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Sidestepping Your Desires

Ki Tetzei (Deuteronomy 21:10-25:19 )

by Rabbi Shaul Rosenblatt

Dealing wisely with unwanted desires.

This week's portion contains a law that, on the surface, is challenging to understand: If a soldier has a passion for a woman in the midst of battle, he must not seduce her. (So far, so good.) Instead, what he should do is bring her home, shave her hair, wait 30 days ... and then seduce her! (Deut. 21:10-14)

The Sages explain: the Torah is not sanctioning promiscuity. The Torah understands human nature and is giving us laws to help us control it.

In the heat and passion of battle, it is difficult to be in full control of oneself. Bullets are whizzing everywhere; hormones are pumping through the body at unnatural levels; values become hazy, at best. And suddenly a soldier bumps into a beautiful woman...

The Torah recognizes that were it to say outright that she is forbidden, the challenge might be too difficult for many to overcome. Instead, it gives the soldier a way to control himself. She is not totally forbidden; you just have to wait 30 days. In this way, the soldier is not faced with a challenge of passion versus values. He can have both; all he has to do is wait.

He may still fail the test, but it certainly makes the test easier. And, of course, it is almost guaranteed that by the end of 30 days, with her hair shaven and the battlefield well behind him, his passion will have abated and he will recognize that this is no way to treat another human being.

We see from here that instead of facing undesirable desires straight on, it often makes more sense to sidestep them.

But let's start with the corollary. Your alarm rings at 7 a.m. One part of you says that it's time to get up. Another part says that you'd rather sleep till 10 or 11 or even 12. The latter part knows, however, that it will not succeed in a direct confrontation. So what does it say? Press that most evil of all inventions - the snooze button. Before you know it, in ten minute intervals, you have snoozed yourself through another three hours!

Dealing wisely with unwanted desires - in the same way as they deal wisely with us - is the key to beating them. Here's some practical examples:

You are really angry with someone and want to yell at them. So tell yourself that you are going to yell and scream and blow them out the door. Imagine it; fantasize about it; allow your mouth to water in anticipation. Only one thing - do it tomorrow. And tomorrow, I guarantee, the passion will dissipate and you will be able to make a more objective decision. Perhaps the person does need telling off - but you will do it in a much healthier and more effective way.

Or your family really needs you right now, but the Patriots are on ESPN. Instead of making the choice between family or football - one that for some people is too challenging to make correctly - do both. Spend the first half with your family and watch the second half. You avoid the head-on collision, and you just might skip the second half, too!

The principle the Torah is teaching is a good one: Don't suppress the desire, work with it instead. Go head-to-head and you will likely lose. Compromise, and your chances of winning are that much greater. It's not guaranteed - because you always have free choice - but you significantly increase the odds of getting it right.

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