| Second Thoughts |

The Taste of Forbidden Waters

Let us discuss sin today — not against, and certainly not in favor, but simply about its nature



An old Southern story: A child comes home from church. Mother: What did the preacher speak about? Child: He spoke about sin. Mother: And what did he say about it? Child: He was ag'in it.

Let us discuss sin today — not against, and certainly not in favor, but simply about its nature.

What is sin? When G-d tells us not to do something, and we do it nevertheless, that is sin. In essence, it is a rebellion against authority, a declaration of one’s independence. No one can tell me how to behave. I will do as I please.

Read closely the account of the very first sin. The serpent entices the woman and convinces her that it is acceptable to ignore G-d’s prohibition of the fruit. Continues Bereishis 3:6: “…and the woman saw that the tree was good for eating, and a delight to the eyes, and desirable to the mind, and she took of the fruit and ate….” How strange! Even before tasting the fruit, it suddenly became “good” and a “delight” and “desirable.”   That is, the forbidden fruit became irresistible, its attraction overpowering.

Why? Because of one fundamental reason: It was forbidden. Many centuries later, King Solomon, in his Mishlei 9:17, put it succinctly: “Stolen waters are sweet….” That which is off limits to us becomes even more tempting than before.

Why are forbidden waters sweeter than plain, ordinary legal water? Perhaps Solomon is illuminating the innermost feelings of the law breaker, the frisson of excitement as he does what he is not supposed to be doing. He is presenting a deep insight into the nature of sin.

He is teaching us that we humans are in eternal struggle between the good and the bad, between the G-dliness within us and the devil also within us; between the yetzer hatov and the yetzer hara, between the holy impulse to connect with our Creator, and the opposite impulse to sever the connection and follow our hearts' desires.

That yetzer hara does not let go; it constantly demands an offering. In the words of Bereishis 4:7, “Sin crouches at the door.” And even though the pious Jew has by and large learned to resist the urge to go against what is right, now and then he offers the yetzer hara a morsel, which he rationalizes as not being serious. Driving through a red light, double parking, driving above the speed limit are not really sins per se, but they do satisfy the ever-present temptation to defy the accepted law. He might even indulge, infrequently, in what he considers a touch of innocent gossip or a trace of envy. And the thrill of an occasional relatively harmless violation, this concession to the baser human instinct to rebel just a bit has a very sweet taste — at least initially.

The Talmud puts it in a striking way in Kiddushin 31a: “Gadol hametzuveh — He who performs a mitzvah because he is commanded to do so is greater than he who performs the same deed of his own free will and not because of the commandment.” On the face of it, the reverse seems more reasonable. But Tosafos HaRosh explains incisively: Because he who has been commanded must now resist his natural inclination to rebel and not obey.

The current pandemic, with its multifaceted regulations, offers fertile ground for this natural inclination. Occasionally one wonders: Is it possible that the surprising resistance to, and defiance of, pandemic regulations has a tenuous root in this human inclination to say “no” when ordered to do something — even when to obey is for our own benefit, and rebellion might endanger our well- being? Multi-guest, maskless weddings, for example, are not a rarity, and large gatherings that do not maintain distance are not uncommon, as are cavalier attitudes toward hand sanitizing. Is this another manifestation of the desire to savor the stolen waters of defying authority?

We mortals will never know what drives human behavior. With Yirmiyahu 17:9 we realize that,“Complex is the heart and most intricate, who can know it?” Only G-d. But with the help of that very first woman, plus King Solomon’s stolen waters, plus the profound insight of the Talmudic sages, perhaps we can discern a dim glimmer of understanding. We are all against sin and rebellion in the abstract. But an occasional benign sip of stolen waters — even if it comes in the form of defying lockdowns and directives designed to help us — can be very tasty.

That first woman would surely understand.

(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 844)

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