Last year, I turned over a new leaf in life. I gave up the crazy sex life I was leading, started keeping kosher, prayed in minyans with all the fervor I could muster, and stopped wasting time at the movies and the like, so I could study Torah every free moment I had. Then, bam! Suddenly, I went on a binge and started behaving even worse than I did in the past. Where did I go wrong?
Sometimes, in a person’s desire to cleanse himself from his past, he blames his physical urges and wages a war on his body. He fasts, avoids other people, strictly limits his sexual life, and tries to change all of his bad habits and character traits overnight. While his intentions are praiseworthy, if he wages an all-out war on physical life, he is in fact sinning against himself and destined to fail. In t’shuva, like in everything else, it is dangerous to want too much too fast. A person may be so enthused to have discovered the Torah that he wants to stay up and learn through the night. But his body still needs its sleep. If he keeps up this new spiritual regimen week after week, he could suffer a mental and physical breakdown. He may want to smash his craving for cheeseburgers by fasting day after day, but his stomach still needs to be nourished. It turns out, that the beast of his body won’t go away. If you back it too far into a corner, it will leash out and take its revenge. In the matter of sex, certainly illicit sexual relations are forbidden, but a man should endeavor to have a happy, healthy sexual life with his wife and not turn into an ascetic at the expense of his mate. A person has to realize, that as greedy and materialistic as the body can be, it still has its rights. Just as it is forbidden to hurt another person, it is forbidden to hurt oneself. Just as one has to be kind to others, a person has to be kind to himself. A baal t’shuva has to be careful before taking on extra prohibitions. The secret is to advance at a reasonable pace, stage by stage. It is true that fasting can help combat one’s lusts, but it may be enough of an aid to fast half a day, rather than taking on vows that are doomed to fail. If even this proves too strenuous, then a person should abandon the practice and look for a more attainable way to help subdue his errant passions, perhaps through the intensive study of “mussar” books dealing with ethical conduct. The main thing, in all cases, is to turn to G-d for assistance. If a penitent prays with all of his heart, then G-d will bring him to the right path for him and to the spiritual salvation he longs for. 1. Nazir 3A. 2. Rambam, Laws of Damages, 5:1. 3. Varikra Rabbah, 34:3.