The Attitudes, Behaviors and Cognitions that Lead to Sin
Our Gemara begins by describing four principal kinds of damages:
מַתְנִי’ אַרְבָּעָה אֲבוֹת נְזִיקִין הַשּׁוֹר וְהַבּוֹר וְהַמַּבְעֶה וְהַהֶבְעֵר
MISHNA: There are four primary categories of damage: The category of Ox; and the category of Pit; and the category of Maveh, which, based on a discussion in the Gemara, refers either to the tooth of an animal that causes damage or to a person who causes damage; and the category of Fire.
Mystics often find spiritual resonance in seemingly mundane physical matters. When discussing the four principal forms of damage, it’s important to consider the spiritual dimensions and realms of damage. According to Chaim V’chessed (180:1):
The four spiritual damages are: wandering eyes, emptiness and lack of attachment to God, gluttony and lust, and anger. They are represented by the words Ox; the category of Pit; and the category of Maveh, tooth; and Fire. The letters that spell ox in Hebrew, shor, also spell shur, which means to gaze. A pit is an empty hole, signifying a lack of spiritual attachment. The tooth, which is related to eating and consumption, signifies gluttony and desire. Finally, fire represents anger.
Derashos of Chasam Sofer (1:64a) notes that Yosef became ensnared by Potiphar’s wife by not being mindful of these four dangerous traits. He followed his eyes, indulged in hedonism, neglected spirituality, and gave in to anger. This is hinted at in the phrase in Bereishis (39:11):
וַיְהִי֙ כְּהַיּ֣וֹם הַזֶּ֔ה וַיָּבֹ֥א הַבַּ֖יְתָה לַעֲשׂ֣וֹת מְלַאכְתּ֑וֹ וְאֵ֨ין אִ֜ישׁ מֵאַנְשֵׁ֥י הַבַּ֛יִת שָׁ֖ם בַּבָּֽיִת׃
“One such day, he came into the house to do his work. None of the household being there inside.”
The first letter of these four words מֵאַנְשֵׁ֥י הַבַּ֛יִת שָׁ֖ם בַּבָּֽיִת, Mem, Hey, Shin, Beis, forms an acronym for Maveh, Hev’er, Shor, and Bor.
When counseling people grappling with compulsive sexual behavior, it’s important to realize and not underestimate a key concept. Sexual desire is one of the strongest instincts, and there are points of no return where people enter a state of lust where they can no longer resist. The key is to identify the cognitions and behaviors that lead to lusting much earlier in the process, in terms of subtler behaviors and mental processes. Often, people don’t realize they’ve already made the choice without realizing it. They’ve started down a slope where they will lose control to their instincts and drives. Imagine one’s drives are like a horse, which is an apt metaphor because our urges essentially manifest the animal within us. Once a horse is at full gallop, it’s difficult to stop or slow down. However, if it’s just getting agitated and you catch it early, you can soothe the horse and redirect it. This concept is well-represented by these teachings that certain behaviors and modes of thought inevitably lead to damage and sin. We must be proactive and catch them early.
Plowing Through the Talmud
Our Gemara on Amud Aleph quotes a verse in Yeshaiya (32:20):
אַשְׁרֵיכֶ֕ם זֹרְעֵ֖י עַל־כׇּל־מָ֑יִם מְשַׁלְּחֵ֥י רֶגֶל־הַשּׁ֖וֹר וְהַחֲמֽוֹר
“Happy shall you be who sow by all waters, who send out cattle and donkeys to pasture.”
Derashos Maharal (Derash Al HaTorah 5) understands this verse as referring to the impact of Torah on a person and what it yields when engaged with properly. Tanna Debei Eliyahu Zuta (Seder Eliyahu Zuta 15) comments on this verse: “Water here refers to Torah. Fortunate is the man who makes himself strong as an ox and donkey, to plow the fields of Torah.” Maharal develops this idea further, explaining that the ox represents strength of will, and the donkey represents brute physical strength, as well as the ability to carry large loads. The study of Torah requires both physical stamina for the long hours and hard work it demands, but also intellectual will and resolve to penetrate complex analyses. The analogy to plowing the field is that a field alone is empty with nothing in it. However, when worked properly, it produces abundance. Similarly, a person must initially become as strong as a donkey and as determined as an ox to bring out the latent wisdom within the “soil” of what he is studying.
Notably, Maharal says this is why the first sacrifice (Omer) brought on the second day of Pesach is made from barley. This sacrifice initiates the process of counting and preparing for Shavuos, the receiving of the Torah. The Gemara Sotah (14a) says that the Sotah brings a sacrifice made of barley, which is animal food, because she behaved in an animal-like manner. The Omer sacrifice is also barley, hinting at an animal-like quality, but here it is for a positive effect. In the beginning of one’s journey toward greater Torah competency and knowledge, one must behave with the strength of an animal and plow ahead. Only later, after many years of investment and hard work, other higher spiritual motivations and experiences will be manifested.
I find this to be particularly true in the study of Gemara. The language, syntax, and style of logic in the Gemara require years of hard work before the deeper, nuanced pleasure comes out from studying this material. Many young people get frustrated with the intricacies of the Talmud and are never able to develop the facility to study it and enjoy it freely. It is unfortunate because the Talmud is the intellectual heart and soul of Judaism. The proliferation of Daf Yomi and English language resources hopefully goes some way toward addressing this challenge. I do not have any easy solutions other than to say that when you reach the point where you’re able to read and hear the words in their full meaning and you have been exposed to enough of the classic sugyos to appreciate the trend and flow of the arguments, that is when the full beauty and enjoyment of Talmud study emerges. The words are multi-representational, laced with irony, humor, double entendres, and deep philosophical insights. All of this occurs within a legalistic backdrop that will not hesitate to penetrate every detail and letter of the law in order to mine the significance and implications, allowing poskim to come up with new applications of halakha into modern times. To those readers who have been scared off from Gemara study due to overbearing teachers or personal frustrations, I urge you to reconsider approaching this material with an adult heart and mind.