Sermon for Ki Teitzei – August 21, 2010


The Hebrew word “bulmus” means irresistible desire.  In general, it refers to a craving for food or an obsessive sexual attraction.

In Stanley Kubrick’s last movie, Eyes Wide Shut, Alice, a young wife, tells her husband, Bill that when they were in Cape Cod on vacation last year, she was overcome with desire for a naval officer who fleetingly glanced at her in an elevator.  Alice tells Bill that she was willing to give up everything – her home, her marriage, – everything, for one sexual experience with this man she didn’t even know.  In my opinion, Alice’s over-the-top chemical reaction was a serious case of bulmus.  And her sexual attraction probably had nothing to do with this specific man and everything to do with dissatisfaction in her marriage.

The Torah addresses what to do about sexual desire that has run amok.  At the beginning of parashah, it describes an even more intense instance of bulmus – that of a man who has just engaged in combat and who is still reeling from the heat of battle.  This man, sees a desirable woman – or possibly sees any woman as desirable – and is overcome with the impulse to grab and rape the woman.

I want to interpret the Torah as having a concern for the woman captured in battle, the eishet yephat to’ar, and I believe that is one layer of meaning the text carries.  However, these few verses also have a larger interpretation that applies to all of us – about not acting blindly on our urges, no matter how strong they may be.  Perhaps the Torah brings such a vivid example of lust precisely for the purpose of showing us that we can exercise some control over the tyranny of obsessive desire in our lives – whether it is of a sexual nature, or it takes the form of chocolate or nicotine or some other irresistible craving.

So, what does the Torah tell the raging warrior?  First, you must bring the captured woman into your house, then have her shave her head, cut her fingernails, and remove the dress she was wearing when you captured her.  She must remain in your house weeping for her father and her mother for a full month, and after that you may come to her and be her husband.  (Under biblical law, biah, sex, was one of the ways a man might acquire a wife.  Like the case of a community stoning a disobedient son that we also read about today.  The Rabbis interpreted this practice out of existence through imposing conditions that would be impossible to satisfy.)

Although the Torah is dealing with an extreme example of the out-of-control sexual urge of a man who just escaped violent death.  It is also teaching us about how we might go about channeling our potentially destructive impulses.  Rather than running our lives and our families for what is probably an illusion passing as a great passion, the Torah engages and respects the impulse and shows us what to do when we are caught in its clutches.

The Torah doesn’t say, “Don’t take a female captive.” It says, hold on a minute.  In fact it says “Wait a month,” change the context of this relationship, de-romanticize if.  See this woman for what she is.  She is in mourning.  She is a survivor.  At least treat her with the dignity owed to a person who has just lost her parents.  If, after thirty days, you still want her, Kol Ha’Kavod, fine.  Possibly your lust is for this specific woman.  Although it’s not likely, it is possible.  It is probably more likely that, with changed circumstances, and without the adrenaline rush of violence spurring you on, you realize the consequences of taking this particular woman as your wife.  If you no longer want to pursue her, then let her go in peace.

Impulses, we can’t live with ‘em, we can’t kill ‘em!  So what do we do?  We sit on our hands, and we watch and we wait.  As my mentor for this month of Elul, Rabbi Alan Lew, puts it, “We can just let it [Our passion] arise in the fullness of its being, unromantically stripped down to the naked impulse that it is, without the finery of romance, without hair, nails, or dress, just the bare impulse itself….if after a month it still seems to be something that we want, something that continues to arouse strong feelings in us, then we’ve learned something useful about ourselves.

But if this desire stripped of its romantic trappings simply fades away, then we’ve learned something even more useful…”  We’ve learned that if we always act on our desires, and bulmus’ we may be doomed, enslaved by an idea that isn’t real.

In the next couple of weeks, we can do much to bring our passions and urges to the surface of our consciousness. First, we can undertake a self analysis.  We can identify what we deeply care about.  What do we spend most of our time thinking about?  What do we spend most of our time doing?  What would we rather be thinking about or doing?  Is there a big gap?

The second action we can take is to consider, specifically, what thought processes or behavior we need or want to change?  Do we interpret what happens in our lives through the lens of a victim?   Do we only see how even the most trivial event affects only us?  Or do we tend to intellectualize everything, and, thus, feel nothing?

Third, we can identify what prevents us from making a much-needed or much-desired change in our gestalt, our worldview, and our perceptions?  What barriers, what obstacles do we need to tear down in order to free our minds, harness the greatness, and redirect our lives?

Finally, we can come to the realization that we aren’t alone with our problems, our passions, and our irresistible urges.  We can become aware that there is a compassionate force in the universe and that there are many helpful people in it who can help us.  All we have to do is ask.  Our charge over the next few weeks is this – How can we come to accept ourselves – so that we can comfortably ask others, and ask the divine one, for help?  How do we ask those we have hurt or offended for forgiveness?  How do we see the world as trying to help us become bulmus free.  Approaching the state of purity, tranquility, and wholeness for which we were created?

Shabbat shalom

Rabbi Aviva Berg