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Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

22 Adar II 5763 - March 26, 2003 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly









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Shema Yisrael Torah Network

Opinion & Comment
A Middos Workshop: Ta'avah-The Thirst for Salty Water (Part 1)

Based on shiurim of Rav Dovid Siegel

Chocolate cake. Crembos. Corn chips. Potato chips. Orange soda. Ice pops. Sports cars. Swivel chairs. Fast food. Automatic ice dispensers. The last century has introduced new concepts -- a whole new vocabulary -- of luxuries designed to pamper us. Temptation has reached new levels unheard of in the past, attacking us at every turn, with every billboard, continuously inventing new angles to pull us under its spell.

Given these circumstances, overcoming temptation is nearly impossible.

In fact, the posuk describes the nozir's vow with the words "Ish ki yafli, when he does a wondrous thing." What is his spectacular feat? He refrains from his passions. The Ibn Ezra comments that it is wondrous, because he controls himself in a world where most people are enslaved to their passions, their ta'avos.

Slaves to our Passions

People rationalize giving into their desires by saying, "I couldn't help myself," "I couldn't control myself," "I had a craving for it, and I gave in."

Who is this "self" that I could not control? To whom am I giving in? It is none other than I! I should be controlling myself, but I feel that I cannot.

Rabbeinu Yonah comments that Hashem endowed us with intellect and the ability for the neshomoh to recognize Hashem and to control our bodies and all its effects. The same way Hashem gave us dominion over all other beasts that do not speak, he gave us the ability to control ourselves, even the beastly side of ourselves.

A person has two parts: 1) the intellect -- the spiritual side, and 2) the speaking animal -- the physical side. When we say that we could not control ourselves, in essence we are saying that our spiritual side could not control our physical side. In doing so, we become slaves to our passions.

Why a slave? A slave follows orders blindly, without questioning them. If we give in to our desires without tapping into our intellect, we are actually enslaved to them.

Levels of Enslavement

Exactly how enslaved are we? That depends on the individual.

A tzaddik controls his ta'avos. His geshmak comes from doing mitzvos and connecting with Hashem. His fulfillment when engaging in a mitzvah far outweighs his physical pleasures. His spiritual urges surpass his physical passions. If this describes you, then you are a tzaddik.

On the other extreme is the rosho, who is completely controlled by his yetzer.

Most of us are somewhere in the middle, the beinonim, whose pleasure from eating a slice of delicious chocolate cake may be equal to our enjoyment from spiritual experiences.

It is worthwhile to mention here that our position regarding worldly desires determines our position in Olam Habo. Even after a rosho passes away, his nefesh still tries to reenter the body. After so many years of indulging in passions, the separation from physicality pains such a soul. It takes the nefesh a long time and much torment to realize that it must go.

As far as a genuine tzaddik is concerned, from the moment that the nefesh detaches from the body, it is en route towards Hashem, the "place" it wanted to be all along. Before his death, Rabbeinu HaKodosh lifted his hands and said that he had not derived one pinky's worth of enjoyment from this world that was not directed to furthering his relationship with Hashem. His body and soul were so in harmony that they were able to reconnect after death. In fact, Chazal tell us that he came back every Friday night after his death to say Kiddush.

The Purpose of Ta'avos

In this world of enticement, it takes monumental efforts to harness what are known as ta'avos. Perhaps reflecting on the purpose of the physical world will help us put things into perspective.

Let us address a basic question: Why did Hashem create the world?

Mesillas Yeshorim answers: Leheitiv es habriyos, to bestow upon us Ultimate Goodness.

What is "ultimate goodness"? It is nothing else than Hashem Himself. The objective of mitzvos is to be doveik baHashem, to become attached and to cleave to Hashem. Each mitzvah brings us one step closer by breaking down one more barrier separating us from Hashem.

Chovos Halevovos tell us that this closeness only comes with work -- continuous, arduous work.

In Kabboloh the body is called a na'al, a shoe that encases. The neshomoh is our foot. It is only the lowest part of the neshomoh, likened to the foot, that can relate to the body, so its covering is the "shoe."

Ramchal explains that the spiritual potential of the body is so high that the neshomoh is at risk of floating away. He explains that to prevent this, Hashem made a thick, filmy body that could detain the neshomoh.

Mesillas Yeshorim explains that Hashem placed us in this world, where many forces are pulling us away from Him. We must exert ourselves to achieve closeness with Him, engaging in constant battle with these opposing forces. What are these opposing forces? Ta'avos. As much as the neshomoh is striving towards spiritual perfection, ta'avos are doing their best to pull the neshomoh away from it.

The Chovos Halevovos asks why our intellectual part -- our mind -- does not win the battle over the body. He answers that the body has a twelve- or thirteen-year head start. Children want whatever they want and basically receive whatever they desire, whenever they want it. Only after Bar or Bas Mitzvah, when the yetzer tov comes into play, do we have the true possibility of choosing to do right.

If we had no desires confusing us, our continuous choices between right and wrong would be a cinch. But then, of course, we would not earn much reward in Olam Habo. Hashem placed temptation in this world so that our resistance to it will earn us tremendous reward.

Ta'avah is not limited to food. It relates to anything which is a product of the body's needs and desires. Ta'avah dictates much of what we do in life, right and wrong. To reach Olam Habo we must earn our relationship with Hashem.

If we always maintain at the forefront of our mind that each mitzvah brings us closer to Hashem, our decisions and actions will be simple. But we get much more credit if there is something making our decisions difficult.

Hashem created a fierce battleground within each of us, involving two tremendous forces fighting it out. Our body sends out impulses, and it is up to the neshomoh to intellectually choose the correct path. When we choose well in face of temptation, the reward is tremendous.

Losing Sight of The Purpose

The problem is that many people lose sight of the true purpose of ta'avah, and partake in it for its own sake or, better said, for their own sake.

The body works in two seemingly contradictory ways. First of all, the body exemplifies total laziness. If it were up to the body, a person would just slouch around and do nothing day in and day out. On the other hand, when the body is presented with something that will serve it, it will immediately jump up and run after that pleasure. In fact, it will spare no effort to attain as much pleasure as possible. But the Sages teach us that any pleasure of which one partakes without relating it to Hashem will bring him suffering after parting from this world.

Chazal explain this discrepancy between body and soul with their classic moshol of the villager who married the princess. The simple villager vowed to give her all of the luxuries and delicacies she could possibly want. But the villager had no concept of the life of a princess. What did he know of luxurious palaces or luscious delicacies? The villager made the princess a meal, but it came nowhere near what the princess was accustomed to.

The neshomoh once lived in a "castle," with the most delectable spiritual delicacies. When it is presented with physical delicacies, they will not satiate it. They come nowhere near the delicacies to which the neshomoh was accustomed to. Every time we indulge in worldly pleasure, we torture our neshomoh, as it longs for the spiritual delights it once experienced.

If so, why does the neshomoh permit the body to indulge in physical, worldly pleasure?

HaRav Meir Simcha of Dvinsk answers this question and shares with us an important insight into ourselves. Chazal tell us that in theory, one could present a solid defense to the Heavenly Court. The body could argue that it is incapable of sinning without the motor skills of the soul. On the other hand, the soul could argue that it has no interest in sinning, and the body is at fault.

Chazal compare this to a blind person and a lame fellow, whom the king positioned in an orchard, with neither of them capable of damaging the orchard. One day, the lame person developed a strong desire for the delicious fruit of the orchard and seduced the blind man to collaborate with him. He hoisted himself on the blind man's shoulders and navigated him through the orchard. After completing their devastating rampage of the entire orchard, both returned to their helpless state.

When the destructive frenzy came to the king's attention, he was faced with a dilemma. Each guilty party claimed innocence, arguing that he was incapable of the crime. The blind man claimed that he had never seen delicious fruit and certainly had never craved them. The lame person admitted that he craved savory food, but had no ability to indulge such desires. After some contemplation, the king resolved the matter and placed the blind man on top of the lame fellow and judged them together.

HaRav Meir Simcha explains that in truth, the neshomoh has no interest or appreciation for worldly pleasure. But the body craves so fiercely for such pleasure that the neshomoh feels compelled to respond and acquiesces to these demands. At the time of judgment, Hashem will reunite body and soul and demand that each one accept responsibility for his role in their raid of this world. We learn from this that part of us never appreciates its involvement in our pleasurable experiences and only participates under duress.

Craving Salty Water

The above perspective helps us understand some of the inappropriateness of our behavior. The following insight portrays ta'avah in its vivid form.

When faced with a ta'avah, we often tell ourselves that we will just take a little taste, and that will douse our desire. In response to this human tendency, the Vilna Gaon presents us with his classic moshol.

A very thirsty man spotted a body of salt water. He thought to himself, "At last! Now I can satisfy my thirst."

He took a drink and quenched his thirst. But soon after, he felt thirsty again, even more than at first. So he took another drink, which of course, left him even thirstier. He took another drink, and another, until he became addicted to the process.

The Vilna Gaon emphatically states that one who partakes of this world to satiate himself is comparable to one who drinks salty water to satisfy his thirst. Contrary to his intentions, his dissatisfaction will only increase.

This rule applies to all ta'avos, including the desire for money. Chazal tell us, "One who has one hundred wants two hundred. One who has two hundred wants four hundred."

Ta'avah produces ta'avah. Hashem has designed people never to be content with fulfilled desires.

In essence, when a person fills his cravings, he only craves more. He thinks he is feeding his body, but he is actually feeding his ta'avah. And feeding it makes it grow.

This explains the common experience known as the "mid- life crisis." It happens when a person has spent his prime years building up his desires by feeding them over and over. They eventually become so great that the person realizes that the world is limited and will never satisfy his personal ambitions and drives.

Chazal have pointed out to us, "Ein odom meis, vechatzi ta'avosov beyodo. A person does not die with half of his desires fulfilled." This realization creates intense frustration which develops literally into an internal crisis that spills over to all areas of personal life.

The Positive Side of Ta'avah

Why did Hashem create this world with such intense desires? What positive purpose did Hashem have in mind?

"Oheiv mitzvah lo yisba bemitzvah. Oheiv Torah lo yisba beTorah. One who loves mitzvos will not be satiated by a mitzvah. One who loves Torah will not be satiated with Torah."

Chazal reveal here that one can direct his desires into spiritual growth. A man can be so involved with and passionate for his learning that he cannot stop. We have all heard stories of gedolim who could not eat or sleep for days, because of the tremendous desire to understand a difficult sugya. Shlomo Hamelech tells us, "Gam hanefesh lo timalei. The soul will also not be satisfied." This serves as a positive channel for endless desires.

Like Dovid Hamelech, who said, "Hinei to'avti lepikudecho, Behold, I crave for your mitzvos," a person can refine himself to the point that his body actually craves mitzvos.

Hashem has given us an enormous task. He has implanted in us strong desires, with the goal that we build a desire for closeness to Him. Various urges pull at us, and we have to evaluate which urges are satisfying the neshomoh and which are simply satisfying the body.

Who is the King?

We say in davening, "Ovinu Malkeinu, ein lonu Melech elo Otoh." But do we really feel this? Are we putting Hashem uppermost in our decisions and choices, or are we following our natural urges?

The gedolei Yisroel demonstrate for us the human potential of overcoming desires. The Chazon Ish refined himself to the point that he no longer felt hunger pangs.

On our own level, our challenge in life is tuning into how often we fulfill Hashem's rotzon and how often our own. By focusing on the purpose of our lives and the purpose of our ta'avos, we have a chance of being master over our strongest opponent . . . ourselves.

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