we will have a much better chance in keeping our lusts in check when we are faced with a temptation of wrongful indulgence.
By Rabbi Yitzchok Aryeh Strimber (firstname.lastname@example.org)