Guard Your Eyes

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Q. I am a Ba'al Teshuvah and in the beginning (when I was about 25 years old), I used to try and not look at women. I asked my chavrusah (from the Lakewood yeshiva, I think) about it and he said that he doesn't hold from doing that, because it can create an opposite reaction - where women become even more tempting because you are not used to seeing them. Basically, you're damned if you do and you're damned if you don't. G-d has us between a rock and a hard place.

A. You ask a very good question, but there is one important distinction that can help clarify this dilemma. There are two types of "looking at women", gazing - with lust, and seeing - without lust. Your Chavrusah was probably brought up his whole life in a holy environment and he didn't have issues with lust or masturbation. In his case, making a big deal out of "not looking at women" - as if they were some secret hidden treasure that we have to hide from ourselves - would be counterproductive. Why? Because in the times when he would have to look, like when he needed to talk to a woman, his subconscious would consider it as if he was now opening a hidden "treasure" and this would trigger lust, which he otherwise wouldn't have had.

Now I don't know about your particular case, but for people who were raised as non-religious in today's promiscuous Western society, or for people who struggle with issues of lust, masturbation or sexual fantasies, every good looking woman is - by default - an object of lust. The Pasuk says in the Tochacha: "Vahyisah meshuga mi'marei einecha - and you will go crazy from the sights of your eyes". That is what an addict feels when he goes out into the street and doesn't control his eyes. But even in less extreme cases than addictions, most normal guys raised in today's immoral environment can't help but look at a pretty woman with lust. Your Chavrusah was on a higher level, he probably wasn't just a "normal" guy. When he saw women in the street that were not relevant to him, it didn't trigger anything in his mind. For HIM, making too much of a big deal out of it would be counterproductive. 

Chaza"l say that the Yetzer Hara has no power over someone who guards his eyes (Yalkut Shimoni, Vayechi). And conversely, Chaza"l also say that one who does not guard his eyes is destined to fall into sin (Yalkut Shimoni, Bamidbar). But Chaza"l only mean someone who looks at women with lust. Otherwise, believe it or not, there isn't even a prohibition to look at women, and let me prove this. The Rambam in Hilchus Issurei Biyah (21:2) writes that someone who gazes even at the small finger of a woman with the intention to enjoy it, it is considered as if he looked at her "place of filth". But in the 21:2 he writes, that one could - and SHOULD - look at a woman to see if she may be fit to be his wife, but only if he does so in a non-promiscuous way. We see here clearly the difference between looking with lust, or without.

And here's an even more extreme example. The Rambam (21:7) says that a man can sleep with his daughter in the same bed until she is 12, undressed and with touching skin. Yet he also writes (21:1) that if someone so much as touches an "issur erva" (an incestual prohibition) with feelings of lust (derech ta'avah) or if he is "ne'heneh mikiruv basar - enjoys the closeness of flesh" he gets Malkus!! Again, we clearly see what a big difference there is between when a person feels lust or doesn't. In these areas, everyone needs to know themselves honestly, and know where they need to be careful. For example, for a guy like the one in this sick story, he would have been best off living in a totally different CITY than his 9 year old daughter, while for others, the Rambam permits even sleeping in the same bed, undressed, until age 12.

The same applies with guarding the eyes. Everyone needs to know themselves. Your Chavrusah could probably see pretty women in the street and not feel lust. To make a big deal out of it for him, would cause a reverse effect. But for most people, looking at women is more like "gazing" and "lusting", and not looking is their only hope of success in the struggle with the Yetzer Hara.

The reason why the Yetzer Hara has no power over one who guards is eyes is extremely obvious: Y
ou don't lust after that which you don't see. Plain and simple. 

And here's a parable: Imagine you are about to have a wrestling match with someone much stronger than you. You take a sponge, dip it in oil and smear your body with it before the match. In the end you win because your opponent simply couldn't get a grip on you at all; you just slid out of his grasp every time.

The Yetzer Hara is indeed much too strong for us. But that is only if we try and fight him face to face. If, however, we guard our eyes, he can get no grip on us and we will emerge victorious.

So Hashem doesn't have us between a rock and a hard place, but more like "between a rock and a oil sponge" :-)