Certain practices are just too vile and despicable for civilized people
to endure, especially when it comes to food. The thought of chewing
and swallowing the repulsive little vermin that live under rocks or in
stagnant pools of water would make anyone gag. And yet, when the
Torah in this week’s portion delineates the organisms we are forbidden
to eat there is a detailed mention of all sorts of reptiles, vermin and
other loathsome creatures. Why does the Torah find it necessary to
forbid something we would find repulsive in any case?
The Talmud addresses this problem and explains that Hashem
wanted the Jewish people to accumulate additional reward. Therefore,
He forbade them to eat vermin, so that they would be rewarded for their
abstention. But the questions still remain: Why would we deserve to be
rewarded for refraining to do something we find despicable and
revolting and would never do anyway? Aren’t we rewarded for
overcoming our natural inclinations in order to comply with Hashem’s
will? In the case the prohibition against vermin, however, can we in all
honesty claim that our compliance shows our high regard for Hashem’s
commandments or does it rather show our concern for our own
The answer to these questions reveals one of the fundamental
paradoxes of human nature. “Forbidden waters are sweet,” proclaims
the wise and ever insightful King Solomon in Proverbs. We seem to
have a peculiar fascination with anything that is forbidden to us. And the
more stringent the prohibition the greater the attraction. Are we ever
more inclined to run our forefinger along a wall than when we see a sign
declaring “Wet Paint”?
Why does the forbidden exert such a strong attraction to us?
Because it triggers our inherent egotistical conviction that we are in
control of our own lives, that we are the masters of our destiny.
Therefore, we automatically view every prohibition as a challenge, an
assault on our supposed independence and self-sufficiency, and we are
drawn to violate the prohibition simply to prove to ourselves that we can
do whatever we please, that no one else can tell us what to do.
In this light, we can well understand why we deserve to be
rewarded for refraining from eating vermin. Certainly, we are not
naturally predisposed to eating the slime of the earth. But when the
Torah imposes a legal prohibition on these selfsame vermin they
suddenly become strangely appealing. And when we resist this
temptation generated by the commandment itself we are rewarded for
our compliance. In this way, the Talmud tells us, Hashem rewarded us
with additional merit simply by imposing a prohibition on the most
loathsome foods imaginable.
Two mothers brought their young sons to the seaside on a warm
summer day. They placed the children in a sandbox and gave them
pails and shovels. Then they walked a short distance away to sit and
enjoy the balmy weather.
Before walking off, one of the mothers bent down to her child and
said, “Remember, my precious little one, don’t go near the waves.
They’re very dangerous. You might get hurt.”
No sooner had she sat down, however, than her little boy was off to
stick his toes into the surf. The mother ran to retrieve him. She brought
him back to the sandbox and repeated her admonition, more sternly this
time. Minutes later, the little boy was off to the water once again. During
all of this commotion, the other child remained in the sandbox,
completely focused on the castle he was building.
“I don’t understand,” the frustrated mother said to her friend. “You
didn’t say a word to your son, and yet he hasn’t even looked at the
water. But my son keeps running to the water even though I explained
to him how dangerous it is.”
Her friend smiled. “That’s it exactly. You forbid your son from going
to the water, so he has to prove himself by going. I didn’t say anything
to my son, so he couldn’t care less. He is far more interested in the
In our own lives, we can all recognize this tendency in ourselves,
whether in issues as momentous as the challenges of Torah
observance or as relatively minor as exceeding the speed limit.
Somehow, we feel diminished when we subject ourselves to restrictions
imposed upon us by others. But if we were truly honest with ourselves,
we would realize that accepting the authority of the Torah does not
diminish us in any way. On the contrary, it allows us to be directed by
the Divine Wisdom rather than our own limited vision and rewards us
with serenity and fulfillment that would otherwise be far beyond our
Text Copyright © 2011 by Rabbi Naftali Reich and Torah.org.
Rabbi Reich is on the faculty of the Ohr Somayach Tanenbaum Education Center.