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7 Nissan 5763 - April 9, 2003 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly









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Shema Yisrael Torah Network

Opinion & Comment
A Middos Workshop: Ta'avah--The Yeast in the Dough

Based on shiurim of Rav Dovid Siegel

Part 2

In the first part of our article on ta'avah, we described the insatiable craving that people have for physical pleasure, comparing it to a thirsty man who tries to solve his problem by drinking salty water that just increases his thirst.

However, we should not deduce from this that we should totally disconnect ourselves from the material world. That is a non-Jewish notion and, as we shall see, Judaism has no ban on the physical. In fact, some of the highest spiritual levels can only be reached by tapping into the physical.

According to Chovos Halevovos, controlling ta'avos involves two levels. First, we accept the reality that we cannot have or do everything we want. The higher level concerns the posuk we say every day in the Shema: Ve'ohavto eis Hashem Elokecho bechol levovecho. You shall love Hashem with all of your hearts.

Do we have more than one heart? Rashi explains that we are commanded to love Hashem with both our yetzer hatov and our yetzer hora.

How exactly do we love Hashem with our yetzer hora? Apparently, the yetzer hora , i.e. the root of our physical drives, has some positive purpose in our lives.

Rav Elya Meir Bloch zt'l once commented that if food had no taste, one would not spend much time stuffing his mouth. In fact, we know that when people's sense of taste is dulled--due to a heavy cold or some other cause--they have little or no interest in eating.

Chazal teach us that if not for ta'avos, nothing would be accomplished in life. Hashem created us with desires so that we would activate them when necessary. In order to sustain myself, I must push the ta'avah button.

The difficulty arises after we've activated our ta'avos, and it becomes time to turn them off. As the Vilna Gaon explains, "Our life's work is engaging in our desires only as much as necessary and not beyond that."

In the Rambam's Hakdomoh to Shas he notes that we spend much time wanting, thinking about and planning the fulfillment of our ta'avos, but the actual fulfillment takes only a few moments.

Imagine a new restaurant opening up in town that promises an elaborate menu of exotic food. You wait all day, looking forward to your trip there in the evening. For hours, you imagine what the food will taste like. When you are actually there, sitting at the table, how long does the eating take? Each mouthful only lasts a few seconds. Once you have eaten it, you consider it just another tasty meal.

But how much enjoyment did you actually have? Hours. The hours you spent fantasizing about it were also hours of enjoyment, because imagination itself is fulfilling.

The gemora in Yoma reveals that sight is an essential factor in taste. In the wilderness, the Bnei Yisroel received the manna bread in the morning so that they could eat it in the light, thereby deriving full pleasure from it. One purpose of the Shabbos candles is so that we can see the food we are eating, increasing our enjoyment.

How is sight connected to taste? It is all in our head. Our mind's ability to fantasize builds up our desire and appreciation for the food.

To illustrate this point, let us take a look at a common childhood favorite: cotton candy. What size is cotton candy? About the size of a basketball, right? Wrong. Before the machine turns the sugar into a big fuzzy ball, it is no bigger than a gumball. But no one would dare try to sell you a spoonful of sugar. The puffed-up illusion draws us.

Hashem gave us a powerful gift, called imagination, because we cannot live in reality all of the time. There are difficult periods in our lives when only dreams pull us through. But when our imagination goes too far, then we begin to think that fantasy is reality.

The gemora in Brochos asks: Our will is to do Hashem's will -- so what is stopping us? The gemora answers, the se'or shebe'isa, the sourdough or yeast that is in the dough. Without this essential ingredient, the cake or bread is not tasty, fluffy and soft. In essence, this sourdough is our imagination, pulling us in until we are hooked. It takes us out of reality.

Another common favorite is soda (or soda pop). What exactly is soda? Water, sugar, and food coloring. Well, there is one more key ingredient: bubbles (carbonation). Without bubbles, the soda has no taste. Who likes flat cola?

If we dwell on this for a moment, we will realize that the bubbles are nothing but air, something which has absolutely no taste. It is this mixture of fantasy and reality that attracts us. This is ta'avah.

There are many examples of foods that tap into our desire for fantasy. Candy is no more than hard, colorful sugar. Pickle companies take cucumbers, a food that has minimal nutritional value or taste, and transform them into a salty, crunchy snack. Suddenly, those unwanted cucumbers become a hot item. In truth, the concept of "se'or shebe'isa" applies to all physical pleasures.

The verse in Iyov tells us, "Ayor pera odom yivoled." This is usually translated as, "A person is born a wild donkey." But the Vilna Gaon offers a unique interpretation to this verse and explains that "ayor pera" -- we begin as a wild donkey. Then, "odom yivoled" -- a man is formed.

Hashem commanded us to use both of our inclinations to love and serve Him. A person's sechel may serve Hashem, but his body may be far from subjugated to a Higher Entity. There were many brilliant philosophers whose physical behavior was atrocious. But the Torah demands that we direct both sides of ourselves to His service. What begins as a beast can eventually become a human being.

I must call upon my ta'avos to serve my mind. As Rabbeinu Yonah puts it, "If people can train snakes, lions and bears, they can certainly train the animal inside of themselves!"

We have seen Torah greats who disciplined their animal side for avodas Hashem. The Chazon Ish zt'l tasted food, but he attested to the fact that he never felt hunger pains.

At the beginning of the Chofetz Chaim's marriage, his wife served him a tasty cereal. After he ate it, he thanked his wife and asked her not to make it again, because it was too flavorful.

Rav Moshe Feinstein, zt'l, testified that he had never put anything in his mouth solely for the sake of enjoyment. His pleasure was in something greater.

Many people have fallen into the trap of engaging in desires for their own sake, even when they are to their own physical or spiritual detriment. When they do so, they take Hashem's gift of ta'avah, which was meant to help them sustain themselves, and make it into something in and of itself.

Ta'avah can seem so real to us that we may even spend time consuming foods that are harmful to our well- being. The body's language is "me" -- what's in it for me?

Our job is to have our mind tell our body what it needs, and not vice versa. Turning a wild donkey into a human being is no easy task, but as we have seen from our Torah giants, with Hashem's help, it can be done.

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