In 1873, Rabbi Yisroel Meir Kagan published a book that would become revolutionary. The topic of the book was gossip and slander, two aveiros, two Biblical sins, that had effectively been ignored for hundreds if not thousands of years. Of course, people knew such a prohibition existed, but it was so difficult to abide by that for all intents and purposes, the Mitzvah of proper speech had become extinct. The book, known as Chafeitz Chaim, organized all the laws that pertained to speech, breaking down the details of what a person can and cannot say. In addition, he wrote an entire philosophical section where he laid out the value of using our mouths for good and the danger of using our mouths for evil.

Ultimately, Rabbi Kagan became synonymous with this book, and he is known to us as the Chafeitz Chaim. He was the leading Torah sage of his generation, he wrote countless books including the Mishna Berura, a wildly popular commentary on the Shulchan Aruch, but it was this book that became his legacy. I believe this was because of its revolutionary impact. Thanks to his work, while you and I may still gossip from time to time, we do so with a sense of guilt. We know it’s wrong. Rabbi Kagan literally saved a Mitzvah from extinction.

In 1940, a young Austrian refugee by the name of Yosef Rosenberger arrived in the US. He came to the country with nothing, he lived in a home for immigrants. His father had been in the clothing industry, so he was especially attuned to what people wear. He noticed that in the US nobody seemed to be aware of the Biblical prohibition of wearing fabric that is made of wool and linen, otherwise known as shatnez. The prohibition of shatnez was extinct in the US.

Within a year of arriving at Ellis Island, he developed a simple chemical test that could be used to ascertain if a piece of clothing was made of wool and linen. He used space in the offices of the Orthodox Union and Agudath Israel, where he would test people’s clothing for shatnez. He would do the testing at night. During the day, he would create PR material on the importance of shatnez and had it published in all the leading Jewish periodicals. Yosef Rosenberger saved the mitzvah of shatnez from extinction.

This morning, I’d like to mention a mitzvah that I believe is also on the verge of extinction, at least in our circles, what some may call Modern Orthodoxy. I am hopeful that someone here may be the revolutionary to save this mitzvah from extinction.

I go to New York City from time to time and travel on the subway. Like most people my age, I usually spend my time on the subway with my phone in my hand, oblivious to my surroundings. This time, the individual I was traveling with asked me if I noticed the ads in the subway. I did not – though that was probably a function of my height. I looked up and looked around and noticed that the entire subway was decked in ads for Tinder.

For those who do not know what Tinder is (G-d bless you), Tinder is a dating app that is known for its swipe right or swipe left feature. A picture of a potential match shows up on your screen and you decide if you like them or not with the flick of your finger. The thing is, it’s not really a dating app; it’s what is known as a… people getting together more casually app… The entire subway was filled with every sexual innuendo possible. I recalled that the month before the entire subway was covered with a different set of ads, this time for lingerie – innuendo was out the window. 

In this week’s parsha we are introduced to a mitzvah, a prohibition against gazing or thinking about matters of sexuality outside the context of marriage. Lo sasuru acharei l’vavchem v’acharei eineichem, do not stray after your hearts and eyes. Why? The Torah does not tell us why but we could surmise the following:

Intimacy is described by Nachmanides (Iggeres HaKodesh) as “kodesh kodashim, holy of holies.” Let’s think about the Holy of Holies that existed in the Bais Hamikdash to better understand the imagery Ramban is trying to paint for us. The Holy of Holies was special and sacred – the most sacred place in Judaism; intimacy must therefore also be sacred. The Holy of Holies was partitioned away, only entered once a year, and even then only by the Kohein Gadol. The limitations enhanced its charm and uniqueness. Similarly, intimacy in particular and sexuality in general must therefore be limited, not because it’s dirty, but in order to enhance its beauty, its magic and uniqueness. My favorite part of Shabbos morning here in shul is watching the children run up to the Aron when it’s opened. They know it’s special because we hide it away for 95% of davening. Similarly, due to the potency and power of intimacy, the incredible force that can bring absolute union between a husband and wife, the Torah creates a set of restrictions in order to maintain and enhance its sacred mystique.

Unfortunately, many of our co-religionists paint a very dirty and negative picture of sexuality. To their credit, in many circles this mitzvah is not even close to extinction, on the contrary, it has become the most important mitzvah of all. One’s exposure to anything sexual is the litmus test of spirituality.

However, in their zeal, sexuality is too often not described as kodesh, holy, it’s described as shmutz, as something dirty and corrosive. Even worse, the way sexuality is discussed too often denigrates women and it is women who are often the casualties of this approach. This mindset is the driving force behind a number of Orthodox publications going ahead and removing women’s images from their magazines, leaving young girls most especially second-guessing their worth. The other casualties of such an approach are those who are left thinking that intimacy is a necessary evil, instead a gift from G-d to bring closeness to a husband and wife. That is a Christian approach, not the way of the Torah. (To be fair, an ascetic tradition exists in Judaism, but for much of our history it was not a mainstream view.)

And so, our community is stuck between two unhealthy approaches. We don’t want to make purity the most defining mitzvah, we don’t want to rail against sexuality at every turn and describe it as evil. (Personally, I get extremely uncomfortable when someone obsessively talks about this prohibition. My ‘he doth protest too much’-alarm bells go off very quickly.) But instead, we say nothing. Instead, we allow this prohibition, which we repeat as part of Shema twice a day, to teeter on the verge of extinction. All we are left with in our circles is the societal default of subway cars filled with ads for Tinder and lingerie.  

Our community, as scrupulous as we may be with other mitzvos – we don’t think twice about the content available on our phones, on our screens, all around us. We forget that there is a value in restraint, in looking away, in shifting our thoughts. We begin to think, like so many in our culture think and those Tinder ads imply, that intimacy is just an enjoyable act divorced from any meaning. We begin to believe that intimacy can be divorced from a relationship and from commitment. We forget why it was called intimacy to begin with!

We are left consuming whatever shows up on our screen; we’re left consuming whatever lyrics our favorite musician sings about. And our relationship with that that is holy, sacred, magical, is severed as this beautiful mitzvah of lo sasuru, to not blindly following our eyes and hearts, slowly becomes extinct.

A young woman in our community, Bracha Poliakoff recently co-authored a book on tznius, what some loosely describe as modesty, called Reclaiming Dignity. Tznius is a close sibling to the mitzvah we are discussing this morning. Tznius is more about our expression, lo sasuru about our consumption. Her book has flown off the bookshelves because she and her co-author were able to find a language that delicately expresses the importance and beauty of that mitzvah.

How beautiful would it be if someone could pick up where Bracha Poliakoff left off. A revolutionary like the Chafetz Chaim or Yosef Rosenberger who could save this mitzvah from extinction, by compellingly describing the value and majesty of self-restraint to those of us who live in a society that so elevates consumption. Someone who will have no studies to draw upon – there are no studies on the impact of our hyper-sexualized society because there is no control group in existence – someone who won’t talk about the impact on one’s mind, but rather the impact on one’s soul. Someone who could soberly develop best practices for filter usage on our devices and on our minds. How beautiful would it be for someone in the modern world to save this mitzvah from extinction.


I shared with some of you in the past about a walk I had years ago with a man who lived in the heart of Meah Shearim. I ate at his home in Meah Shearim on Friday night, and he was walking me back to my hotel. His neighborhood shuts down completely on Shabbos, but my hotel was in an area where cars were driving by. Every time a car would drive by, I’d hear him whispering. I eventually asked him what he was doing, and he explained to me that he’s accustomed to a car-free street on Shabbos; he’s accustomed to the sanctity of Shabbos permeating his whole neighborhood. When he walks beyond his neighborhood, it’s distressing. It chips away at his sensitivity. Now there are some people in his community who throw rocks at these cars. They are likely violating even more prohibitions than those driving. “But for me,” he said, “in order to not become completely desensitized, whenever I see a car, I whisper to myself the words, “Shabbos, Shabbos, Shabbos.””

Until we find that revolutionary who saves this mitzvah from extinction, the man or woman who takes up a pen or keyboard to give us the language we so desperately need, until we recreate our world in a way that reflects our divine value system, until that time, we too can whisper, “Holy, holy, holy.” We can whisper by turning away, by changing the channel, by adding a filter, by closing our ears. In doing so, we will allow the beauty and magic of intimacy, and the beauty and magic of our precious souls shine bright once more.  


Much thanks to Dr. Leslie Klein for reviewing this drasha and for her insights