The Challenge of Correct Focus

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By Rabbi Naftoly Bier

The Sforno, ויקרא יח:ו , Leviticus 18:6, teaches a fascinating, enlightening and monumental lesson. The Torah prohibits many relationships that involve close relatives. Why?

Initially, one can logically argue that the marriage that will be most successful is when one enters into a relationship with a family member. For if one is familiar with another, they share common familial character traits and goals, and are known to one another for a long period of time; their coming together in a union is “blessed with success”! The proof to this is that some of our greatest people; Moshe Rabeinu, Aaron HaKohen and Miriam HaNeviah. Moses, Aaron the High Priest and Miriam the Prophetess were offspring of parents who were an aunt and her nephew; Yocheved and Amram.

The Sforno explains that on the contrary, this is precisely why the Torah prohibits these relations. The action can be pure, perfect in its essence, but the emotional process and focus can be totally detrimental.

To quote Rav Shamshon Raphael Hirsch, “Not the least of the factors that keep the marital act from being ערוה , crude animal behavior, and elevate it to the status of a holy and sanctifying mitzvah is that the physical union of husband and wife unites them also in soul and spirit, establishing between them – in the words of the blessing recited in our marriage service – אהבה ואחוה שלום וריעות . The physical union is to foster that unique love that is “stronger than death and that all the floods of fate cannot quench,” as it says in Shir Ha-Shirim (8:6-7) of the love of man and woman and the love of God. In short, ודבק באשתו is purified of all ערוה -sensuality and is invested with the highest moral sanctity, provided that it truly effects that wonder of all wonders – the unity of והיו לבשר אחד . The authenticity of this unity is the basis for all family and national happiness.

Therefore, before they marry and lead a married life, man and woman should not be related; there should be no bond of affection that stems from love between relatives. For the strongest of all bonds of love – the bond of marriage – should spring only from the marriage itself. Only thus will even the sexual aspect of the marriage be elevated to the level of moral purity. The whole essence of this aspect should become part of the married couple’s love, with which it began and from which it also derives.

But where the hearts of two people are already linked by the love of parent and child, brother and sister, or other family ties – and the more the family life shapes the character of God’s people, the stronger will be the familial affection – there, marriage will have only a little love to add. Love will have been there before, and marriage will add almost nothing more than the sexual element; but this by itself- if it does not engender a union of the hearts – is nothing but naked ”  ערוה

Rav Yeruchim Levovitz זצ“ל expounds further, “The Torah greatly detests the idea of following one’s baser physical drives for the sake of enjoyment. The Sforno is teaching us that the reason that one can’t marry one’s relatives, identified by the Torah as non-permissible, is not due to the actual activity, for on the contrary, Hashem desires that we propagate the world. But due to the driving force behind it – to satisfy one’s animalistic, hedonistic cravings.”

Moreso, the Torah is concerned, and in turn warning us, that if one would do a proper act, one which the Torah allows and desires, with the wrong perspective – that being to selfishly focus on one’s personal enjoyment – it will invariably lead a person to a journey of תאוה, of self-indulgence. This is the idea of קדושה , freeing oneself from the self-absorbed passion, but rather to focus on Hashem’s directives.

This is emphatically and repeatedly taught by the Torah’s warning “not to defile yourselves with any of these. For, through these, the nations that I am casting out before you became defiled.” (Leviticus 18:24) “Thus the land was defiled and I visited its iniquities upon it and the land spewed out its inhabitants…” (18:25)

The nations of the world, especially Egypt and the Canaanites, personified the idea of choosing mates not in accordance with G-d’s will, but rather in accordance with their personal caprice. This state of affairs extinguished the Divine spirit in the human. Even more, Ramchal (and Rav Yeruchim) teach, the more they were cognizant of the holiness of the Jewish people, the more they detested it and lowered their own standards.

One can ask, why is that despite the Torah identifying Egypt and Canaan (present day Israel) as the most hedonistic, decadent societies relevant to sexual behavior, that Klal Yisrael was placed there?

Chazal teach us that on the contrary, human nature is that the more we recognize and detest immoral behavior, the more energized one is to dedicate oneself to focus on spiritual growth and development, despite the supreme challenge of not absorbing what is antithetical to our values. In today’s times, before the arrival of Moshiach, Chazal teaches us in סוטה מ”ט, the abject breakdown of all value will occur. We are being given the greatest challenge and at the same time the clarity to reject the ‘values’ of Western civilization and to fully embrace the directives of the Torah.

In today’s society, our challenge to stay morally focused is quite a challenge; we are taught הבא לטהר מסייעין אותו , when we recognize the need and relentlessly pursue its actualization, Hashem will help us. The greatest safeguard and what inculcates in one the ability to do so; is the study of Torah. For when one does so, Hashem is conversing with us and imbuing in us the ability to transcend the world around us.

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