Based on shiurim of Rav Dovid Siegel
A Middos Workshop: Ta'avah--The Yeast in the Dough
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
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
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
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
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
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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