18 Apr

The Evil Inclination

Both the desire for good and the desire for evil are inherent and fundamental to man and this was God’s original intention. The desire for evil is, in fact, grounded in man’s fundamental life force and vitality which are, in and of themselves, positive traits that express a love for this world. Love for this world is liable to bring one to sin, that is, to excessiveness that crosses moral boundaries. But, while evil deeds remain evil and must be opposed, the presence of certain desires themselves reflects a healthy vitality in one’s soul; greater spiritual development will necessarily entail more potent desires.

Capitulation to one’s base desires reflects a deep longing to be a slave; whereas the act of teshuva (repentance) is the greatest affirmation of the liberty of man, releasing oneself from the chains of habit and surrender to those desires. Man’s free will is actually above both his desire for good as well as his desire for evil, and one should therefore strive to lead a life in which both desires are in harmony with one another. In doing so, instead of utterly conquering and subduing one’s base desires, they should be redirected to positive goals; and channeled, under the lead of the desire for good, to the service of Hashem.

Base Desires

What is the nature of the desire for evil that exists in man? The common and intuitive definition of this concept is the drive to do what is evil; all the lowly tendencies that man finds within himself – the inclination toward sin, destruction, envy, rage, lust and the like.

Let us contemplate this definition. There are a number of opinions as to the source of these base desires:

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the eighteenth century French speaking philosopher, professed that man is fundamentally good, and that it is the society he belongs to that makes him evil. He even coined a term to describe this, ‘The Noble Savage’. He believed that the Native Americans or the African tribesman are better people than the city-dwellers of urbanized Europe, because ‘civilization’ had not reached them – and so jealousy, connivery, destruction, and all types of negative traits were not found among them. On this basis, Rousseau wrote an optimistic book describing the ideal way to raise children. He himself however, failed miserably at raising his own children and dropped them off at the orphanage one by one. But, in the theoretical sense, he endorsed an amicable assumption, that man’s nature is fundamentally good.

On the other hand, there are those who claim that man is fundamentally evil – just plain savage. This was said in the book of Job (11:12): “Man is born as a wild ass’s colt”, and also claimed by Plautus the Roman who coined the phrase “homo homini lupus est” (meaning that a man is a wolf to another man). They believed that man’s only hope for improvement is necessarily through socially-related values. Sigmund Freud described the process of rectification required in more detail: man is born with unrestrained subconscious desires for murder and lust. But society, by restraining these base desires – through punishment, fear, de-legitimization, and rigid behavioral codes – gives them a more civilized form. And so, according to Freud, moral values are not found in the depths of man’s soul, but rather are a result of social coercion – the exact opposite of Rousseau’s point of view!

A third point of view, common among contemporary psychologists is that man is not fundamentally good nor evil but rather a blank slate – and what is written on it, is what will be of it.

The fourth opinion is that of the Jewish Sages, who say that man is both fundamentally good and evil. As related in the tractate of Brachot (61A):

Rav Nachman said in the name of Rav Chisda: Why, in the biblical passage: “and Hashem, God, made man” is the word ‘made’ (Vayitzer) written with the letter Yud appearing twice? Because He created man with two desires: one for good and one for evil. [Note: the word for ‘made’, ‘Vayitzer’, is of the same root as the word for desire, ‘Yetzer’].

Why then does the letter Yud appear twice in the passage relating the creation of man, but only once in the passage relating the creation of animals? This is in order to hint to the two desires that man was created with, one desire for good and one for evil. The Sages believe that both desires are inherent and fundamental to man and that neither comes from an external source. Man cannot rid himself of the base drives found in his soul by claiming they are a foreign entity. On the other hand, one cannot claim that man’s aspirations for good are merely the result of cultural upbringing either.[1]

This understanding – that both desires are inherent in man – is reassuring. When a moral person contemplates the lowly forces existing in his soul, he may be frightened and overtaken with anxiety. But the sages are telling him, as it were: “Relax, God has made you this way, with conflicting drives within you, and this is how you are meant to be. You are not supposed to behave according to those base desires, but they are a natural part of you.”

At this stage a remarkable difference can be seen between the position of the Sages and that of the Christian viewpoint. The Christian viewpoint sees the lowly inclinations as a curse, a result of the original sin, and that as a consequence, man can never be welcome before God. But the Jewish sages claim that this was God’s ideal and original intent in creating man, and therefore man – with all his desires – is welcome before God. The sages’ viewpoint also relieves the feelings of guilt that accompany the lowly inclinations; if this is how man was created, he needn’t feel guilty about it.

 

Love of this world

An examination of all these lowly inclinations will show that they all share a common denominator. Let us imagine a person with no desire to eat, with no desire for money, without jealously and without anger. Such a person would not feed himself properly, would not make a living, nor aspire to raise his social status and nor would he see in himself anything particularly unique. His very life force would lack vitality and become weak. From this it can be concluded that the root of most of the lowly inclinations is, in fact, positive – it is a love for this world.[2]

Love of this world is a core element of human identity. Through love of this world one roots himself in reality and does not attempt to escape from it. There exists in man a spiritual inclination that is liable to lead him to neglect worldly affairs and even to be disgusted with them[3]. Love of this world acts as a counter-balance that keeps one grounded in reality and creates within him the motivation to cope with worldly affairs. The Sages taught in the Midrash (3:16) on the book of Kohelet (Ecclesiastes): “Rabbi Binyamin said in the name of Rabbi Levi: ‘He gave the world, too, into their hearts’ – means he gave them the love for this world”. The emphasis on the importance of the evil inclination is found in other sources too. For example, in the Midrash of the book of Genesis:

Rabbi Nahman, the son of Shmuel the son of Nahman, said in the name of Shmuel: ‘behold it was very good’ – this is the desire for good, ‘And behold it was very good’ – this is the desire for evil. Could the desire for evil be ‘very good’? This sounds bizarre! But rather, the meaning is that without the desire for evil, man would not build a house, nor marry of woman, nor beget offspring, nor do business.

One who lacks a desire for evil, or the love of this world, is at risk, and is in urgent need of a doctor or psychologist. Rav Avraham Yitzhak Hacohen Kook taught that the desire for evil is needed for one to have a balanced personality; meaning it is part of one’s mental health. And so, the very fact that one desires to eat is not evil; this is a natural inclination, and it is proper that one should desire to fulfill these inclinations.

That being said, love of this world is liable to bring one to sin. That is, to excessiveness that crosses moral boundaries, and this is the reason it is termed the “desire for evil”. A healthy person is born with a strong love for this world, but if he were to guide his life according to it, he would inevitably go out of balance and perform evil deeds. This distinction is of essential importance: the inclinations in and of themselves are positive, but evil deeds remain evil.

The early Christians abandoned the way of the Jewish Sages on this issue as well. They viewed the fact that man is drawn toward this world as no less than an existential disaster. Paul the apostle claimed that the desire for evil was a demon that existed in man, “a thorn in the flesh”, and that this precludes the possibility of man bringing about his own redemption. He must, therefore, wait for a divine act to redeem him. This worldview is inherently pessimistic, and eventually leads to hatred of this world.

The Sages, on the other hand, taught man to make a pact between the desire for good and the desire for evil, so that they would balance each other. On the passage (Deuteronomy 6:5), “And you shall love Hashem your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your possessions”, they explained (Brachot 54A): “ ‘All your heart’ – with both your desires, the desire for good and the desire for evil”. Man must serve Hashem with both his desires, because if he were to serve Him with only one of them he would lose his spiritual equilibrium.

The Talmud gives a list of four things that Hashem regrets creating and one is the desire for evil (Sukkah 52B). The Maharal (Rav Judah Loew ben Bezalel) asks why, then, did he create it in the first place? And responds:

These things are not created for their own sake. If they were, they wouldn’t have been worth it. The aspect justifying their existence that they lead people to marry and have offspring. One can understand why there should be a place for the Yetzer Hara in the world: Its very concept is inseparably linked to the building of the world and its being populated by human beings. However, after the Yetzer Hara had been created, it started its own existence without any connection whatsoever to its original purpose, and from this perspective, God regrets its creation.

Some things have no inherent value, but rather their value lies only insofar as they are instrumental in preparing the way for something else. Such is the desire for evil – it has no inherent purpose beyond the fact that it allows for the continuation of life in this world and leads to progress. Without the desire for evil, man would be in a constant state of closeness with Hashem. But he would not be capable of establishing himself in this world and developing roots here.

 

The Struggle between the Desires

Defining the desire for evil as love for this world does not invalidate the struggle against it, but rather the opposite – the struggle becomes more difficult and complicated. In the tractate of Brachot (5A) it says:

Rabbi Levi Bar Hama said in the name of Shimon Ben Lakish: One must always resist against his desire for evil with his desire for good, as it says: “Fear Hashem and don’t sin…” (Psalms 4:5), if one is victorious, good, if not – busy oneself with Torah, as it says [the continuation of the above passage]: “…say in your heart…”, if one is victorious, good, if not – read the passage of Shema, as it says: “…when you lay down”, if one is victorious, good, if not – remember your last day as its says: “and be utterly silent”.

The Talmud is discussing how to handle the desire for evil. The first stage – “One must always resist his desire for evil with his desire for good” – describes the simple and perpetual struggle of man with the insatiable demands of desire. But what follows, “if one is victorious, good, if not…”, is not clear. Man’s behavior is entirely dependent on his own will, and so if he decides to subjugate his desire for evil, why would he fail? Rather, it’s possible that failure could result from a lack of understanding of the distinction between good and evil. One may have a desire to do what is good, but not know where to draw the line between good and evil. One must therefore move on to the second stage, “busy oneself with Torah.”

Through the study of Torah one learns exactly how to draw, what is at times, the fine line between good and evil and will then be able to resist the evil by identifying it correctly. But, a deeper problem may then arise that could lead him to fail. When one becomes familiar with the world of evil, he begins to see it as legitimate. Evil is, in fact, part of God’s world, and so how can one justify opposing it and attempting to force one part of creation to submit to another?

According to the above definition, the desire for evil presents an even more formidable problem: Not only does it acquire reality and legitimacy, but its existence is rooted in man’s very life force. Man is charged with struggling against his own life force, his own vitality, and may, as a result, at times lose elements of this same vitality. At this point one must proceed to the third stage: “read the passage of Shema”. The passage of Shema is the quintessential expression of the belief in the all-inclusive monotheism. Once it is clear to someone that all the forces in the world are of a common source, that is, Hashem, he receives a renewed legitimacy for his struggle against evil. When good and evil are understood as both playing roles in the One God’s grand plan, the legitimacy of good conquering evil becomes clear.

But if, even after all these stages, he still cannot manage to conquer his desire for evil, it is likely that he has a more fundamental problem – apparently he is feeling some type of existential apathy toward the struggle, thinking “what does all this have to do with me?” and he lacks the will to take up the struggle at all. For this situation the Talmud says: “if not, remember your last day.” Remembering one’s mortality is not in order to instill fear in man, but rather to clarify that if he can be judged for something, this demonstrates that the issue is of relevance to him. Everyone is inescapably connected, by their very existence, to this struggle.[4]

One might expect the Talmud to go on and say, “if one is victorious, good, if not –…” But it stops here, after the stage of ‘remember your last day’. We can understand from this that remembering mortality is the strongest weapon there is against the desire for evil, and after using it, one will certainly be victorious. This being the case, we must ask why did the Talmud not simply open with this? Why did it progress incrementally instead of simply stating from the beginning: “Man should always remember his own mortality”?

This is because it is not a good idea to be overly conscious of one’s own mortality. If one were to be perpetually faced with death, his vitality would suffer and he may fall into sadness and despair.

It is told of Rebbe Levi-Yitzhak of Berdichev that on one Yom Kippur eve, he approached to lead the Kol-nidre prayer, wrapped himself in the prayer shawl, and then after a few minutes of silence, he removed the shawl, left the podium and cried: “if you’re so smart and scholarly – you pray!”. He then explained to the bewildered congregation: “I wanted to begin praying, and suddenly my desire for evil appeared. I asked him: What are you doing here? And he answered ‘what are you doing here?’ I answered: ‘I am the Rabbi of Berdichev!’ And he responded: ‘I am the Rabbi of Berdichev too!’ I answered: ‘Yes, but I learned under Rav Shmalke of Nicholsberg’ and he responded: ‘So did I, I even sat on the same bench as you!’ Everything that I was, so was he. I saw that he would not let me be and so I said: ‘If you’re so smart and scholarly – you pray!’ Rebbe Levi-Yitzhak meant to say that the forces of the desire for evil are part of us, and human beings are a mixture of both. Despite this, man’s soul is his essential part, and so he should not give up on prayer, as his desire for evil surely does not know how to pray.

 

The Conqueror and the Pious

As mentioned earlier, reality is not ideal, and man’s love for this world is not always in equilibrium. And so it may occur that man desires things that are prohibited. The question is how does one deal with the fact that he has within him a yearning for evil? There are those for whom this yearning brings them to decide to do evil acts, and there are those who, despite their yearning for evil, cling to their desire for good. The latter are called “righteous” (tsaddik) because righteousness is defined as: ‘he who does what is good and not what is evil.’[5] This is a technical definition that says nothing about the internal disposition of the righteous person, but relates only to the fact that he does what is required of him.

The Jewish sages discussed not only proper behavior but also proper yearning. In his introduction to the tractate Avot (Ch. 6), the Rambam (Maimonides) distinguishes between two types of righteousness: the first righteous man may desire prohibited things but he conquers this desire and performs no evil acts. The second righteous man is a ‘pious’ (hassid) because he does not even desire evil things. The question is which is better? Which of these two righteous men has a more perfected character?

At first glance, this question is under debate between the philosophers and the Jewish sages. The philosophers say the saint is superior to the conqueror, as the latter’s desire for evil displays a spiritual defect. But the Jewish sages believe that the conqueror is superior to the saint. For example, in the tractate of Sukkah (52A) it is said: “He who is greater than his friend, his desire is greater as well,” meaning that greater spiritual development will necessarily entail more potent desires. This outlook suits what was explained earlier, that the desire for prohibited acts is part of one’s mental health. A great person has larger and stronger vitality in all realms of life.

The Rambam later states it even more explicitly (quoting the midrash Sifra 11;22):

Rabbi Shimon son of Gamliel says: One should not say, ‘I have no desire to eat meat and milk together,’ ‘no desire to wear sha’atnez,’ ‘no desire for prohibited sexual relations.’ But rather one should say: ‘I desire it, but what can I do for my father in heaven has decreed against it.’

This means that the Sages instructed man not to crush his desire to transgress the commandments, but only to refrain from doing transgressing. Man can desire to eat meat and milk together but refrain from doing so in practice. If so, it is actually the one who conquers his desire through struggle who is of a more complete personality in the eyes of the Sages.

 

Resolving the debate: There are two types of evil

However, later on the Rambam clarifies that there is really no contradiction between the philosophers’ and the Sages’ viewpoints on this issue, because we must distinguish between two types of evil. The philosophers are discussing natural morality, and so the evil they refer to is evil in this realm. One who yearns to do acts which contradict basic morality, like murder or theft, really is of inferior character – and the Sages are certainly not referring to such a person when they said, “He who is greater than his friend, his desire is greater as well”. It is proper and desirable for man to have no inclinations to such deeds whatsoever.

On the other hand, the evil that the Sages are discussing, for which there is nothing improper about desiring, is that which is defined as evil by divine decree only. The Torah prohibits acts that we would not have known that they contain evil if it had not done so. From a natural standpoint, man should not feel that there is shame in desiring to eat certain animals, or to drink blood, and so even after the Torah’s being given, there is no reason to expect that man’s feeling toward these acts should change. About this category the Sages spoke when they condoned one saying, ‘I desire it, and even so, I won’t do it.’[6]

 

The source of the desire for evil

Where does the desire for evil come from? The Maharal dedicated an entire chapter to this question in his book “The Eternity of Israel” (Nezach Israel). He opens with a painful question: Why do most creations act in accordance with their spiritual stature but the nation of Israel – who was given many unique spiritual qualities –  fell throughout its history again and again to lowliness and to the evil inclination.

After delving into this question from all its sides, the Maharal quotes the Talmud (Sukah 52A):

The Rabbis taught: “I will distance the northern one from you” (Joel 2:20) – this refers to the desire for evil, as it is hidden in man’s heart [in Hebrew, the words ‘north’ and ‘hidden’ are similar]. “…and I will banish it to an arid and desolate land” – to a place where there are no people for it to provoke. “its face to the eastern sea” – that it looked upon the first temple and destroyed it and the sages therein [in Hebrew the words ‘east’ and ‘first’ are similar]. “and its rear to the last sea” – that it looked upon the second temple and destroyed it and the sages therein. “its odor will arise and its stench will go out” – it leaves the nations of the world and provokes Israel. “For it has done much” – Abaye said: this refers to the learned more than everyone else.

According to the Talmud, when someone grows in the levels of holiness, the desire for evil is intensified as well, and attempts to undermine the progress toward attaining higher levels of holiness.

But what is the essence of this desire, and what does its intensification entail? The Maharal explains that the desire for evil is not an independent entity – like some black, winged demon with horns and a forked tongue – but rather it is the tension that is created by the existence of two worlds: the natural world and the transcendent world. To clarify this, let us contemplate the following physical experiment: when one spreads a tablecloth on a large table and then pinches the center and lifts it up, the cloth resists as if it were stuck to the table because of the atmospheric pressure acting on it. Translating this phenomenon into the terms of our discussion, it can be said that nature abhors exceptionalism. The natural world tends toward uniformity and to an equal application of rules, and whenever anything “attempts” to be an exception to the norm, significant pressure is applied on it to bring it back into the norm.

So too, regarding man and holiness – man is created in God’s image, and that specificity is like a foreign object in the natural world. And so, when man seeks to express the fact that he is created in God’s image – nature tries to bring him back down and degrade him. The more man rises in the ranks of holiness – humanity, the nation of Israel, the sages of Israel – the greater is the tension created, and this is liable to bring about greater falls.

This is the true meaning of the sitra achra, literally, the “other side.” It means the “other side” of holiness. The sitra achra is not an entity exogenous to man, but only the other side of the coin, the other side of the desire for good. As soon as the will is born in man to make progress and rise above the natural reality that he is embedded in – an intense will to remain in this natural reality is born as well. This is the origin of the desire for evil.

 

Servitude and Liberty

Acceptance of the Maharal’s definition – that the desire for evil is the tension between the natural and transcendent realms of existence – leads to another definition: given that the natural world is governed by severe causal determinism, while the transcendent one is the realm of freedom[7], we can define the inclination to evil as the tension between servitude and freedom.. In other words, the inclination to sin is the soul’s way of trying to become a slave. When one surrenders to his desire for evil, he is actually interested in becoming a slave.

This is a surprising definition, because the justifications raised by the desire for evil are usually in the name of freedom (“do what you feel like”) – and the opposing arguments employ a plea to rules and pre-defined constructs (“do this, don’t do that”). But the truth is, that people tend to surrender to base desires when, in order to avoid guilt, they try to prove to themselves that they are incapable of withstanding the temptations of the world; that they are, in fact, not free to choose. Once someone has removed his own responsibility for his actions, he necessarily gives it away to someone else, and, in essence, establishes his identity as a servant. Rav Kook endorses this idea on numerous occasions in his book “The Lights of Return” that teshuva (repentance) from sin is actually the act of becoming free from servitude (5:5):

Clinging to ones habits and opinions, and remaining bound by the chains of sin, in deeds and in ideas, is a sickness that results from descending deep into a world of servitude, and prevents the light of the liberty of Return (teshuva) from shining in all its splendor. [This is] because teshuva is the aspiration to the most real and authentic freedom, which is the divine freedom, that includes not a grain of servitude.

The Jerusalem Talmud brings the following story (Yoma, 6:4): Rabbi Haga was with Rabbi Mana during the holy fast day of Yom Kippur. Rabbi Haga was thirsty and felt weak and so asked Rabbi Mana if he is permitted to drink. Rabbi Mana replied: ‘Drink.’ Later on, Rabbi Mana met Rabbi Haga again and asked him “Did you drink?” Rabbi Haga replied to him, “No. The minute you permitted me to drink, I ceased to feel thirsty.” This story is even quoted in works on Halacha.[8]

The Talmud is presenting an important principle. As soon as Rabbi Mana permitted Rabbi Haga to drink, it clarified the gravity of his own responsibility. As long as Rabbi Haga believed he was prohibited from sinning because of Jewish law, he was in a struggle with his desire – because if the law is some external entity that can overpower him, then desire can compete on the same plane. But, if the act is permitted, and dependent only on his choice, nothing can overpower him; the desire for good and for evil are dependent on him alone.

In a number of places, the Talmud quotes the maxim of Rabbi Iliya, the elder:

If one feels that his desire will overcome him, let him go to a place where he is not known, wear black garments, and do as his heart desires, and let him not desecrate the name of heaven in public.

Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki), explains this maxim as meaning that it is simply preferable that one perform a sin of surrender to one’s desires in private, and not in a way that will desecrate God in public. But Rabeinu Hananel, as quoted in the Tosafot, protests and says: “God Forbid! Certainly this man has not been given a permit to sin, but rather the very act of dressing in black garments and going to a strange place will bring him to refrain from actually performing the sin.” It appears that it is best to present to someone Rashi’s explanation, so that in the end he will act according to the Tosafot’s explanation, and refrain from sin.

Now it can be seen, how reconciling oneself to seeing the desire for evil as an independent entity is actually a reconciliation with evil. For one who chooses to surrender to evil, imagining evil as independent allows him to avoid taking responsibility. The Rambam made a famous statement (Chp.1 of his introduction to The Ethics of the Fathers): “Know that man’s soul is a single entity”. The Rambam insists on this point in order to prevent a situation where man ignores the fact that all his abilities are an expression of his personality, and in doing so finds himself with a morally split personality. This degraded moral state finds its expression in phrases such as: ‘my urges brought me to sin’, ‘desire got the better of me’ and ‘it was too strong for me.’ But in reality these phrases are just another way of saying ‘I wanted to’.

This is what the sages meant when they explained the passage “with all your heart” as meaning with both your desires. Man is actually above both his desire for good as well as his desire for evil, and is therefore capable of channeling both to the service of God. The sages expressed this as follows (Kohelet Raba, 5:1):

The evildoers are controlled by their heart, as it says: ‘and Esau said in his heart’, ‘and Jeroboam said in his heart;’ But the righteous are in control of their hearts, as it says: ‘and she spoke to her heart,’ ‘and David spoke to his heart,’ ‘and Daniel put it on his heart’ and they are similar to their Maker as it says: ‘and Hashem said to his heart.’

The meaning is clear: the ‘heart’ is referring to the energies of the soul, and the question of who is in control, relates to the essence of man’s liberty. The righteous man decides to realize his liberty, which is an essential part of his being created ‘in the image of God,’ whereas the evildoer places himself in the position of the receiver of mandates from his soul.

One must not submit to the mandate of instinctive yearnings. But on the other hand, there is no need to deny or destroy them. Rather, one should use them wisely by applying them toward realizing his own goals.

 

Educating toward Responsibility

The opposite of the above ideal is unfortunately often found amongst educators. Here, out of genuine concern for the spiritual development of their pupils, they often may rob them of responsibility. And the minute one feels that he is not responsible, he behaves accordingly. Adolescents in high school have already reached full awareness of their ability to choose freely whether they desire to learn or not. However, the message that they receive from the education system is: “you are here because you are legally required to be”, or “you’re here because your parents require you to be,” “this is the societal norm.” This message brings the youth to say to themselves: “so really no one has asked for my choice. I may have decided to learn, but because they decided for me, it is no longer my responsibility. So if the teacher wants me to learn, the class better be interesting, otherwise I’ll disrupt it.”

As parents and teachers we have but one responsibility, and that is to supply the proper information. We cannot decide for the students, and their decisions are not our responsibility. Whether a student becomes good or bad will depend only on his free will. So, if the studies and moral behavior in the school are coercively mandated, instead of being a privilege, this will have the effect of delaying full maturity.

On the other hand, the student has an obligation to “make a teacher for yourself,” as his spiritual progress is dependent on an acceptance of an authority. This acceptance of an authority however, does not mean blind obedience, or subservience but rather, a point of reference with whom one can compare oneself.

Rav Yehuda Leon Ashkenazi (known as Manitu) used to say that a Rabbi’s responsibility to his students is as stated in Pirkey Avot (1:1): “establish many students”. Why the phrase “establish” and not “teach”? Because the Rabbi must bring his students to “stand on their own two feet”, and have many students. The temptation for a Rabbi (and an educator) is to keep the students close to him, in a protected environment, but for the good of the students, the Rabbi must encourage their becoming independent-minded people.

 

Overpowering, Separating and Sweetening

The Hassidic master, the Baal Shem Tov, sees three parts to the struggle with the desire for evil, which he terms: overpowering, separating and sweetening.

Overpowering refers to the act which is called for in the books of proper behavior – to fight against the forces of desire and to overpower them. Initially, there is no choice but to subdue these forces, as there can be no license to sin. Yet, the act of subduing entails two major problems: the first, is that this subduing requires an enormous effort; the second, is that the desire itself to perform evil acts will remain; it will at most be held in check so as not to break out.

The second phase is separating. Man is separated from his desire for evil. Sin loses its appeal and ceases to be tempting to him. At first glance, this seems like a lofty moral level, but the price is high as well, man has reduced the vitality of his soul. Moreover, he no longer emanates life.

The third phase is sweetening. Man then takes all the forces which used to lead him to do evil, and applies them to doing good. For example, an actor who initially would take any role he was offered regardless of the message of the storyline, would instead choose carefully what kinds of parts to play and what his name is used to promote. After the sweetening phase, man’s forces act together in balance with each other. There is no more reason to intensively subdue them and they can even be successfully redirected to positive goals.

The 16th century Kabbalist from Tsfat, Rabbi Eliyahu De Vidas, wrote a book on ethics for advanced students called Reishit Hochma. In the chapter on love (Chapter 4), where he describes the ideal love for Hashem, he quotes a story of Rabbi Itzhak of Acre. In the story, a common man, one day, sees a princess and immediately falls in love with her. He approaches her and asks when they will meet, and she replies “in the graveyard.” She, of course, meant that they would never meet in this life, but the man understood her literally and went to wait for her in the graveyard. He waited an incredibly long time with great anticipation, and his heart filled with love. The more he waited for the princess, the more abstract and pure his love became, until eventually it turned into a love for God.

Rabbi De Vidas finishes the story with Rabbi Itzhak’s declaration: “he who has never desired a woman is less than a donkey, as the divine service may result from senses. Meaning, one who does not know what love for a woman is, cannot comprehend what love for Hashem is either.

In conclusion, two lessons are learnt from this story: love for Hashem begins with the forces which include love for a woman; And, without a healthy use of these forces, man cannot progress in his serving Hashem.

[1] See also in Rav Kook’s central work, “Orot”, p. 139: “In man’s soul we find two quarrelling inclinations, corresponding to two opposite trends: The inclination to fulfill all the hopes of evil, all the most lowly desires – both physical and spiritual – that continually grow and ensnare man with their passions, like jealousy and hatred and the like; And on the other hand, we cannot ignore the aspiration toward good that is at times revealed in the spirit of man, that is worth all of creation, to open man’s eyes and develop him, and to fill him with kindness and love and light…”

[2] Even the destructive urge can be seen, at times, as arising from the desire to create a new and more beautiful world. However, when someone desires to destroy purely for the sake of destruction, this is entirely negative. Similarly, feelings of sadness and despair have no utility whatsoever – because they negate life itself and cripple it – and so the sages of Israel wrote that they have no place in holiness. See in Rav Kook’s works, “Orot Hakodesh” (part 3, p. 243), “Orot Hateshuva” (8:3), “Shemona Kevatzim” (3,51); And in Rabbi David Cohen’s (The Nazir) “Kol Hanevuah, p.227.

[3] See in the Midrash of Ecclesiastes , “Kohelet Raba” (6,6): “to what is this similar? To an urban peasant who married a princess. Even if he were to bring her all that is in the world this would not impress her. Why? Because she is the daughter of the king. So too, the soul – you can bring it all the delicacies of this world but it is not impressed. Why? Because it comes from the higher worlds.” The soul is from the higher worlds, and therefore needs the proper contra to balance it.

[4] Teaching attributed to Rabbi Yehuda Leon Ashkenazi (Manitou).

[5] See also Rabbi Moshe Haim Luzzatto’s “Mesilat Yesharim”, Chp. 13: “All we have explained until this point is what man needs in order to be righteous”. On the other hand, Rebbe Shneur Zalman of Liadi in his work “Tanya”, Chp. 12, labels this kind of righteous man as “the mediocre”.

[6] It should be noted here that in the realm of basic morality, most times even when one desires to, say, steal, the desire is not for the act of stealing per se, but rather to possess the coveted object. This desire is, in a way, morally neutral: the object not in one’s possession is simply appealing. However, the very knowledge that the coveted object belongs to someone else impedes one’s natural desire to have it. The prohibition resulting from basic morality does not remain external to one’s desire for that object, “I desire, but what can I do…”, but rather has the ability to penetrate one’s feelings of attraction toward the object and change them. This distinction can explain why the Rambam sees the border between ‘intellectual commandments’ and ‘authoritative commandments’ as, by definition, something that is not absolute – as even the commandments rooted in basic morality result from some degree of consciousness, and not from nature itself. See also Rabbi Ouri Cherki’s commentary “On the Eight Chapters of Maimonides”, p.194-8.

[7] More on this in the article on “Free Will”.

[8] Beit Yosef, “Orach Chaim”, 618, starting at “a sick person”. The Rama in “Darchei Moshe”, 612.

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