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Ruling Over Ourselves

Chukat (Numbers 19:1-22:1 )


"The Torah relates the wars between Moab and the Amorites, and says, Regarding this the poets would say: 'Come to Heshbon – let it be built and established as the city of Sihon'” (Bamidbar, 21:27).

The word that the Torah uses for “poet,” moshel, also means “ruler.” The word Heshbon is the Hebrew word for “accounting.” The Talmud, therefore, offers this interpretation of the above verse: “Those who rule over themselves can make an accounting, calculating the gains and losses in life: the gain of a mitzvah as opposed to its cost, and the cost of a sin as opposed to its gain” (Bava Basra 78b).

Much of western civilization lives under the influence of “seizing the pleasure of the moment.” The American economy is built upon credit, with people being urged to “buy now, pay later.” If people would calculate the ultimate cost of credit purchases which may be outrageous, they might delay buying things until they can afford to pay for them. But persistent and impressive advertising seduces people to get what they want, and to get it now. Blinded by their desires, people do not calculate.

How many people who know the long-term danger of smoking render themselves oblivious to it because the desire for the immediate effects of smoking overwhelms their rational thought? The Talmud's statement is correct. Only “those who rule over themselves,” who are not enslaved by their physical desires, can be objective and make an accurate accounting of the positives and negatives in life choices.

Animals do not “choose.” They follow their instincts and do whatever is most pleasing. They are not rulers over their lives, but merely slaves to their physical drives which they cannot resist. Human beings should take pride in being rulers. Allowing oneself to be governed by physical drives is essentially an abdication of one's humanity.

Once a person can be a “ruler” one can calculate “the gain of a mitzvah as opposed to its cost, and the cost of a sin as opposed to its gain.” I would like to share an example of this with you.

Due to my extensive work in treating alcoholism and drug addiction I have been immersed among people whose entire life is focused on getting a momentary thrill for which they must pay dearly in the long run. Their addiction to chemicals has taken every vestige of self-rule from them.

Avi is one such person. He is an Israeli whose pursuit of the “high” of drugs led him to a career of crime. His convictions for burglary resulted in eight imprisonments for a total of sixteen of his thirty-four years. This was certainly a long-term loss for a momentary “high,” but Avi had no self-rule. He lived under the tyranny of drug addiction.

After Avi underwent a successful rehabilitation, he once found an envelope with 5,000 shekels. This was ostensibly hefker (ownerless) money, which the finder has a right to keep. It just so happened that Avi knew to whom it belonged, and he returned it. What a turnaround, from burglarizing homes to returning lost money to its owner! Avi had attained self-rule.

I learned about this incident and congratulated Avi on his great progress. Avi said, “In the days when I used drugs, I would get a high that lasted for perhaps 20 minutes. When it wore off, I felt worse than ever. The incident when I returned the money happened six months ago. Whenever I think of it, I still get a good feeling.”

When he was enslaved by his addiction, Avi could not calculate the long-term cost he would have to pay for a fleeting pleasure. As a “ruler,” Avi was able to make an accounting, to calculate the loss of 5,000 shekels which he could have kept as opposed to the good feeling of doing a mitzvah, which persisted for six months and would be with him forever.

We should become rulers over ourselves. Only then can we make an honest calculation, gaining the most out of life and avoiding severe losses.

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