The Battle for Jill's Soul
(Spoiler Alert: Jill loses the battle; but hopefully, she'll still win the war.)
She’d been one of the adults I’d especially liked as a child and I was very happy about her progress.
As I was young single girl who was also starting to keep mitzvot according to authentic Torah, this woman (we’ll call her “Jill”) called me one night to see if I could come over and babysit her sleeping baby. Her husband was out of town.
It was her birthday and she would be going out with old friends to celebrate. After she finished showing me what I needed to know, her friends showed up.
Two sour-faced childless unmarried women approaching 40, dressed in jeans and windbreakers. Jill looked both happy and nervous as she waved them in and invited them to make themselves at home.
Perched on Jill's sofa, they looked at me unsmilingly.
“Oh, this is the babysitter,” chirped Jill.
Giving me the once-over, their faces soured even more. “Are you Orthodox too?” one asked.
“Yes,” I said as pleasantly as I could under the sour Gaze of Disapproval.
“Oh,” she said.
They made a couple of other low-key comments that I can’t remember, but implied that it was unfortunate that I was throwing my life away so young and did I really want to do that? Oh, I did? So in that case, I'm probably really dumb and not worth another glance.
And as an aside, I've always found these kinds of encounters so odd.
I looked so bad in their eyes; did they have any idea how THEY looked to me?
Their pinched-faced childless unmarried middle-aged judgmental anti-religious personas made me want to run as far as I could from being like them.
I mean, what was I supposed to think, just out of my teens? "Gosh, by the time I'm 37, I sure hope I'll be a sour, judgmental, unmarried, childless, secular career woman just like YOU!" Why on earth would I think that? Why are they the act to follow?
Anyway, Jill tried to be pleasant, but she was clearly out of her comfort zone. These were her good friends going all the way back to college, and their disapproval stabbed her like nasty needles.
As they tried to decide where to go out to eat (there were hardly any kosher options in our area), the sourness on their faces tightened into a grim silence.
Apparently, options like an ice cream parlor (where most of the flavors were kosher chalav akum) were beneath their lofty standards.
But Jill tried to keep up her side of things.
Finally, one of the said something like, “You can’t even go out to a good restaurant even on your birthday just because of keeping kosher?”
Ouch! The classic anti-BT guilt trip!
Then the name of a popular treif steakhouse came up.
Jill squirmed under the pinched disapproval of her friends as she struggled with the decision.
Finally, Jill said, “Well, I haven’t eaten anything unkosher for a year. I’ve been really good about keeping kosher for such a long time and it IS my birthday, so I guess I can treat myself to a steak just this once.”
Her sour-faced friends looked only slightly mollified, as if Jill had finally said the only logical thing to say, and they all got up and left.
I was floored.
But the truth is, many of us have a tendency to do that kind of thing.
Just Check Out that Dessert Menu!
It’s the Dessert Mentality.
“I force-fed myself all the nutritious food put on my plate, so now I can treat myself to something of absolutely no nutritional value that exists simply to serve my taavah.”
This is why, on vacations, you’ll see otherwise very good boys from good yeshivahs treating themselves to outings with no possibility of a minyan 3 times a day. Or davening at home.
And what do we struggle with after having been soooo good?
Eating things we shouldn’t.
Reading things we shouldn’t.
Watching things we shouldn’t.
Saying things we shouldn’t.
Wearing things we shouldn’t.
Doing things we shouldn't.
Exploding over something with the excuse of “Sorry, but I’ve just been bottling it up until now and I just couldn’t keep a lid on it anymore” - sound familiar?
In other words, I’ve been so good, I deserve to indulge in a temper tantrum “just this once.” (As if it’s really only "once"…)
Even if it's not in the league of absolute treifus like Jill's "treat," the "treat" we choose for ourselves may not be beneficial.
Vanquishing the Yetzer Hara with Its Own Weapons
Can the "treat" or "dessert" be beneficial?
If so, when?
Well, we do need to recharge our batteries.
Sleeping in, an afternoon nap, an outing, a picnic, a barbecue, dinner at a restaurant, relaxing on the sofa with a good book, a refreshing swim, a large mochachino with a good friend—these are all rejuvenating activities (if done without violating basic halacha & without becoming a way of life).
Likewise, satisfying a small taavah can help overcome a big yetzer hara.
For example, if it works when you promise yourself a few chocolate truffles after a week of scrupulously guarding your tongue, including in some very trying situations at work or among a family gathering...then do it!
Similarly, let’s say that losing 7 pounds equals overcoming your food taavot for an entire month. Does the reward of a swim help you achieve that? Or the promise of a new (kosher) book?
Then what’s wrong with that?
Even better, if these rewards encourage you to repeat your positive behavior, ingrain a new & holier habit within you, then that’s excellent.
The problem comes when the encouragement or reward becomes a needed dessert that you must have every chance you get, a feeling of magia li—I deserve it. The Entitlement Mentality.
I don’t think it has ever been as hard to avoid the Dessert-Entitlement Mentality as in our generation.
Availability Awakens Taavah
In his times (1550-1619), the Kli Yakar didn’t see much taavah for game meat.
The struggle for, say, venison:
- braving the wild forest
- hunting the deer
- capturing it
- getting a qualified shochet together with it
- then the kashering and roasting of it...
...way, way too much trouble.
So people weren’t craving venison much.
Likewise, based on my reading, people maybe craved a drink of cool well water in the summer, but not ice cream. Ice cream either wasn’t available at all or it meant digging up a block of sawdusted ice stored underground from the winter. Then making custard and so on with the primitive process of making ice cream.
But in our times, every kind of taavah is available and at hand. And if it’s not actually free, it’s probably affordable.
For example, junkfood is much cheaper and more readily available than healthy food. Even an easy fruit or vegetable demands washing or peeling before eating. A simple salad means washing and chopping up lettuce; you can’t just take lettuce out of its wrapper and stick it in your mouth.
Others have said it before, but it deserves repeating:
This lowly generation is also an amazing generation.
Bad is the New Good
Even more impressive for yetzer-tov wannabees, society no longer disdains taavahs:
- Being a gossip girl can be a badge of honor.
- A foodie, rather than being considered a glutton, is now considered a mumcheh.
- Dragging someone’s name through a swamp now parades you as “honest” and “courageous”—no matter if the defamation is true or not; and if true, whether it’s necessary or not.
- Foul language shows you’re cool.
- Expressions of anger can be considered healthy and assertive.
- The continuous inhalation of news, trivia, and other mostly useless information stamps you as “well-informed.”
The opposite of any of the above is considered bad nowadays.
Repression—whether of anger or any other taavah—is the new cardinal sin.
Yet wondrously, there are still many people who at least struggle to do battle against all that.
The Thrill of the Fight
Resistance against the dessert-entitlement mentality takes constant vigilance, self-honesty, and self-discipline.
Plus, you’re not supposed to be a miserable kvetch about it—it should be done b’simcha.
And that's why you might be feeling battle-weary...because you ARE battle-weary.
It's a battle.
So really, you should be thrilled with yourself for even attempting to engage in any kind of battle with this engulfing monster of minions.
You’re one in a million.