The Limitations of Self-Denial

We must use our gifts of wealth, education, and influence to improve conditions for the poor and powerless.


Provided by American Jewish World Service, pursuing global justice through grassroots change.

“In Egypt, before the years of famine came, Joseph became the father of two sons, whom Asenath daughter of Poti-phera, priest of On, bore to him (Genesis 41:50).”

The Talmud reads these words from Parashat Miketz as a pointed reference to Joseph’s sons being conceived and born before the great famine begins. This close reading turns into law: during a famine, one should not have sexual relations (Ta’anit 11a).  

american jewish world serviceWhy refrain from sex during a famine? Common sense says it is ill-advised to create new mouths to feed in a time of food insecurity. Yet, the law here is not focused on the act’s result, but on the pleasure of its commission. Rashi explains that in times of disaster “a person needs to self-inflict suffering.”

According to this reading, Joseph abstains from sex during the famine as an act of solidarity with its victims. Self-denial in the face of tragedy reflects a profound desire to identify with another’s suffering.The Talmud even encourages those fortunate enough to have food during a famine to fast (Shulhan Arukh, Hilkhot Ta’anit 674:4).

Solidarity in Self-Denial

Still, I’m bothered by these laws. Why is the correct way to share in the distress of the community to manufacture additional and unnecessary pain? Who is served by this?

A Hassidic story describes a wealthy man who prides himself on his self-denial. He comes to his rabbi’s home and brags that he eats only bread with salt and drinks only water. The rabbi, horrified, orders the wealthy man to eat rich and nutritious meals and to drink wine. After the rich man leaves, the rabbi’s disciples are puzzled. The rabbi explains, “Not until he eats meat will he realize that the poor need bread. As long as he himself eats only bread, he will think the poor can live on stones.”

It can be tempting to deprive ourselves of pleasure rather than face the challenge of repair. Yet self-denial for the sake of solidarity is a waste of privilege. It is imperative to use our gifts of wealth, education, and influence to improve conditions for the poor and powerless.

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Rabbi Dorothy A. Richman is the Rabbi Martin Ballonoff Memorial Rabbi-in-Residence at Berkeley Hillel.

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