Traffic Jams| May 30, 2018
f the many uncertain ventures in our world, travel must be in the top ten. The text of Tefillas Haderech, the wayfarer’s prayer, attests to this fact. We ask that we reach our destination “alive, and with gladness and peace,” and that Hashem protect us from various hazards along the way.
Then there are the less perilous, but still exasperating, travel events — traffic jams, roadblocks, delays, and detours. But by far the most universal and disheartening rerouting took place on the very first day of Creation, when man was banished from Gan Eden. Thus began the greatest detour in history.
“And a river comes out of Eden to water the garden, and from there it separates and becomes four heads” (Bereishis 2:10). The Torah goes on to describe four regions nourished and enriched by each riverhead. It was around these rivers that mankind, no longer welcome in Gan Eden, settled and flourished, and that four cradles of civilization developed.
The number four in Jewish thought represents the division, and divergence, of one source into various branches. Thus, the Malbim tells us that these areas were not only separate geographic regions, but that each land had its own indigenous culture and interests. He delineates these four areas of focus.
Pishon, the first area, boasted valuable mines of gold and precious stones. The emphasis on wealth and avarice promoted jealousy and rivalry among men. The Gichon population were pleasure-seekers. Chidekel was home to strong, courageous warriors who sought glory and honor for their achievements.
If these three dominant pursuits have a familiar ring, that is because our Sages group them together in various contexts. Most pointed is Rabi Elazar HaKappar’s assertion in Pirkei Avos (4:28): “Hakinah, hataavah, v’hakavod motzi’in es ha’adam min ha’olam — Jealousy, physical desires, and pursuit of honor remove a person from the world.”
And the fourth river? That was Peras. It was the river adjacent to Eretz Yisrael, and its population was engaged in the pursuit of truth and the service of Hashem.
Four rivers, four societies, four cultures. Man’s point of focus creates his worldview, drives his efforts, and maps his pathway through life.
Three Sources of Sin
The three drives of kinah, taavah, and kavod are considered the three principle sources of sin, and their various manifestations are a recurring motif in the history of mankind. In fact, at the very beginning of time, the serpent wielded his persuasive powers, and Chava looked at the Tree of Knowledge with new eyes (Bereishis 3:6): “And the woman saw that the tree was good for eating [a source of physical pleasure], that it was desirable for the eyes [a reference to jealousy, which is often generated by sight], and that it was precious for knowing [an allusion to the honor accorded to the intelligentsia].”
As the Maharal interprets it, Chava’s entire psyche was affected: The serpent awakened her emotional, physical, and intellectual desires, which translate, respectively, into kinah, taavah, and kavod.
Rav Dessler asserts that Hashem, the Source of all goodness, created a happy world, where each person can find joy and satisfaction. Why then does happiness elude so many who traverse this world? The answer, he explains, is found in Rabi Elazar HaKappar’s words about the three pursuits that remove a person from the world. These quests are perpetual, consuming, and destructive. The person will not only fall into sin, but will also never attain the gratification he seeks. Thus the common thread of this trio is that their pursuit is a bottomless pit and will invariably end in failure and frustration.
Jealousy, Mishlei tells us (14:30), “brings a rotting of the bones.” Since there will always be someone in the world who has something we want, the envious person eats himself up continuously as he observes the possessions, power, and success of others.
Lust and gluttony don’t fill a person — they create room for more desire. Even when the person achieves his original goal, his contentment is short-lived. Torah sources compare this to one who drinks salty water. It doesn’t satisfy him and only makes him thirstier. Furthermore, the Ramban (Devarim 29:18) notes that the result of succumbing to desire is vulnerability not only to the original desire, but to new temptations. Where he previously felt satiated, he’ll now feel deprived.
As for honor, who is the person who ever felt that he received adequate recognition from all his acquaintances and contacts?
But when our Sages state that any one of these base middos can “remove one from the world,” they are referring not only to this world. These pursuits are doubly destructive and leave him twice bankrupt. He’ll be miserable and frustrated in this world, and he’ll be bereft and ashamed in the world to come.
This is because these pursuits are the greatest impediments to man’s spiritual progress. They consume his mind and sap his vitality, not allowing him to focus on his true purpose in life. Worst of all, the victim doesn’t even realize the energy he is using up, the clarity he’s lost, and the narrowness of his vision. He remains “stuck” in one place, and he cannot move forward on his life’s journey.
In fact, these three areas of focus correspond to the three cardinal sins. Jealousy is linked to murder, as it’s often the cause of conflict; lust is the obvious cause of immorality; and the glory seeker may turn to idolatry, as he won’t give honor to Hashem.
Torah sources further indicate that all faulty character traits, evil acts, and moral failures are rooted in at least one of these base areas. Jealousy can lead to many interpersonal sins, such as theft, hatred, and gossip, while lusts and desires can make it exceedingly difficult to stay within the boundaries set by our Master. And if his love of honor becomes insatiable, he’s unlikely to admit wrongdoing and to seek reparation.
Is there any hope for the individual facing these roadblocks? Can he extricate himself? What about mankind as a whole? Are we stuck in permanent gridlock?
At the Crossroads
An overview of both history and the wisdom of Chazal is enlightening. After Adam’s expulsion, there were various crossroads for mankind that served as opportunities to rectify these three roots. Initially, these, too, ended in failure. Kayin was jealous of Hevel and he ended up committing the world’s first murder, the Dor Hamabul was destroyed by the Flood because of their immoral behavior, and the Dor Haflagah was dispersed when people pursued their own honor instead of their Creator’s.
The Avos began the work of rectification. Avraham taught the world to honor and serve Hashem; Yitzchak was a model of self-sacrifice and denial of temptation; Yaakov implanted unity in his family, the antithesis of jealousy and rivalry.
Yet the road did not always go smoothly from there. After a year in Midbar Sinai, when the Cloud of Glory arose to signal to the Dor Hamidbar, the generation that wandered the desert, that entry into Eretz Yisrael was imminent, a series of sins ensued, ultimately bringing about another interruption in human history — and a detour that we are still navigating.
The commentaries link the three sins of the Dor Hamidbar to kinah, taavah and kavod: Korach’s rebellion was a product of his middah of jealousy, the people “craved a desire” for meat and other foods (Bamidbar 11:4), and the spies’ negative words about Eretz Yisrael stemmed partly from concern for their own honor.
The results were heartbreakingly similar to Adam’s punishment. He was barred from Gan Eden, and they were denied entrance to Eretz Yisrael.
And so the journey continues — the collective journey of Klal Yisrael throughout the Diaspora, and the personal life journey of each individual. We attempt to conquer temptation, to accept the successes of others, and to move away from self-aggrandizement. It’s a formidable, constant challenge to change our focus from serving the self to serving Hashem and to center our mind on Olam Habah rather than Olam Hazeh. The alternative, however, is to be stuck in a virtual standstill, much as the Midbar generation found themselves stuck in the wilderness for 40 years.
Clearing the Roadblocks
But how do we clear these roadblocks? As the Maharal points out, we cannot avoid sin by merely wishing it away, or by making fanciful resolutions. A more sensible approach is to isolate the source of our sins and then implement wise strategies. Kinah, taavah, and kavod are the universal motivators of sin, and they all center on the self. They’re all about us — our possessions, our pleasures, and our prestige.
What are the strategies that will move us away from self-absorption and egoism? In Pirkei Avos (3:1), Akavya ben Mehallalel suggests that we can avoid “falling into the hands of sin” by contemplating the humble origins, and destinations, of our life cycles. Histakal b’shloshah devarim, visualize three things: from where you have come — from a decaying drop; to where you are going — to a place of dust and worms; and before Whom you are destined to give an account and reckoning — HaKadosh Baruch Hu.
The knowledge of “from where we have come” will diminish any thoughts of prestige; the contemplation of “where we are going” will erase our jealousy of others’ temporal assets; the fear of being summoned at any moment “to give a reckoning” will diminish our appetite for forbidden pleasures. And the recognition that these endpoints — conception and death — are universal for all of mankind, and will further weaken any feelings of superiority over others.
Akavya is proposing that each of us become our own coach, motivational speaker, and cheerleader.
Yet what is particularly cheering about Akavya’s words? Or those of Rabi Elazar HaKappar? Perhaps their overall message is that our lives matter. The questions: “Where did you come from?” and “Where are you going?” remind us that we are on a purposeful journey, rather than aimlessly drifting through time and space. “Before whom will you give a reckoning” is sobering, yet uplifting. It tells us that the ultimate destination is not even the “place of dust and worms,” but to stand before HaKadosh Baruch Hu.
And being aware of kinah, taavah and kavod, the sources of our sins, means that we are able to locate our current position. Which of the four riverheads did I follow? Where did I made the wrong turn? How did I wander off track? All this, so that we can reroute ourselves, bypass the traffic obstructions, and get onto the road that leads back to Gan Eden.
Sources include writings of Sfas Emes, Rabbi Lau, and other commentaries on Pirkei Avos.
Originally featured in Family First, Issue 594. Mrs. Shani Mendlowitz is a teacher at Bais Yaakov Seminary in Montreal, and is a popular lecturer for adults
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