Guarding the Covenant in the Modern World – Part 1

Longing for intimacy

Maintaining sexual propriety[1]—commonly known as “guarding the covenant” (שְׁמִירַת הַבְּרִית), in Jewish sources—is difficult. Yet, life is impossible without it. Whether you are a young man who has found this challenge overwhelming, or a bachelor who is perhaps thinking of giving up, or a woman who is wondering what all of this has to do with her; even if you are a married man thinking you’ve left the problem in the distant past before your marriage—for all of us, the words “guarding the covenant” arouse discomfort. Can anything new be written about this topic?

It turns out that the Alter Rebbe has new ideas to share about this issue. And it turns out that guarding the covenant has two sides to it. It certainly presents difficulties and problems. But it can also become a source of renewal and joy in serving God.

Many educators and rabbis are skeptical about addressing sexual impropriety and its rectification, for various reasons. Nonetheless, the Lubavitcher Rebbe stated[2] that due to the general immodesty of the generation, it is important to raise the topic and speak about it.

Every year, six of the winter weeks are known as Shovavim—the initials of the parashot Shemot, Va’eira, Bo, Beshalach, Yitro, and Mishpatim.[3] This is a very propitious time for the rectification of sins, particularly those sins that have to do with sexual impropriety and self-gratification.

The challenge of sexual impropriety is not limited to men alone. The lust for forbidden intimacy, along with the entire array of emotional phenomena associated with it, exists in both men and in women. Its rectification is relevant to every human being.

In a short, atypical article,[4] the Alter Rebbe of Chabad writes about the Shovavim, a topic that is almost not mentioned in Chabad sources. He does not use the usual Chabad terminology, making it easier for the uninitiated to understand its thought-provoking content.

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Where are my mind and heart?

One of the greatest challenges in our generation is the challenge of the drive for improper sexual gratification. In every generation, Jewish sources have addressed this challenge. Given its difficulty, the Talmud reports that the sages of the early Second Temple period wanted to nullify the sexual urge completely. In the end, they did not do so. However, without question, in today’s era of universal access to information and the breakdown of all social mores, this challenge has become even greater. Accompanying the great difficulty in guarding the covenant is the deep impact that sexual self-gratification carves into the soul. The impact is so negative and so deep that the Zohar writes that one cannot do teshuvah for this. Why not?

As opposed to other drives, the sexual drive is unique in that it involves the totality of an individual’s personality. If a yeshivah student goes to a football game instead of learning Torah, or even if he got caught up in lies, he will feel that he gave in to a relatively external temptation. External means that he can still feel that the sin does not truly reflect his self. If a young woman spoke ill of a classmate or ate a candy that was of questionable kashrut, certainly that is inappropriate, and she should strive to strengthen her commitment. But those transgressions stem from a relatively peripheral place in the psyche, which Chassidut refers to as “external.” Falling into sexual impropriety, on the other hand, such as viewing pornographic content, for example, makes a person feel disgusted with himself. He feels that it is impossible to attribute his transgression to a momentary weakness or transient temptation. “I truly enjoyed myself,” he will think. “Something really low and dark is lurking inside me and apparently, that is my true self!”

Sexual self-gratification causes such a dark and foreboding experience because it truly does touch upon the essence of life, our inner drive to create new life using our power of procreation. This is also the reason that this blemish is considered so severe. Wasting the power of life is a form of suicide. Is this sense of essential identification with our power to procreate an error in our understanding of ourselves?

If we are to be honest, we will admit that much of the day our minds and hearts are occupied with our cravings or just empty foolishness. Of course, if we are able to concentrate and focus on what we really want from life, we can occupy our minds with Torah and mitzvot and arouse our hearts to positive will, but this requires a great deal of conscious effort. The effort does not always succeed. Even when it does, slacking off just a bit, the heart and mind return to their unfocused state. It is difficult to blame ourselves for that. We live in a body that must eat in order to live and we need a sex drive in order to bear offspring. This is how we were created. This is who we are. It is not an accusation, just a fact.

Sexual self-gratification is the complete opposite of the concentration and focus needed to realize our creative potential. It makes the effort to focus and collect the disarray of our natural state all the more difficult. Most importantly, when the sexual drive grips the heart and the mind it occupies the mind, highlighting the fact that our hearts and minds are not naturally connected to holiness. As such, if we have failed in respect to guarding the covenant, we find it nearly impossible to claim that this was an accidental aberration.

That is why sexual propriety is such a difficult and frustrating challenge. We feel that we are literally fighting ourselves, battling a strong force inside us. It seems that the struggle is practically hopeless and that even if we triumph most of the time, the few losses testify to who we really are, discouraging us from making a true rectification.

Longing: The Desire of the Heart

The Zohar introduces the concept of “will of the heart” (רֵעוּתָא דְּלִבָּא), which in Chassidut represents the will to be in close contact with God. This desire cannot be apprehended by the mind, which is why it is associated with the heart’s innermost point. Thus, will of the heart does not refer to ordinary feelings, but rather to a very deep emotion that is not in our control. Sometimes it is called “simple will” (רָצוֹן פָּשׁוּט). Today, we might translate this as “longing.” Longing is not ours and does not depend on our efforts. It simply surfaces, like a gift from heaven, from the soul given to us by God.

While this longing cannot be explained or understood, it is always within us, even if we are in a low spiritual state. Longing is not a focused will. It is a general aspiration toward God. It can sometimes express itself as sudden arousal that catches us by surprise in the middle of the day or by a thought of repentance (returning to God) that seems to show up out of nowhere.

In many instances, this longing expresses itself through our drives for physical satisfaction. Inside, we are longing for something spiritual, for Godliness, but externally, we attempt to satiate ourselves by means of food or a different physical craving. Our heart, however, knows what it wants or at the very least, it knows what it does not want. Ultimately, our heart tells us that physical pleasures will not satisfy us and will not calm the longing.

Chassidut’s parable for this is of a man searching for a melody that he lost. Although he does not remember the lost melody, he does know that any other melody is not the one he is searching for. In the same manner, our soul longs for something that – even if it does not know what it is – it is not willing to exchange it for something else. In a certain way, the longing will always remain amorphous and inexplicable because the object of the longing, the Almighty, is also above our grasp and comprehension.

It makes no difference how bad our situation is and to what depths we may sink. The true will of the heart, our longing for God, for the lost melody, will always remain unblemished at its core. Since it is described as being a super-rational drive, it cannot be blemished by our actions.

This is the key to the rectification of the soul. Even if we have blemished the covenant and brought ourselves to a lowly state, deep inside we have a gift that is not ours and is not dependent upon us or our actions. We did not create it and we cannot blemish it. It is our job to reach inward to reveal this state of longing, to highlight and intensify it.

Sometimes, we may feel like quashing the longing—the will of the heart—and repressing the fact that it exists. This can happen because of a lack of awareness or because we fear expressing unexplained longing. We may not be sure where it will lead us. If we wish to rectify ourselves, however, we must express this longing at every opportunity. It can be in prayer, in song, in a gathering of friends, in Torah study or fulfillment of mitzvot.

To be continued….

[1]. This article is based on a class given by Rabbi Ginsburgh on a short essay by the Alter Rebbe given on his yahrzeit, 24 Tevet 5779. The full annotated transcript from this class appeared in Ve’abita (Hebrew) for parashat Bo 5779, pp. 22-30. It can be accessed online on the following link: http://www.pnimi.org.il/images/files/Vaabita/bo_79.pdf.

[2]. See Igrot Kodesh – Vol. 9, Letter #2642, accessible online on the following link: https://chabadlibrary.org/books/admur/ig/9/2642.htm.

[3]. In an intercalated year (such as 5782, our present year), two more weeks are added—Terumah and Tetzaveh—and the initials become Shovavim Tat.

[4]. Ma’amarei Admur Hazaken – Haketzareem, p. 549.

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