What do we do with urges and desires that we know lead us astray—and yet sometimes find overwhelming?
This week’s Torah portion, Ki Tetze, offers a story that, when understood metaphorically, provides guidance. On a literal level, the passage deals with women taken as captives in wartime. It states: "If you go to war against your enemies and. . .you see among the captives a beautiful woman and you desire her. . . then you shall bring her into your home, and she shall shave her head and let her nails grow. . . and stay in your house, and weep for her father and her mother for a full month. After that, you may be intimate with her and take her as a wife for yourself. And if you do not desire her, then you shall send her away wherever she wishes."
Every year, we read these verses in the month of Elul, the time of preparation for the Days of Awe. This is no accident, for they suggest a strategy for dealing with the challenges of unrestrained passion and desire. As Rabbi Alan Lew writes: “Since we can’t and probably shouldn’t repress our desires, and since it is so often a calamity when we follow them, what should we do? The passage points us to an answer. First of all, we watch our desires arise. The soldier at the beginning of Ki Tetze has to live with his desire, to watch it as it evolves without acting on it, for a full month. And the second thing we can learn from him is that once we have our desires firmly in view, we can then strip them of their exotic dress. We can make them cut off their fingernails and their hair, we can make them take off that revealing frock they were wearing when we first saw them. In other words, we can see them for what they really are.”
The Talmud famously teaches that true strength lies in our ability to master our own impulses. Our Torah portion, as viewed through Rabbi Lew’s commentary, suggests that this process begins with naming and acknowledging them. Quietly suppressing our passions never works—we may shove them away for awhile, but ultimately they will return in some other, unexpected area of our lives, with more power than ever before. Besides, the energy and desire that drives those passions is a gift from God. When we recognize this, and speak of them openly, we can use it constructively.
So I’ll end with a suggestion that Rabbi Lew offers in his book—I’ve mentioned it many times before, but can’t sing the praises of this book enough—This is Real and You are Completely Unprepared. You might consider devoting some time to this practice each day during this Jewish month of Elul, up through, and including Rosh Hashanah:
Devote a bit of time each day to identifying whatever desire has distorted in our lives, the beautiful delusion for which we’ve thrown everything away, or for which we stand ready to do so, in any case.
And when we’ve located it, all we have to do is look at it. We don’t have to kill it, and we certainly don’t have to act on it either. We can just let it arise in the fullness of its being, unromantically stripped down to the naked impulse that it is, without the finery of romance, without hair, nails or dress, just the bare impulse itself.
We can watch this impulse as it arises for the entire month of Elul, and if after a month it still seems to be something that we want, something that continues to arouse strong feeling in us, then we’ve learned something useful about ourselves.
But if this desire stripped of its romantic trappings simply fades away, then we’ve learned something even more useful. We learned that there is more to heaven and earth than those things on the surface of the world that provoke desire in our hearts.
Wait on God. Be strong and courageous of heart and wait on God.