18. Introduction to Developing a Torah Personality

18.2. Torah Personality Part 1 B


I mentioned earlier the prevalent secular conception of one’s “ownership” of himself. One hears this argument in various contexts, especially with regard to the question of abortion: it’s a woman’s right, it’s her own body, she can do what she wants, etc. Years back, I was asked to testify before a subcommittee of the Knesset which dealt with abortions. Among other things, I mentioned that, leaving aside the significant question of whether it is the woman’s body only or whether the fetus has some rights as well, there is a more fundamental problem. Even if we were to accept that indeed it is the woman’s own body, we totally reject the conception that she then can do with it as she pleases. This is a completely anti-halakhic perception. It rests on a secular assumption that, as it were, “My Nile is my own; I made it for myself” (Yechezkel 29:3), as if we are the source of our own existence and therefore the masters of our own being. This is assuredly not the case. In absolute terms, a person does not own himself.

In fact, there are prohibitions that apply to how a person relates to himself. Just as one is forbidden to injure or curse others, so is he forbidden to injure himself or to curse himself.Similarly, the mitzva of “Ve-nishmartem me’od le-nafshoteikhem, Take utmost care of yourselves” (Devarim 4:15) specifically prohibits a person from taking unnecessary risks, even though he will not affect anybody else. The very notion that a person should be free to do what he wants with relation to himself is at absolute odds with our conception. We believe that you are never an independent entity, nor do you “own” yourself; you are always a shomer appointed by God. That applies to your “property,” to your own self, and certainly to your relationship to what surrounds you.


Let us now further refine our understanding of the duty of “leshomrah.” It has not only a negative aspect, namely, that a person does not have the right to dispose of objects arbitrarily or even to deal with himself as he wishes. It has also a positive aspect: there is an obligation to be a shomer, and not merely in order to avoid damage. Although this is essentially a passive activity, there nevertheless is an active aspect to it as well. The Rambam says:

The guarding of the Temple is a positive commandment. This applies even though there is no fear of enemies or bandits, for its guarding is in order to honor it. A palace with guards is not comparable to a palace without guards. (Hilkhot Beit Habechira 8:1)

Even though there is no fear of invasion, nevertheless the Mikdash (Temple) must have shomerim. Why? They serve as an honor guard. Le-havdil, the Swiss Guards do not protect the Vatican from enemies, nor do guards stand outside Buckingham Palace out of fear that someone is going to enter. Rather, guards are stationed out of a sense of kavod (honor) for the palterin shel melekh (palace of the king); there is a sense of elevation, of nobility, of something unique that requires guarding.

Now, this sense of palterin shel melekh which requires guarding is presumably part of the mandate Adam initially received. When he was placed in the Garden “le-ovdah u-leshomrah,” against whom was it being guarded? The animals were part of the Garden, and there was nobody else around, no one to invade. Rather, you guard something which you value and appreciate; you hover over it constantly. While, of course, the Mikdash is palterin shel Melekh in a very special sense, the world as a whole is also palterin shel Melekh: “The heaven is My throne and the earth is My footstool” (Yeshayahu 66:1). In this sense, we must all cultivate a concern for and a sensitivity to the natural order as a whole, to that Garden of Eden into which we have been placed. This is part of kevod Shamayim, yirat Shamayim and malkhut Shamayim (the honor, fear and sovereignty of Heaven). In fact, our responsibility with respect to the orders of creation—natural, human, social and personal— is now heightened, since, subsequent to Adam’s sin, there are indeed real dangers which threaten them.

There is a term which Chazal (the Sages) always apply in relation to shomerim: achrayut, responsibility. In our capacity as shomerim, we must live with a sense of responsibility, obligation and demands. What is demanded is not simply a kind of passive awareness, but rather the application of consciousness. What does a shomer have to do? He must be alert. His human self must be asserted, that part of him which can watch, which is intelligent, which guards. One guards with intelligence. When he combines his intelligence, sensitivity and awareness of the importance of what he is guarding with a sense of duty and readiness—that is what being a shomer is all about.