A few years ago, I was invited to address a non-denominational group of Jewish college students on the topic of “A Jewish Approach to Love and Sex.”
As a yoetzet halacha (religious advisor on the laws of family purity) and a madrichat kallot (teacher of brides), I am comfortable talking about these topics and discussing them openly and honestly. I have no problem sharing and describing the graphic details that I hope will facilitate a loving and fulfilling intimate life.
But this audience was different. They were likely more sexually experienced than the students I usually encountered.
I wondered what I could share with them that would be meaningful.
What could I offer them that would respect their struggles and perhaps also inspire them to strive for more?
It is always easier to talk about difficult topics when they do not address us directly, so I decided to ask them about others.
“Imagine that you are a counselor of a 15-year-old in camp who confides in you that she or he is considering being fully sexually active for the first time. What questions would you ask? What would you encourage them to be thinking about?”
Hands shot up immediately.
“I would want to know that they are being safe and using protection.”
“I would want to make sure they are not being pressured into this.”
“I would want to emphasize that there needs to be consent on both sides.”
Every single one of the five or so responses given was a variation on the same themes of safety and consent. And that was it. There was no thought about what came next. After protection is in place and consent is given, what more is there to consider?
* * *
We have stopped thinking about why we do what we do. We have stopped asking the questions that really matter.
“What are we looking for in life?”
“What makes us happy and fulfilled?”
“What gives us meaning?”
There was so much more to explore and discuss. And discuss we did.
* * *
We are blessed to live in a world that values autonomy and freedom of choice and which facilitates our ability to do what we want, when we want. But that cannot be the end of the conversation. It is only the beginning. What do we do with our autonomy? What choices do we make for ourselves?
What do we really want?
One of the enduring messages that I take from Rabbi Jonathan Sacks z”l is to think about our decisions and to ask ourselves these questions.
The contemporary West is the most individualistic era of all time. Its central values are in ethics, autonomy; in politics, individual rights; in culture, postmodernism; and in religion, ‘spirituality’. Its idol is the self, its icon the ‘selfie’, and its operating systems the free market and the post-ideological, managerial liberal democratic state. In place of national identities we have global cosmopolitanism. In place of communities we have flash-mobs. We are no longer pilgrims but tourists. We no longer know who we are or why.” (Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence)
The Western world has empowered us as individuals. But it is up to us to figure out what to do with our personal autonomy. What decisions will leave us feeling content?
“The market gives us choices but leaves us uninstructed as to how to make those choices. The liberal democratic state gives us freedom to live as we choose but on principle refuses to guide us as to how to choose.” (Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence)
Often in life a person can experience different levels of want.
There are the things we want based on a strong, impulsive, overwhelming feeling of desire. And there are the things we want based on a deep intuitive understanding about what will be good for us in the long run.
- In the moment, I may want to stay in bed and pull the covers back over my head, but at the same time I know that what I really want on a deeper, more meaningful level is to get up, start my day, and be productive.
- In the moment, I may want to respond to my boss with a sharp retort, but I know that, overall, I am happy at my workplace and want to keep my job.
- In the moment, all I want to do is eat the cheesecake sitting on my counter, but I also know that I want to eat well and feel good about my health.
It is a lifelong challenge to navigate these tensions as we strive to figure out what brings us meaning and fulfillment. Having the strength to ignore those short-term desires and deny ourselves the immediate gratification is actually a display of trust in what we want for ourselves in the big picture.
We are autonomous, but we are not always happy. We are free, but we are not always liberated. We do what we want, but we do not always look back and feel comfortable with our choices.
In this week’s parsha of Toledot (Genesis 25:29-34) we have a striking example:
Esau comes in from hunting in the field and he is tired. He has been out all day and just wants something to eat. And Jacob has been at home cooking up a pot of delicious smelling stew.
“Esau said to Jacob, ‘Pour into me, now, some of that very red stuff for I am exhausted.”
Esau is so overcome by hunger that he has no patience to think straight or to waste time finding the appropriate words to describe what he sees.
“Just give me some of that red stuff. I want it.”
And in exchange for that momentary pleasure, that instant gratification, he was willing to sell his birthright to Jacob and give up the eternal benefits that were meant to be his and his children’s.
As readers, we are astonished. For a bowl of stew? Really?
It always seems so obvious when we observe someone else.
But it is difficult to educate our children and our students that happiness and satisfaction do not come easily. It is a process to develop the maturity to appreciate deeper levels of want. It is hard to swallow that everything truly worthwhile takes a lot of hard work and effort. It is not simple to internalize that physical pleasures do not always leave us feeling good. It is a struggle to always be thinking about our broader goals as we face the challenges and temptations of day to day life.
Ultimately, though, it is what most often brings us deep fulfillment, dignity, self-respect and meaning.
And maybe that is what we really want.