The Concept of Modesty (Part I)

Before we speak about the
concept of modesty itself, I’d like to devote some time to a discussion of the
related topic of yichud.

I remember, whenever my uncle—an old man in his late
70s—would visit us, he would stay in my study, where my older daughters have
their room, and they would have to move out for him. One of my daughters once
came to me and asked, “Do you really think that Uncle Phil is going to do
something?” Realistically, there wasn’t much of a danger. What is the basis of
this halacha?

Two ideas: First, that the sexual urge is extremely strong.
Chazal say, ain apotropos l’arayos. There is no guardian for forbidden
relations. G-d put this desire into the world, which is needed for the
furtherance of life, and He made it very strong. It is something that can be
used for good or for that which is negative. It’s like atomic power, something
with a powerful potential both for evil and for good.

Once a young man came to Rav Eliyahu Lopian to ask permission
to attend the wedding of a distant relative. Rav Elya asked him, “Are these
relatives religious people? Will they be dressed properly?” The young man
answered that, “Yes, however I imagine there will be people there not dressed
according to Jewish law. But don’t worry, I’ve reached a point where those
things don’t bother me anymore.” Rav Elya said, “I give you permission to go to
the wedding. But before you do, I want you to go and see this person.” He gave
him a name and a number. The young man looked at the paper and was astounded. It
was the name and number of a doctor. So he thought that maybe the rav, who was
then in his 90s, might be a little absent-minded, maybe he forgot why he came.
So he said, “I didn’t come for the name of a doctor. I came to get permission to
go to a wedding.” Rav Elya said, “I know, I know. But I’ll tell you something:
I’m an old man of 90 years and I’m blind in one eye, and these things still
bother me. If they don’t bother you, you need to see a doctor.”

They tell the story of an old rosh yeshiva sitting in his
office. An old, sickly woman came in to speak to him. By mistake, he locked the
door behind them. Finding himself in a forbidden situation, the rosh yeshiva
picked himself up and jumped out the window. (It was on the first floor.) The
students who witnessed this were amazed. They went over to him and said, “Rebbe,
with all due respect, you’re an old man and she’s an old, sickly woman. What
could have happened?” He said: “The evil inclination could have made me young
and her well.”

In other words, the question is not a question. Human beings
are human beings, with certain drives. Physiologically, the sexual drive is
second only to the desire to exist.

That is why the Torah is needed to ensure that this powerful
desire is not used the wrong way. And that is why the rabbis extended the
issur
, for our benefit, to protect us from transgressing the Torah itself.
People complain about the rabbinical prohibitions that they say make their lives
difficult. But it’s like a fence put up around the edge of a cliff. Would anyone
complain that it makes the cliff too crowded? Of course not. They appreciate
that it’s there to keep them from falling off. The rabbis created fences around
the Torah so that we shouldn’t come to transgress the Torah itself, which, if we
appreciated the seriousness of the matter, would be like falling off a cliff.
Their fences are a tremendous benefit.

But there’s another idea. It is probably true that in the
eyes of the world there is nothing wrong in being in the same room with an old,
sickly woman. The nations of the world look at immorality in terms of doing
something wrong. But the Torah expects something more of the Jewish people. We
are not expected to be in this world and merely refrain from doing terrible
things. We are required to create an atmosphere of holiness. Kedoshim teheyu.
To be a holy people. Therefore our standards and values are different from the
nations of the world. We have to remain insulated from them. We can’t be
influenced or assimilated even in thoughts and values. We have to guard
ourselves and be sure that our actions, our demeanor is not only not negative,
but is extremely positive, holy. In that respect, anything that could even hint
of non-holiness, is already not for the Jewish people.

To be continued.