Desiring Sin

I have a general question about spiritual growth. We all have desires for forbidden acts. Should our attitude be that we’d love to do them but we don’t because God forbade it? Or are we supposed to somehow grow out of our baser desires and not even want to sin?

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

Thank you for your excellent question. Your exact question is addressed by a Midrash (Torat Kohanim 9:12, brought in Rashi to Leviticus 20:26). Here is the quote (paraphrased):

Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah said: A person should not say, “My soul is disgusted with ham, I do not wish to wear clothes containing wool and linen.” But rather he should say, “I want, but what shall I do? My Father in Heaven decreed upon me.” This can be derived from Leviticus 20:26: “And I have separated you from the nations to be for Me.” In other words, your separation should be for God’s sake – separating yourself from sin and accepting the yoke of Heaven.

The implication is clear. We should not deny human nature and pretend we do not want to sin. We can be honest with ourselves and our desires – and as a result, our devotion to God for refraining from such acts will be all the more special.

Maimonides has a lengthy discussion on this topic (Shemoneh Perakim Ch. 6), and he makes a very important distinction. There are two types of commandments – the rational and (at least what appears to man as) the irrational.

Rational laws are ones which are logically understandable, natural laws, such as the injunctions against murder and theft, the obligations to give charity and to honor our parents. The Sages refer to such laws as “mishpatim” – “just laws.”

“Irrational” laws are laws not readily understandable to man, which do not appear to have any logical explanation – such as keeping kosher, not cutting off one’s sideburns, or purifying people by sprinkling the ashes of the Red Cow. These are generally referred to in the Torah as “chukim” – statutes – commandments we follow only because God said so.

Maimonides explains that when the Sages say our attitude should be that we would like to sin, it is referring specifically to the irrational laws. There is no reason we should pretend we don’t want to taste pork or cheeseburgers. Why not? We rather refrain from such acts only because God commanded us to. And in doing so, we achieve a wonderful level of devotion – being willing to subjugate ourselves to God’s will even beyond our understanding – because we know that our perfect God would only command us in what is good for us. (Note likewise the loving language in the quote above: "my Father in Heaven decreed upon me.")

However, when it comes to logical laws – not killing another, ripping him off, taking his property or his wife, etc. – we need to grow in our sensitivity that such acts are evil. We should develop a sense that hurting another human being is inherently wrong. Such Torah laws we should not just follow blindly, but we should grow into them, developing into people who appreciate that these are proper ways to act – and not even wanting to act otherwise.

It’s important to add that there are certainly many “logical” sins which man naturally desires – such as the human drive for money or sex. It is of course natural that we will have temptations in such areas. However, generally Judaism allows for permissible outlets for such drives – such as earning money lawfully or intimacy within marriage. Judaism thus does not ask us to deny our desires, but to direct them to being expressed in permissible ways.

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