Control of impulses is true sign of strength

Rabbi Carnie Shalom Rose holds the Rabbi Bernard Lipnick Senior Rabbinic Chair at Congregation B’nai Amoona, and is a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical Association. 

By Rabbi Carnie Shalom Rose

“Who is truly strong? One who controls her/his impulses.”  –  Ben Zoma, Pirkei Avot, 4:1

Inspired by the upcoming bat mitzvah of our youngest, Ellior Liat, who will celebrate her coming-of-age this Shabbat Morning at Congregation B’nai Amoona. 

The more that I engage in the study of our holy Torah, the more apparent become the primary foci and leitmotifs of our tradition. When reviewing the Parshiot of Behar and Bechukotai, the concluding sections of the Book of Leviticus which will be chanted in our Synagogues this coming Shabbat, one is immediately struck by scripture’s deep and abiding concern not only for justice and equity for all, but also for self-imposed restraint and self-control — particularly on the part of those who are blessed with financial means, power and control. 

As we hear the detailed and challenging regulations associated with Shmitah (the Sabbatcal Year) and Yovel (the Jubilee), we cannot help but be reminded of the teaching of the 2nd century Tanna (“rehearser” or “teacher”), Shimon Ben Zoma, who is attributed with the familiar words of Pirkei Avot: “Who is truly strong? One who controls her/his impulses. As is stated (in The Book Proverbs, 16:32): ‘Better one who is slow to anger than one with might; one who rules over his/her spirit than the captor of a city’.”

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Shmitah and Yovel are prime examples of our Torah’s concern for nurturing people of extraordinary moral character; individuals who are courageous enough to consciously abandon the status-quo and forge a “new world order”— one that is vastly different from the scenario the Israelites encountered and experienced under the tyrannical, oppressive and abusive regime of the Pharaoh of Egypt. 

The Torah posits a new social order that unabashedly legislates against unbridled capitalism and fiscal gain, which — potentially in perpetuity — unfairly advantages the already well-heeled, the wealthy. Our Torah — in the injunctions presented in our Torah Portions — does not allow for the creation of a society in which the richer become richer and the poor ever more impoverished. 

Two fascinating points immediately strike us as we read these Biblical passages. First, the commandments associated with the Sabbatical and Jubilee Years are given “Behar — atop Mount Sinai”.  The location of their transmission elevates these Divine Directives as equivalent to the original epiphany on Sinai at which time we received the Ten Utterances/Ten Commandments. Shmitah and Yovel thus become not just additional rules to follow, but rather fundamental, central and essential tenants of our unique way of life. They distinguish us from others and help transform our people into an Am Kadosh, a sanctified and unique nation.

In addition, we should note that along with the Sabbatical and Jubilee, our weekly lectionary makes mention of the Shabbat, our weekly day of rest and respite. By doing so, our Torah underscores that it is not sufficient to only diminish oneself in the 7th and 50th years, but we should – weekly – pause from active acquisition and tamp down our desire to accumulate and amass. Once every seven days, we practice intentional restraint and stave-off our all-too-often unhealthy appetites and desires. 

Though for many, the rules of Shmitah and Yovel seems arcane and anachronistic vestiges of a bygone era, when understood as practices that can inspire our daily lives and enhance the quality of our days, we can readily and assuredly appreciate the spiritual, religious and societal benefits they were intended to impart. 

May we be bold and audacious enough to truly hear the words of Behar and Bechukotai, incorporate their wise teachings into our lives, be inspired to “control our desires”, so that we can – speedily and in our own time – declare that we have toiled to bring about an era of “Dror BaAretz — liberty and release throughout the land and to all its inhabitants.” (Leviticus 25:10)

Shabbat Shalom — may we all be blessed with a Sabbath filled with uplift and inspiration!

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