Judaism’s Distinction: A Religion of Mind

Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim

“And you shall be holy to Me, for I am holy, and I separated you from the nations to be unto Me” (Lev. 20:26).

Rashi comments:

Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya said, “From where do we learn that one should not say, ‘I despise pig flesh, I don’t desire to wear mixed species (wool and linen)’ but instead, one should say, ‘I desire these, but what can I do, as my Father in heaven forbade them?’ We learn this from our verse, ‘And I separated you from the nations to be unto Me,’ that your abstention from these is [performed] for My sake; separate from sin and accept the yoke of heaven.”

With the words “to be unto Me,” Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya says Torah identifies the proper motivation for avoiding Torah prohibitions: one must not render pig into a taboo and associate disgust with it; one should not project negative qualities onto prohibited garments. For God said all creation was “very good” (Gen. 1:31), which includes pig and mixed species. If a person abstains from eating pig due to disgust, he then does not abstain due to God’s will, but due to his own emotions. “Following God” means that one acts due to God’s will, and not due to his own feelings. 

Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya teaches the lesson of this verse: by not creating false negative projections, we retain our honest desire to enjoy pork, but we abstain due to God’s authority. Following God—“accepting the yoke of heaven”—refers to man accepting real desires, but restraining them. In this manner we are distinguished from other nations who satisfy every instinctual desire, and don’t follow God’s authority. They don’t choose the treasure of Torah to uplift them from a life of unrestrained physicality, to a life of restraint and wisdom. Physical pleasures are short-lived; they don’t translate into happiness. But when man’s higher element—his soul—is engaged in the wisdom God revealed through nature and Torah, he is fulfilled and truly happy. God designed man to find the greatest happiness when using his mind.

By restraining our emotions from certain satisfactions and pleasures, we can redirect those energies towards a life of wisdom. We don’t live as ascetics, but we also don’t overindulge. For with overindulgence, our energies cannot be free to engage thought and wisdom. Rabbi Israel Chait explained that overindulgence is a symptom man’s inability to attain satisfaction; he exerts more energy into a desire assuming happiness is a quantitative issue. But as satisfaction was not achieved with man’s first indulge, overindulging cannot satisfy man; he’s repeating his error. 

From Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya’s principle, we learn that even when we follow Torah and see the benefits of abstaining from pork, this does not eliminate the natural pleasure one would derive from eating a delicious cut of pork; our senses are still intact and we still enjoy smelling bacon. We don’t deny a pleasant aroma. We desire to eat what smells delicious. This never changes. But we abstain as we recognize God’s plan benefits man. He is the authority. He created us, and directs us towards a higher, more pleasurable existence in pursuit of wisdom. Recognizing God’s superior wisdom helps us fight the emotion to violate. 

Abstention must be due to following God, with our intellect’s restraint of our emotions. Otherwise, if we create taboos, our minds are absent and we simply trade one emotion of violation, for another emotion of taboo or disgust, with no spiritual growth. To “be unto God” means we act due to our intellectual acceptance of God’s rules, we recognize Torah’s wisdom, and we abstain not for emotional reasons.