(Avot 6:6) There are 48 ways to acquire Torah, including…mi'ut derekh eretz, minimizing sex…
(Exodus 11:5-6) …umeit kol b'khor b'eretz mitzrayim…v'hay'ta tza'akah g'dolah b'eretz mitzrayim… every first-born in the land of Egypt died…and a great cry went up in the land of Egypt…
Sex and death – it sounds like a Woody Allen line, or part of a classic scene in the sitcom "Taxi." But sex and death have a great deal in common. We have a tendency to think obsessively about them and romanticize them both. In fact, in French, a colloquial way to refer to sexual climax is "le petit mort," "the little death."
The physical parallels are limited, but the fascinations we have with them are remarkably similar. The reason has to do with what happens to us in both sex and death – we lose our sense of self.
I have neither the inclination nor the expertise to describe the sensations of loss of self in sex. I have less inclination and expertise in death! Nonetheless, you and I both know how the boundary between self and other disappears in sexual union of any kind – including fantasy. And it takes no experience to know that literally and figuratively we disappear into the grave and our interaction with this corporeal world dissipates entirely, except in the most chemical sense. Why is it that the lure of both is so strong that, more than we would like to admit, we organize our lives around them?
I have only a theory, and it is without independent evidence. Both obsessions have to do with our desire to be immortal. Sex, aside from its pleasure, is how our bodies express their native need to be renewed beyond their physical endurance. The impact we make on the memories of our acquaintances may endure for a generation or two. Some few of us may enter into history books, but will be remembered only as long as culture preserves the legend. But to reach within our physical selves and release a perfect replica in miniature – sperm or egg – establishes a perpetual legacy. Certainly, not everyone is blessed with biological descendants, but the urge to renewal is so strong that we create symbolic ways to replace the physical. And even when we have supposedly satisfied our yearning, the body continues to urge a reaffirmation. Continuously repressing that urge is almost always disastrous. But so too is fixation destructive; the self is entirely lost in the effort to preserve the self!
Death, by its very irreversibility, threatens to obliterate the evidence that we ever existed. We have developed stories and beliefs, as a people and as individuals, to affirm that death is not as final as it seems. Our daily prayers affirm that God will restore life to the dead. Maimonides believed in bodily resurrection. Even Jewish theologians who reject any sort of ego differentiation beyond the grave – Mordecai Kaplan, for example – offer comforting images of perpetual legacies through the practices and ideals of our community. We are fascinated by death, now seeking to push it farther away, now toying with ho close we can come to the abyss without falling in.
The death of the first-born in Egypt delivered a message about immortality to native and Israelite alike. Neither sex nor legacy availed the survivors; they were obliterated in a single destructive act. Pharaoh's single-minded determination to ensure his immortality was inevitably defeated. And it was defeated because he would not hear God's word. Pharaoh's obsession with his place in eternity, ironically, prevented him from connecting with the Eternal One.
By extension, that was the way in all of Egypt (derekh eretz mitzrayim), a culture we know was overwhelmed with concerns about its immortality and therefore a place where God's word could not take root. Deprived of its illusion, a primal cry of despair arose from the entire land when the death they tried to overcome triumphed over the fruit of their sexual activity.
The Israelites, however, were saved by heeding the words of God – the instructions for life in a world ruled by death. In Hebrew, "instructions for life" would torat chayyim. We sing whenever we return a scroll to the ark, "[The Torah] is a tree of life to those who hold fast to it." By releasing our anxiety about immortalizing our egos, we gain the eternal life we seek.
We would all like to live in a society in which the fixations on sex and death are diminished. It is virtually impossible in our day and age. Images and reminders of both assault us wherever we turn. However, when we reduce our attention to sex and to death, even in the midst of a culture that worships them as if it were ancient Egypt, they become part of the natural and normal flow of our temporal lives and, by extension, the eternal life we are better able to receive through Torah.
How do you practice mi'ut derekh eretz? Attempt to associate every thought of sex with something sacred, such as the image of God in which we are created or the commandment to be fruitful and multiply. At first, you will feel foolish and even sacrilegious, as if you are dragging a thought of Torah or God into some inappropriate mental realm. But when you begin to recognize that sex is a vehicle of holiness rather than a self-serving exercise of power, it is not Torah and God that will be diminished, but sex that will be elevated and enriched.