Sadly, Orthodox Jews are occasionally verbally assaulted (too often by non-observant Jews) with denunciations of being pathetic! I have experienced several such encounters. For example, I devoted the summer of 1984 to work in an extremely poor community, the Hatikva neighborhood of southern Tel Aviv. One evening—while walking with our group of young Yeshiva University students—a local Jewish teenager began to lecture us. He said (translated from the original Hebrew), “You religious people are pathetic! I can sleep with my girlfriend whenever I wish, and you can do nothing with women.”
Many years later, on a flight from Charleston, South Carolina, to Newark, the stewardess offered me a snack which I politely declined, after realizing upon inspection that the item was not certified kosher. This scene caught the attention of a woman sitting across the aisle. She asked why I did not take the treat. I responded that I am an observant Jew and chose not to eat the non-kosher food item.
What a response this woman had! She began talking in a stage whisper to anyone who would listen, “Get a load of this guy. He can’t eat anything.” She began rattling off a litany of non-kosher items. She and her neighbors were laughing hysterically at (what they thought was) my expense. Parenthetically, I find it curious that such cultural myopia is acceptable toward Orthodox Jews, but not toward other minorities.
Prisoners of the Yetzer Hara
In response, we cite the Ramban’s interpretation of Devarim 29:17-18 (especially the second half of pasuk 18). These pesukim address one who disregards Hashem’s commands and does whatever his heart desires. The second half of pasuk 18 describes this person as “sefot haravah et hatzemeiah—adding the watered upon the thirsty.” Ramban explains that a person who submits to his desires ends up imprisoned by them. Pasuk 18’s second half expresses the creeping addiction to sin. If one sins when he is watered (i.e., without a strong desire), those sins will be supplemented (“sefot”) by a more serious degree of corruption, those driven by a thirst for stronger stimulation and more intense pleasure (paraphrasing ArtScroll’s presentation of Ramban).
The yetzer hara is like a bottomless pit. The more one indulges in the yetzer hara, the more entrenched the sinful behavior becomes. Ramban quotes Chazal’s remarkable teaching (Sukkah 52b) that the one who satisfies his yetzer hara starves it, but one who starves it satisfies it. One who caves into the yetzer hara becomes nothing less than its prisoner! The only way to emerge victorious is to reject the yetzer hara (or, in Chazal’s words, to starve it).
The second half of the pasuk is, thus, a stern warning against indulging the yetzer hara! Examples abound of the destruction wreaked by submitting to the yetzer hara. One current horrifying example is pornography. The more one engages in this destructive habit, the further he digs himself into a rabbit hole. Continued indulgence only makes it more and more difficult for him to extract himself from the sewer.
A Potent Response
Religious Jews are hardly pathetic. Just the opposite is true! Fidelity to halacha liberates us from the clutches of the jaws of the yetzer hara. Incongruously, the Yiddish word for a non-observant individual is “frei,” meaning free. The religious person should be called “frei,” because the Orthodox Jew is free, because he masters his impulses. Indeed, Pirkei Avot (6:2) teaches that “ein lecha ben chorin ela mi she’osek baTorah—only the one who busies himself with Torah is truly free.”
Rav Mordechai Kaminetzky relates the following poignant story, perfectly conveying our point:
“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.’ (Rav Kaminetzky’s approach is in line with Rashi’s comments to Vayikra 20:26, that one’s attitude to kashrut should be that he wishes to eat non-kosher food, but chooses not to conform to Hashem’s command).
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 (Rav Mordechai Kaminetzky, Parsha Parables, volume 4, pages 37-38).”
Rav Kaminetsky’s neighbor—contrary to his self-portrayal—was the pathetic one, a prisoner to his desires. He was like Eisav, who pathetically discarded his birthright in favor of a bowl of soup.
Conclusion—A Rosh or a Zanav
The tochacha of Parshat Ki Tavo presents being a zanav (a tail) as a curse. Many include a plea at the Rosh Hashanah evening meal that we should be a rosh (head) and not a zanav in the coming year. Our choice is whether we use our heads and control our impulses or whether our impulses control us.
The yetzer hara should be our servant, helping us propel to greatness in all areas of life. However, the yetzer hara launches us to greatness only if we are its master. When we fail to control it, we allow the servant to become the king (paraphrasing Mishlei 30:22, “eved ki yimloch”). As Pirkei Avot (4:1) teaches, “Who is the mighty one, the one who conquers his yetzer hara.”
“Kol haposeil b’mumo oseil—those who disparage others are projecting their self-loathing” (Kiddushin 70). Those who label observant Jews as pathetic are broadcasting what they—consciously or subconsciously—recognize as true about themselves.
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.