World of the Sages: The belly of the matter

How do seemingly unholy urges fit into our spiritual worldview?

anger 88 (photo credit: )
anger 88
(photo credit: )
As human beings we are tempted by the lure of materialistic pleasures. How do these seemingly unholy urges fit into our spiritual worldview? Should they be decried, shunned and totally censured? Is is there perhaps room to harness them in the service of God? Our sages expound on the requirements of the biblical verse "And you shall love the God, your Lord with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might" (Deuteronomy 6:5). Focusing on the Hebrew word for your heart - levaveha - the sages note a seemingly superfluous double letter. Your heart is normally rendered libha, the doubling of the letter bet, our sages suggest, indicates that our love for the Almighty must be expressed with two hearts. The heart is seen as the locus of our cravings and aspirations, thus we strive for a relationship with God that stems both from inclination for good as well as from our urge to do bad (M. Berachot 9:5). How should the evil inclination be used for the service of the Almighty? How are we to express our love for God with the urge to do evil? Various approaches have been suggested. One explanation is that by embracing the drive for good and fulfilling the divine commandments and at the same time rejecting evil urges to transgress, the Almighty is served with both inclinations (Rabbeinu Yonah Gerondi, 13th century, Spain). Another approach suggests that love for the Almighty with the evil inclination is expressed by retaining fidelity to God even at times when we are angry or wish to rebel against the Almighty. Such a state of unrest is the product of the evil inclination and by remaining loyal to God during such moods, we serve the Almighty with both our inclinations (Maimonides, 12th century, Cairo). A different line of thought suggests that not just the rejection of the evil inclination or ignoring its urgings, but even its employ can be considered divine service. According to this approach the good inclination refers to attributes considered to be positive such as mercy and love. The bad inclination indicates negative attributes such as cruelty and fear. While undoubtedly, mercy and love are generally preferable over cruelty and fear, there are times when even the negative attributes are called for. By employing the appropriate attribute at the right time, in the proper measure for a suitable purpose, we serve the Almighty with both inclinations (Rabbeinu Yonah Gerondi). Following on from this approach that actually employs the evil inclination, rather than just sidelining its urgings, we come to a central theme in hassidic thought. In hassidic tradition the evil urge is viewed in neutral terms. Left unchecked it tends to base pleasures and diverts attention and energy from spiritual achievement. With diligent application, however, the so called evil urge can be employed for lofty divine goals. In this manner, we have the opportunity to harness the drive for physical pleasure as a means to achieve worthy spiritual goals, and thus serve the Almighty with our evil inclination. To cite one particular example from hassidic tradition: Rabbi Avraham Haim of Zloczew (d. 1816) related to the flaw of haughtiness. If a person questions the efficacy of his prayers and Torah study, wondering to himself: "Who am I that I should merit to prayer or to study Torah!" Let the person arrogantly think that through his Torah study and through his prayer he has the power to alter the course of the world. Such "conceit" will encourage a person to embark on the journey of prayer and venture into the depths of Torah study. In this way, the person serves the Almighty with the urge for pride, harnessing this vice to drive himself to heartfelt prayer and applied Torah study. This approach is not confined to hassidic thought. Rabbi Eliahu Eliezer Dessler (1892-1953) one of the modern thinkers of the ethical Mussar movement expressed a similar idea in a vignette he shared. Rabbi Dessler was born in Russian Latvia, gained renown while in England and spent the last years of his life in Israel as one of leading thinkers in the Mussar tradition. Rabbi Dessler remembered that when he was nine years old his father and uncle would piously wake up at midnight on Shabbat eve each week. They would spend nine hours diligently studying together until the time for morning prayers arrived. "I too," recalled Rabbi Dessler, "Would get up for a number of hours and my tutor would study with me." This pious conduct was not limited to the men folk, Rabbi Dessler recollected: "My righteous mother would also get up and she would study midrash and the commentaries of Nahmanides and the Malbim on the week's Torah portion." But in the eyes of the budding scholar, his mother's piety was not what captured his youthful attention: "When my mother would get up, it was like a festival for me, for she presented us with warm coffee and pastries that had an exquisite taste." Writing many years later, Rabbi Dessler looked back and assessed his own motivations: "While the main purpose of getting up was to study Torah, the baked goods played a significant role in cajoling me to enthusiastically get up." Rabbi Dessler concluded, quoting his forebear, a founder of the Mussar movement, Rabbi Israel Lipkin of Salant (1810-1883) in connection with our talmudic passage: This is the meaning of serving the Almighty with the two inclinations - a person should use the desires of the evil inclination to assist in attaining positive results: The enticing pastries helped the young boy get up and study at such an early hour. The suggested path is not to censure and quell desires for physical pleasures. Rather we are encouraged to direct our urges channeling them for lofty purposes. While the lure of tasty pastry may draw us, the challenge is to harness this natural urge for temporal gratification into a tool for the pursuit of spiritual attainment. The writer is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.