Three Desires

In the last entry, I quoted part of Even Sheleimah, 2:1, by the Vilna Gaon. The full paragraph reads:

The sum of all evil middos are ka’as[1] (anger), ta’avah (desire), and ga’avah[2] (egotism), which are “haqin’ah vehata’avah vehakavod — jealousy, desire and honor”.[3] Each includes two [parts]. Of ka’as: ra (evil) and mirma (duplicity). Ra is revealed, and mirmah is “echad bepeh ve’echad beleiv — one thing in the mouth, and one thing in the heart”.[4,5] Ta’avah: ta’avah and chemdah (longing): Ta’avah is [for] the pleasure of the body itself, such as eating, drinking, and the like. And chemdah is like [for] silver/money, gold, clothing and houses. In ga’avah [the two subspecies are] gei’ah (conceit) and ga’on (snobbery). Gei’ah is in the heart and ga’on is the desire to rule over others.

All this is included in the tefillah of “E-lokai netzor leshoni meira usfasi midabeir mirmah.”[6] “Velimkalilai nafshi sidom — and may my soul be silent to those who curse me” is against ga’avah. “Venafshi ke’afar lakol tihyeh — and may my soul be like dust before everyone” is against ga’on. “Pesach libi biSorasecha — open my heart with your Torah” is the opposite of ta’avah, which wants to sit in his home in menuchah (rest) to fulfill his ta’avos, and also for Torah he needs to sit in menuchah. And they say in the medrash [7], “Before the person prays for Torah ideas that they should enter his innards, he should pray that food and drink shouldn’t enter his innards.” “Uvmitzvosecha tirdof nafshi — and my soul chase after your mitzvos” is the opposite of the people of chemdah, because it is their way to constantly run ahead, “for a person doesn’t die with [even] half of his ta’avah in hand.[8]”[9]

1- Nedarim 22a, 22b; Pesachim 66b, 113b
2- Sotah 4b, 5a; Sanhedrin 98a; Avos 4:2
3- Avos 4:21
4- Michlei 4:24
5- Pesachim 113b; Bava Metziah 49b
6- Beracho 17a
7- Yalkum Shim’oni 830
8- Koheles Raba 1:13
9- C.f. Bei’ur haGr”a Mishlei 1:11; 2:12; 4:24; 7:5; 12:25; 23:27; 24:11; 30:10

Even Sheleimah 2:6:

Someone who is drawn after the ta’avah [physical desires] also loses his good middos that was in his nature by birth [and these are called begadim — clothes]. And one who is drawn after the chemdah [desire for wealth and power] loses the good middos that he acclimated himself in from his youth [and are called regalim — as in hergeil, habit]. Because he doesn’t have opportunity to guide himself because of his business. All the more so he won’t break his middos to begin with.[22]


22- See Bei’ur haGr”a Mishlei 6:27,28

This dichotomy makes sense. Ta’avos are innate. Ta’avah operates on a biological level, and therefore occludes his better natural predisposition. A love of wealth and property has to be learned. Chemdah is for things we learn to value, so it runs counter to other learned behaviors.

On Mishlei 4:24, the Vilna Gaon writes:

I already wrote that there are two kinds of middos, which are those that are the middos which are born with him by nature, and those that he acclimated himself to. Those that were born with him are called “derakhav” [above called “begadav” -micha], for they are his derekh from the beginning of his creation. Those that he acclimated himself to are called regel, because he acclimated (hirgil) to them.

To those he acclimated to, he must guard and straighten them a lot. When he guards them, then they which were in his nature, they will of course be guarded. This is “paleis ma’gal raglecha – straighten the cycles of your feet”. Those which he became used to he needs to straighten and to pass little by little from the bad middos, like a peles, and not to grab right away the other extreme. Until he habituates himself and it will be to him like nature. (And it says “ma’gal” (cycle) because to those [middos] that he acclimated himself to he has to go around and revolve…)

Vekhol derachecha yikonu — and all your paths will be established” of course those middos that are his derekh since birth are established (yikonu), from the term of “kan ubasis”. If you don’t guard those [middos that are] from habit, even “derachav” won’t be established. For middos are like a string of pearls — if you make a knot at the end, then all are guarded, and if not, all are lost. So too are the middos. Therefore [the verse] says that if one straightens the circuit of his feet (raglav), then his ways (derachav) will be set.

As we saw, he relates chemdah to raglecha, and ta’vah to derakhekha; longing for power relates to habit, and physical desire to inborn makeup. Therefore it would appear that chemdah needs to be dealt with first, or else ta’avah too will fall apart.

(BTW, this pasuq in Mishlei just cries for hispa’alus.)

The Maharal, commenting on the same mishnah in Avos as my original quote from Even Sheleimah (4:21):

The Rambam z”l writes in his introduction to this tractate. Over there the head doctor (i.e. the Rambam) starts his book [with the idea] that there are three souls: tiv’is (natural), chiyonis (living), nafshis (spiritual) — as is explained above in ch. “Rebbe Omeir”. And he za”l writes that it isn’t so that the person has three souls, rather the soul is one, only it has separate abilities. He explains the idea of these three abilities (potentialities — kochos):

Koach tiv’i (the natural potential): this is the potential which can receive hazanah (readiness?)… It is certain that this brings the desire for sexual license, that this is through excesses of nature that this koach operates. All koach of ta’avah is from the koach that is called koach tiv’i. …

The second koach is the koach hachiyoni, from which there is life. Through this koach a person travels from place to place, and from it comes revenge, jealousy and hatred….

The third is koach nafshi. From this koach will come many kochos, like the kochos of the 5 senses, the koach of thought and imagination, memory and insight.

… According to this division they said “haqin’ah, hata’avah vehakavod take a person out of the world.” For the soul has these three potentialities as we explained above. If one leaves the proper amount in these three kochos he leaves the world, for a person is only within the world via these three kochos.

For a person is in the world via koach hanafshi, if he exceeds in this koach from the proper amount, he turns toward the negative. For a person’s soul has a limit in all things, and if he exceeds the limit in excess he is turning to the negative…. Therefore he says that qin’ah which comes from koach nafshi… and qin’ah is an extended action of the nefesh — for why should a person be jealous for something that isn’t his? — therefore qin’ah is an extra action and therefore turns for the person into negative and deficiency.

Similarly, ta’avah which is from koach hativ’i, for he desires for something which a person doesn’t need. Therefore this thing too is an excess, for this koach hativ’i left the border which is proper for it, and therefore will reach him as a negative….

And the kavod is for the koach hasikhli, for the level of this koach is what wants the kavod. For it is certainly worthy of kavod, and it says (Mishlei 3:35) “Kavod chachamim yinchalu.” Because kavod is something spiritual and isn’t something physical….

(BTW, note that anger is related to koach hanafshi/hasikhli, the spiritual layer, and “whomever gets angry, it is as though they served idols.”)

Note that the Maharal considers these flaws to be excesses. Implied is that there are flaws that are deficiencies, but they aren’t listed here.

On an earlier mishnah (1:2) the Maharal also discusses the three items in terms of three aspects of the soul.

He three pillars upon which the world stands as being about the three classes of relationship that a person is capable of: with HKBH (avodah – service [of G-d]), with other people (gemilus chassadim – supporting others through kindnesses) and with oneself (Torah). Each relationship is enabled by a different world in which a person lives. As the Maharal writes:

Therefore, the g-dly Tanna writes that one pillar that the universe stands upon is the Torah, for the pillar completes man so that he can be a finished creation with respect to himself.

After that he says “on avodah“…. For from this man can be thought complete and good toward He Who created him – by serving Him…. With regard to the third, it is necessary for man to be complete and good with others, and that is through gemillus chassadim.

You also must understand that these three pillars parallel three things in each man: the mind, the living soul, and the body. None of them have existence without G-d. The existence of the soul is when it comes close to Hashem by serving Him…. From the perspective of the mind, the man gets his existence through Torah, for it is through the Torah that man attaches himself to G-d. To the body, man gets his existence through gemillus chassadim for the body has no closeness or attachment to Hashem, just that Hashem is kind to all. When man performs kindness G-d is kind to him, and so gives him existence.

He continues to explain that that if existence is based on three principles, then any act which takes an ax to one of these pillars should not be committed even under pain of death, existence itself would have a lower priority. Idol worship is obviously the antonym of avodah. Murder is the ultimate denial of chessed. The Maharal explains the link between Torah and sexual immorality:

The glory of the Torah is that it is separated from the physical entirely. There is nothing that can separate man from the physical but the Torah of thought. The opposite is sexual immorality, which follows the physical [chomer] until one is thought of like an animal or donkey [chamor], it is a creature of its flesh’s desires, in all things physical.

So the Maharal too finds three pairs of yitzrei hara. However, whereas the Gr”a finds active-vs-thought pairs, the Maharal implies pairs of excess-vs-deficiency. Also it appears that an excess of one feeds a deficiency of the other. An excess of koach tiv’i feeds the same ta’avah as a deficiency of Torah study — ko’ach sichli.

The association between yitzrei hara and the three yeihareig vi’al ya’avor (the three sins one must die rather than commit) is also suggested by the aggadita (Yoma 69b, Sanhedrin 64a) which discusses the imprisonment of the yeitzer hara for idolatry followed by the attempted imprisonment of that for sexuality. The attempt fails because the yeitzer hara is associated with sexual reproduction in general. Just as the yeitzer hara for idolatry is described as a fiery lion that emerges from the Holy of Holies — the destructive and constructive uses are one.

The Maharsha possibly suggests a different taxonomy on the well-known aggadita on Shabbos 30b-31a:

Our rabbis taught: A man should always be patient like Hillel, and not impatient like Shammai. It once happened that two men [31a] made a bet with each other, saying, “Whoever goes and makes Hillel angry shall receive 400 zuz.” Said one, “I will go and anger him.”

That day was erev Shabbos, and Hillel was washing his head. [The man] went, passed by the door of his house, and called out, “Who here is Hillel? Who here is Hillel?” [Hillel] wrapped on [his cloak] and went out to him. He said to him, “My son, what do you require?” He said to [Hillel], “I have a question to ask.” [Hillel] said to him, “Ask, my son, ask.”

“Why are the heads of the Babylonians round?” He said to him, “My son, you have asked a great question. It is because they have no skillful midwives.”

Maharsha: There is a question in this, since this question isn’t Torah ideas, just in things of the world, even though Hillel was patient he shouldn’t have answered these question, as Shelomo says about this, “al ta’an kesil ke’avloso — do not answer a fool according to his folly”. It therefore appears that we should say that because of his patience, Hillel never thought the man came to irritate him with these questions. Rather, [he assumed] that he was hinting to him associations with divrei Torah, and that with these three questions, he was thinking of the three evil middos that are ru’ach gavoha, ayin ra’ah and nefesh rechava — which are mentioned as those of students of Bilaam.

Which is, that which he asked, “Why are the heads of…” [Hillel assumed] he was thinking about the evil middah of ru’ach rechavah (literally: “wide” willed). According to what it says at the end of the ch. “Hayashein”, … Rashi explains that they lord over and are misga’im over their brethren. [Note the word “misga’im“, in similarity to the Vilna Gaon (above). -MB]

What he meant was: That in Bavel their head wealthy people revolve, that the wheel returns them back down from their property. Why is it? Because of what sin? And Hillel answered him on this via hint that is because they don’t have easy lives, that is, … that gasos haru’ach is strong in them. For who ever has ga’avah is insane.

This evil middah is the one they have in Bavel as it says in ch. “Zeh Borear” that “chanufah and gasat haru’ach yardu leBavel — flattery and haughtiness went down to Bavel”….

[The man] departed, waited an hour, returned and said, “Who here is Hillel? Who here is Hillel?” [Hillel] wrapped on [his cloak] and went out to him. He said to him, “My son, what do you require?” He said to [Hillel], “I have a question to ask.” [Hillel] said to him, “Ask, my son, ask.”

“Why are the eyes of the Palmyrieans bleared?” He said to him, “My son, you have asked a great question. It is because they live amoung sandy places.”

Maharsha: Hillel thought that he was thinking about the second evil middah of ayin hara (literally: bad eyes). According to what it says in ch. “Cheilek”, the generation of the flood were only punished for gilgul ha’ayin (literally: eye rolling), and Rashi explains that they would lift their eyes. In a number of places, sexual license is euphamized with a term about eyes. As it says by Shimshon, that he followed his eyes… And [Hillel] replied to him because they live amoung the “cholos“, from the root “chol“, that they have no sanctity nor borders around eroticism as they have among the well-bred of Israel.

[The man again] departed, waited an hour, returned and said, “Who here is Hillel? Who here is Hillel?” [Hillel] wrapped on [his cloak] and went out to him. He said to him, “My son, what do you require?” He said to [Hillel], “I have a question to ask.” [Hillel] said to him, “Ask, my son, ask.” “Why are the feet of the Africans (Cathartans?) wide?”

“My son, you have asked a great question,” replied he. “It is because they live in watery marshes.”

Maharsha: Hillel thought that he was thinking about the third evil middah which is nefesh rechavah (literally: wide soul), to gather a lot of money. “Wide feet” as they say about what is written “‘all that they stood which is in their feet’ — this is money, which a person stands on his feet”. And he replied [that it is] because they live in betza’im, a hint to the idea that they live among nations that love betza and money. For the children of Afriki are among the children of Canaan who turned away from Eretz Yisrael. As it says in the beginning of ch. “Cheilek” … about Canaan that he commanded his sons to love theft and betza.

He said to [Hillel], “I have many questions to ask, but I am afraid that you may become angry.” [Hillel] wrapped his cloak, sat before him and he said to him, “Ask all the questions you have to ask.” He said to him, “Are you the Hillel who is called the nasi of Israel?”

He said to him, “Yes.”

[The man] said to Hillel, “If that is you, may there not be many like you in Israel.”

He said to him, “My son, why?”

[The man] said to [Hillel], “Because of you, I have lost 400 zuz!”

He said to him, “Be careful of your ruach! Hillel is worth it that you should lose 400 zuz because of him, and even another 400 zuz, yet Hillel will not lose his temper.”

In sum, the Vilna Gaon speaks of the three evil middos that take a person from the world:

  • QIn’ah = Ka’as – anger, which is either
    • suppressed and become mirmah (duplicity) or
    • expressed and becomes ra (destructive evil).
  • Ta’avah – desire, either
    • for pleasures, which is lazy and wants immediate satisfaction, or
    • for money and power (chemdah) which one pursues actively.
  • Ga’avah = Kavod – honor, either
    • expressed to others as snobbiness or
    • a conceit one fosters within oneself.

The Maharal works with a similar three, however to him they represent two different things. In terms of excess of longing for each world in which we live:

  • Qin’ah jealousy is wanting more than our place, not just walking the path to shmayim.
  • Ta’avah — too much longing for the pleasures of this world: food, sex, another hour’s sleep, etc…
  • Kavod — too much interest in the self yields egotism

In terms of deficiencies to how we relate those we encounter in each world:

  • Idolatry – the obvious antithesis of serving Hashem
  • Murder — the obvious antithesis of being kind to the other people we encounter in this world.
  • Sexual immoralityhere it’s not being described as too much desire for this world, but too little interest in refining oneself, the ultimate goal of Torah and the universe between our ears. After all, when looking at our actions’ impacts on others, the only ones harmed by consentual sex is the participants themselves.

(I must confess I find the Maharal’s model harder to understand how they fit than the other two.)

Last, the Maharsha’s three middos ra’os are those of Bil’am:

  • Ruach gavoha / gasas ruach — ego and ruling over others. This seems pretty similar to the Gr”a’s understanding of “ga’avah“, in particular “ga’on“, even down to terms each use.
  • Ayin hara — looking and chasing after things that aren’t theirs. Again, sounds much like ta’avah as described by the Gaon.
  • Nefesh rechavah – the pursuit of wealth, what the Gaon called chemdah.

It is important to note how all consider the basic human condition to come in threes, even if they don’t agree what the three are. The same is true of Freud’s Id-Ego-Super Ego, Adler’s Child-Adult-Parent, etc… Why?

When the alarm goes off, a person is conflicted. We can group his calls into two. One side realizes he has important things to accomplish that day, he has to get to shul, not be too late to his job, etc… The other just wants to hit the snooze button and get more sleep. Or, in choosing whether or not to sin, the yeitzer hatov says one thing, the yeitzer hara is recommending another. A movie or television show has a person making a decision, and they have a little image of him dressed as an angel on one shoulder, and another dressed as a devil on the other.

But you notice in those pictures, there are always three images of the person — the two angels, and the person himself. When I hear opposing callings from each yeitzer, or my body wants one thing and my sense of duty says another, there is always an “I” doing the hearing who has to decide between them. In the courtroom of my mind, there is a lawyer arguing each side, and a judge.

Decision making inherently conjures up three entities. And being a person is all about freedom of will.

In future posts I’ll have much more to say about this tripartite nature of man. In fact, it’s surprising I haven’t gone very far on this topic before now.

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