July 22, 2024
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Celebrating the Power of Restraint—A Shavuot Message

Rabbi Mordechai Kamenetzky relates the following poignant story:

I once sat on an overseas flight next to a talkative executive who was skeptical about his own Jewish heritage. During the first hours of the flight, the man peppered me with questions, mostly cynical, about Judaism.

Then the meal came. I was served a half-thawed omelet that seemed to be hiding under a few peas and carrots. The half-cooked egg was nestled between a small aluminum pan and its quilted blanket of tape and double-wrapped aluminum foil. Next to me, the executive was served a steaming piece of roast pork on fine china, with a succulent side dish of potatoes au gratin and a glass of fine wine.

As if to score big, the executive tucked his napkin into his collar and turned to me. He stared at my pathetic portion and with sympathetic eyes sarcastically professed, “I’d love to offer you my meal, but I’m sorry you can’t eat it!”

I did not buy into his gambit. “Of course I can eat it!” I smiled. “In fact, I think I’ll switch with you right now!” His smile faded. He was famished and in no way did he want to give away his portion. But he was totally mystified at my response. I saw the concern in his face. He was looking forward to eating this meal.

“I can have it if I want it. And if I don’t want it I won’t eat it. I have free choice and control over what I eat and what I don’t. The Torah tells me not to eat this food and I have made a conscious choice to listen to the Torah. I therefore choose not to eat it.”

Then, I went for broke: “Now let me ask you a question. Can you put the cover back on the food and hold yourself back from eating it?”

He smiled sheepishly and said, “You are not allowed to eat it. I, however, cannot not eat it.” And with that he dug in.

Reflecting upon this anecdote, one realizes that though the non-observant executive may appear to others as a powerful individual, in truth he is a pitiable slave to his biological urges. His own words—“he cannot not eat it”—reveal his lack of self-mastery. A human being is a composite of an animal and an angel. Humans must satisfy both elements of their personality in order to experience authentic fulfillment.

In a similar vein, a rabbi who was raised as a non-observant Jew relates the following incident, which he says convinced him to live a life of Torah observance:

He had decided to experiment and experience one Shabbat during his visit to Israel. He stayed at a yeshiva for baalei teshuva (returnees), where he greatly enjoyed the Friday night prayers, dinner and discussions. When he returned to his room, he was confronted with a dilemma: the main light had not been turned off before Shabbat.

The young man was conflicted. On one hand, he was not yet observant, so he was inclined to turn off the light in order to get a proper night’s rest, as he would have on any other Friday night. On the other hand, he had promised to give Shabbat an authentic effort. He decided to leave the light untouched.

The next morning he woke up tired from lack of proper sleep but exhilarated over his ability to control himself. Never before had he experienced such a profound sense of satisfaction! The “angel” side of his personality was finally gratified. This thrill became his prime motivation to become a Torah-observant Jew.

Such deep satisfaction can be experienced when one refrains from an activity that is forbidden, such as eating that which he should not eat, speaking lashon hara (derogatory words about others) or inappropriate sensuality. Elation emerges from the empowerment of being able to master one’s physical urges. One who observes the Torah knows the joy of being able to control himself; he is not a slave to his passions. Indeed, Chazal teach that “the only truly free individual is the one who is immersed in a Torah lifestyle (ein lecha ben chorin ela mi she’osek baTorah).”

The restraints Hashem presented us at Har Sinai are a cause for celebration on Shavuot. The boundaries Hashem has created for us make us great, bring us joy and facilitate the ultimate redemption of the human being. Those who observe the Torah know and recognize the sweet taste of ultimate and profound freedom.

By Rabbi Haim Jachter

Rabbi Haim Jachter is the spiritual leader of Congregation Shaarei Orah, the Sephardic Congregation of Teaneck. He also serves as a Rebbe at Torah Academy of Bergen County and a Dayan on the Beth Din of Elizabeth.

 

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