Desires versus Wishes
Our Gemara on Amud Aleph quotes a series clauses in the verses that discuss the process of bringing the tithes of produce to the Temple (Devarim 14:24-26):
וְכִֽי־יִרְבֶּ֨ה מִמְּךָ֜ הַדֶּ֗רֶךְ כִּ֣י לֹ֣א תוּכַל֮ שְׂאֵתוֹ֒ כִּֽי־יִרְחַ֤ק מִמְּךָ֙ הַמָּק֔וֹם אֲשֶׁ֤ר יִבְחַר֙ ה׳ אלקיך לָשׂ֥וּם שְׁמ֖וֹ שָׁ֑ם כִּ֥י יְבָרֶכְךָ֖ ה׳ אלקיך
Should the distance be too great for you, should you be unable to transport them, because the place where your God has chosen to establish the divine name is far from you and because your God has blessed you
וְנָתַתָּ֖ה בַּכָּ֑סֶף וְצַרְתָּ֤ הַכֶּ֙סֶף֙ בְּיָ֣דְךָ֔ וְהָֽלַכְתָּ֙ אֶל־הַמָּק֔וֹם אֲשֶׁ֥ר יִבְחַ֛ר ה׳ אלוקיך בו
you may convert them into money. Wrap up the money and take it with you to the place that your God has chosen.
וְנָתַתָּ֣ה הַכֶּ֡סֶף בְּכֹל֩ אֲשֶׁר־תְּאַוֶּ֨ה נַפְשְׁךָ֜ בַּבָּקָ֣ר וּבַצֹּ֗אן וּבַיַּ֙יִן֙ וּבַשֵּׁכָ֔ר וּבְכֹ֛ל אֲשֶׁ֥ר תִּֽשְׁאָלְךָ֖ נַפְשֶׁ֑ךָ וְאָכַ֣לְתָּ שָּׁ֗ם לִפְנֵי֙ ה׳ אלוקיך וְשָׂמַחְתָּ֖ אַתָּ֥ה וּבֵיתֶֽךָ׃
and spend the money on anything your soul desires — cattle, sheep, wine, or other intoxicant, or anything your soul may ask for. And you shall feast there, in the presence of your God.
The verse is interesting in that it discusses the wish to enjoy as both “ta’aveh” “desire” and “She’eylah” “wanting something”. The use of the word soul, also seems to hint at something deep and meaningful.
Noam Elimelech (Devarim Re’eh 4 and 6) interprets the Biblical reference to distance and desire as representative of a spiritual/emotional state. A person may feel far from God, and his soul may be suffering from “ta’aveh” that is a desire of a hedonistic kind. The remedy is to commit his money to charity, and then his hedonistic desire will transform into a mere “want”. The soul will become refined and able to relate to physical needs and pleasures in a balanced manner, without being overcome. This is represented in the gathering of the money, bringing it closer to God (Jerusalem), and then the switch from use of the word “desire” to the word “want”.
Noam Elimeleh believed that generous giving would temper the pleasure seeking urges. I wonder what is the operative principle of this effect. Is it the act of kindness, or is it the renunciation of attachment to money, or is it both? Many philanthropists are exceedingly generous. Does it affect them in the manner described by Noam Elimelech? I think that would depend on the principles above: If a renunciation of material goods is necessary, then one must “give until it hurts.” If it is due solely to acting kind, then the amount given is less important than the emotional connection and regard toward another person.
Regardless, it is known that appropriate sacrifice and focus on others’ needs brings contentment and happiness instead of frustration and deprivation. According to social scientist Carole Pertofsky (as quoted in an article by Katie Shumake https://news.stanford.edu/report/2021/03/02/the-happiness-story/ ) :
We discover the meaningful life, sustainable long-term happiness, when we understand our core values as guides to discovering meaning and purpose by serving the greater good. Pertofsky points to a famous quote: “The purpose of life is to find your gifts, the work of life is to develop your gifts, the meaning of life is to give your gifts away.” Our values are our anchor, and when we express our values in how we serve others, self-doubts become less important than our purpose.
Our Gemara on Amud Beis discusses the halakhic principle that if one who admits he is liable to pay a fine, than he is exempt from actually having to pay it. This pardoning applies even if, after his admission, witnesses come forward with independently valid testimony that would have convicted him.
The Shalah (Aseres HaDibros, Yoma, Torah Ohr 23) understands this as true metaphysically in relation to sin and God’s punishment. The power of confessing sins (in Judaism this can be quietly verbalized to oneself) acts to forestall punishments from the Heavenly Court as well.
Even psychologically speaking, self-honesty is critical to growth and self-esteem. Facing one’s flaws, fears, and distorted sense of entitlement is the first and critical step in being able to change personality traits that interfere with healthy relationships. Confession that comes from deep realization and awareness has the power to bring about significant personal development.
Humans Always Are Growing
Our Gemara on Amud Beis discusses the halakha that even a day-old bull is called a bull, and even a day-old ram is called a ram.
Sefer Chayyim V’chessed (272) observes that this principle is based on the biological truth that animals tend to be born with all the basic skills and instincts they need to survive. In comparison, a human newborn is helpless and needs decades of instruction and modeling by his or her parents to develop the necessary skills of life. A human is not static and always potentially growing.
I believe there is a well-meaning but misinformed belief that seems to be repeated often by experts as if it were Torah MiSinai: “You cannot change your spouse.” And what I find even more troubling is that sometimes great rabbinic authorities treat pronouncements about personality disorders as if they were piskei halakha. Mental health diagnoses are highly subjective and two experienced therapists routinely will widely disagree about diagnoses. Additionally, the medical and pharmaceutical industry has a vested interest in describing as many human challenges as diagnoses and diseases, in order to promote medications and other medicalized treatments. However, although Chazal had a taxonomy of mental illness, such as Marah Shechora and Ruach Ra’ah (see some descriptions and sources in Eliyahu Rabbah OC:278), I doubt they would have considered personality disorders as a disease. They would call it poor middos.
While change is difficult, particularly deep personality issues, people still achieve change all the time if they endeavor to. Otherwise, why bother being alive? We are here on earth to grow, and a marriage relationship is a wonderful way to learn about our weaknesses and develop new strengths and abilities.
With the right amount of respect, encouragement, motivation and education all kinds of change are possible. At first it may just be surface and behavioral, but in time, one can develop new patterns of thinking that come along with the changes, as one experiences the rewards and benefits of more adaptive functioning. Yet, of course, there are those who do not climb out of the self-generated trap of harmful, distorted perceptions and beliefs. Some hit bottom and wake up, but unfortunately others may not wake up in time and end up driving their loved ones away.
Our Gemara on Amud Beis discusses the concept of Takkanas Hashavim, a special allowance made for a penitent. Usually, if someone stole an item he is not permitted to merely pay the owner for the object, but rather he must return the object, so long as it has not been materially transformed into a different object, such as stealing wool and making it into a garment. Thus, a thief who later wants to repent can sometimes find himself in a predicament, if what he stole has not been transformed, and yet still has become deeply embedded in a structure. The Gemara describes a scenario where a thief stole a large wooden beam which became the supporting brace for his home. The beam was not changed or transformed significantly, though now built into his home, and therefore according to the letter of the law he must dismantle his home and return it to the rightful owner. The rabbis felt that certain Torah laws can ask more of people than, at least, people of their current times could bear. Thus to facilitate and encourage repentance, they allowed the thief to keep the beam and discharge his liability by paying for it. The owner cannot compel the thief to dismantle his construction project.
Rav Elchonon Wasserman (Kovetz Ma’amarim 17) observes that the Rabbis were not inventing a whole new idea conceptually. Rather they were expanding on a pre-existing Torah sensitivity. The fact that the Torah does not require a thief to return a stolen object that was significantly transformed might be an indicator of this ethos. Rav Elchonon argues that the Torah realizes that once a person invested his energies and creativity into transforming something, such as weaving a sweater out of stolen wool, it would be too hard to return and thus he can pay. The rabbis merely extended this concern due to their sense that the contemporary average penitent could no longer bear the test of removing the beam. This has been the role of the sages, as guardians of the law, who occasionally rely on technicalities to effectively make new legislation in order to preserve the law’s overall function, as we see in regard to the Pruzbol (Mishna Gittin 4:3). (In our case they rely on the principle of Hefker Beis Din Hefker.) Even when the sages make such interventions, they seek some precedence within the law already, as also expressed in the principle כׇּל דְּתַקּוּן רַבָּנַן — כְּעֵין דְּאוֹרָיְיתָא תַּיקּוּן verything the Sages instituted through their decrees, they instituted similar to the model established by Torah law (Pesachim 116b.)
Reflecting upon this, I will share a psychological derush. Sometimes we develop habits and personality features that came from sin, but our defenses and perception can be so baked into our character that it is almost impossible to remove them without tearing down the entire structure. Is it possible that sometimes God is merciful, and allows the penitent to somehow integrate and repurpose the “psychological contraband” into a useful personality feature, even if it was ill-begotten? For example, a suspicious, paranoid or pessimistic person could perhaps learn to use that quality for better purposes instead of getting rid of it entirely? Or could a sensual person who engaged in debauchery keep his or her sensitivities and appetites, but redirect them for more constructive purposes? I don’t know if one can always succeed at that, and perhaps sometimes a person needs a total demolition of self before being able to rebuild. Still, we can hope God has mercy and guides us to change without too much painful destruction.