Based on shiurim of Rav Dovid Siegel
A Middos Workshop: Ta'avah-The Thirst for Salty Water
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
Given these circumstances, overcoming temptation is nearly
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
Levels of Enslavement
Exactly how enslaved are we? That depends on the
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
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
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
Let us address a basic question: Why did Hashem create the
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
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
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 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
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
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
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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