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Life Is Not A Circus

Tempting danger makes for a good story, but moral responsibility makes for a better life

By Menachem Brod

Translated by Yoni Brown

Many of Torah’s prohibitions are guardrails, designed to steer us away from outright sin. Our Sages forbade many things that are not in and of themselves wrong, intending to prevent us from knocking on the doorstep of the truly forbidden. 

To some, this would appear to represent weakness. Can we not be expected to control our own impulses? Did our Sages not trust in our ability to govern ourselves, so much so that they surrounded us with a vast array of precautions, fences, and decrees? Yes, we are constantly exposed to the appeal of evil behavior, but why should we shut it all out? Is it not healthier to educate ourselves so that we can be trusted to make the correct moral decision?

Sometimes the Torah seems to go a little overboard with its precautions. To prevent us from entering a headspace conducive to violating Shabbos, we have the vast body of laws governing “Muktzeh.” There are rules forbidding seclusion with the opposite gender and promoting modesty, so that we never be tempted to impropriety. 

All this begs the question; shouldn’t we have a little more faith in basic human decency?

Watch Yourself

Our Sages gifted us a rule for life: “Don’t believe in yourself until the day of your death.” In the Talmud we are told: “A person should never put himself in moral danger, look at Dovid HaMelech who placed himself in a test and stumbled.” Clearly, we should never think ourselves immune to moral catastrophe. 

Weakness is human. It’s best to recognize that we are not endowed with superhuman strength of character. Therefore the Torah directs us to “mind the gap.” If you know that drawing near a particular behavior or place will have you waging a fierce inner battle for your moral integrity, don’t go there. There are no guarantees of victory.

Moral Maturity & Responsibility

We see this basic idea expressed in every domain of our lives. There are regulations designed to keep us safe while driving and at work, procedures to maintain medical hygiene, and extreme precautions taken when handling hazardous substances. All of these are designed to keep us a safe distance from the danger itself. And of course, the greater the danger, the more extreme the preventive measures. (Don’t smoke anywhere near an ammunition depot.)

This attitude is equally appropriate when we’re safeguarding our spiritual safety. It’s never wise to incite danger. Better to keep a safe distance so we can all go home in one piece.

It’s true that having a narrow brush with danger makes for a better story, but nobody said life was meant to be full of suspenseful tales and heroic feats. Is life a circus where we balance precariously on a tightrope to entertain an audience? Each morning we pray, “do not bring us, neither to danger nor to shame,” because more often than not, danger ends in shame. 

Of course there are those extraordinary individuals who will overcome a test unscathed, but if we treat superhumans as the norm, we risk pathologizing what is normal and human. Instead, it is correct to design our laws for normal people. 

The ability to cultivate self discipline and abide by rules is not weakness, but moral maturity and responsibility. Daredevils are not heroes. Those with the strength and courage to know how to steer clear of danger – are.

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