We live in a Modern, Western, and Liberal society (especially those of us who live in America, though these ideas are pervasive throughout the entire world). A world in which Yes is a byword. Where we give an unlimited and unbounded Yes to human rights, LGBTQ rights, healthcare, Nazi free speech, black power, police power, the list goes on and on. A world where we acknowledge every problem and attempt to make all people feel comfortable in whatever situation they may be in. Be it social, economic or political. A world where everyone is a winner; even those who could not cross the finish line. A place where everyone can hold their heads up and be proud of whoever they are, for who they are; even if they never did anything special in their lives. These ideals speak to the young and the old, white, black and every color and ethnicity in between. They scream “Rise Up and Speak Out! No one will speak against you. We will give succor to all your ills”.
Is it not ideal to give money to the poorest among us? Lower their medical costs? Allow all people to live their lives as they wish? Create a world free of violence and hate (while allowing the violent and the haters to speak their minds, creating an open, safe and non-judgmental discourse)?
So why do we as Jews say No? Why does the Torah condemn the free thinking, free spirited Ben Sorer U’moreh? Why does the Torah impose so may restrictions on us? No pork, No gays, No slander, No work on Shabbos… What do we gain from saying No?
I was once told by a Rav “The main challenge facing a Jew in this world is controlling their [inner] self. Anything that takes away that control is therefore “not Jewish”.” This comment was made about drugs but it applies to all areas of life. Every time someone says “I won’t eat that cheese burger, I won’t steal from Medicare, I won’t publicly shame my friend” they gain more control over their inner self.
Having self-control and self-awareness has many benefits in all aspects of life. It may lead to not having an extra cookie, not going out to drink with friends, or helping one’s family even when they are not in the mood. Though every mitzvah is important for its own purpose, they also serve as a guide to correct our behavior and as a path to make ourselves into better people. Saying No to shellfish shows us that we can say No to our most base desires. It shows us that ours mind are the strongest motivator and that we can and only will be truly happy once we see the limits of the world around us and build ourselves up in that framework.
As a people, we become stronger through restraint. Not saying Yes may be the hardest thing we ever do. We must swim against the current to establish ourselves. Yet, in the end this is what creates self-confidence and ultimately happiness. Lucky for us we get many opportunities to practice every day.