Educating Desire

Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz is often sought out for his views on numerous subjects and we [at Parabola] found ourselves wondering what he’d have to say on each of our themes.  Generous and gracious, he clears time from his demanding schedule not to answer but to challenge and to question editors and readers alike.

I had a friend.  He was older than me, but for a time I became his teacher. He was on a long path to religion and it was for him a way of suffering. At one point, I told him about procession caterpillars. They go in a line, one after the other. You see a whole line of caterpillars, each touching the other, and they are going in a procession. They are perhaps searching for food, or whatever. Biologists experimented with them and one experiment had almost political implications. One caterpillar leads. The others follow. Why is the leader a leader? What made him into being a leader? And they found out that the leader is a leader because each has the instinctive feeling to follow the tail of another caterpillar. Now, there was one caterpillar who didn’t find a tail, so he became the leader. By default. So that’s the leader! The one that didn’t find a tail.

In order to prove it, they did something which is in a way unkind. They arranged them to form a circle, the first caterpillar touching the last. They work by instinct, and so they walk in a circle. And they go like this until they die. Always in the same circle. I said to my friend that sometimes people go in this kind of circle in their spiritual life and the only way to solve it is to cut it. You have to cut the caterpillar-like circle by will, and then you may go in any direction.

The circle means death, moving but staying in the same place. There are people who lead that sort of life for years, and I’m not speaking about material ways of life, but spiritual as well. A person has all kinds of driving impulses, but no solution. You come to the same questions, the same answers, and so you move in a circle. You don’t move anywhere.

Things like worry or depression are almost the same. You go into a circle, and you can’t cut it. Because a worry doesn’t have any answer. It can only be cut, not answered. You can go on worrying forever.

I asked my friend what was the moving power in his search. He said it was a verse in the book of Job when Job speaks to God and says, “you are yearning for your handiwork.” And he said, “If God is yearning for me, how can I say no?” So, there is a yearning. And sometimes I come, and sometimes I don’t come. I may have my longing, the Almighty may have His. And we may meet, or we won’t ever meet.

Sometimes you make a choice. There are certain things that you just don’t want to care about. People make such decisions all the time. Look, some people have an obsession with an absence. An absence of money. And they are obsessed with it all their life. Including people who become very, very rich. But they can’t get rid of the yearning, and all the time have same kind of unresolved desire. Other people may have a great yearning for beauty. Some people don’t have it at all. So for them, there’s no absence, and for them there’s no yearning. It just doesn’t exist. At a certain point we make decisions not only about what we are going to do but about what we are going to desire.

Some people want power, and others may decide that they are not only not going in this path, they are deciding not to dream these dreams of power and influence. It’s not only because it interferes with other things. I just don’t want to. Sometimes a decision comes because I am convinced that I am not searching for the right thing. At other times I may think that it’s a bad, or a mean thing. Or useless. Or I say it is not important enough for me to go on dreaming about it. In a certain way, it is a matter of educating one’s desires.

And we do have this education, all the time, and not always in a completely positive way. There is a certain age in which children will collect things: marbles, or stones, or baseball cards. It takes all of our time and then, somehow, it stops. Sometimes it changes into other things. Those that collected, say, the baseball cards, may come to collect other pieces of paper, green pieces of paper-some people are great collectors. At any rate, I may have still at home a collection of
those cards. They no longer mean anything to me. This means that I was, in a way, educated. I don’t know if it’s a great advance or not a great advance. But I got educated.

Now, in a certain way, part of our problem is that we are yearning for something which is “good.” But we have to define what is “good.” If we get educated, the notion of “good” changes. I remember when it was so very important for my little daughter to be good at playing marbles and now she no longer cares whether she was good at marbles or not. Supposedly all of us do not care now about it. But for a time, it was an important part of my life, a part of my yearning, a part sometimes of my dreams. If I would pray, sometimes I would pray to be very good at that. I’m just saying that growing up is in many ways the knowledge of how many things I dreamt about that I no longer dream about. I’m no longer yearning though the yearning at that time was a very real one. Everybody’s is different?sometimes it’s a nice pretty dress. You may have it or not have it, but it no longer counts. There is a time when you cry because you don’t have something, or are very happy because you got it. You grow up, and it’s not important anymore. A problem can arise if when we grow up we stick to the same kind of yearning – some of them we got at the age of eighteen, some of them we got at slightly earlier or later. And we stick to them.

We can be educated in making different choices. I can decide that habit, so and so, these things, other things, other, what you call, “points of desire” – I don’t want them anymore. I decided I am not going after that anymore. I am changing to something else. And, if I am successful, I’m not bothered by them anymore. I want something else. So I discard the old things. And they don’t matter to me anymore. This bus goes in another direction. I’m not riding it. I took another one.

See, for some people the decision for them to go into a religious life, contemplative life, it is a matter of a decision. You can will to be close to God. You can have a will like this. What happens if you find that someone is in love with you? You just find out. What is your reaction? For most people it’s very hard to ignore it completely. There is some kind of a resonance. In the book of Ecclesiastes, it says “like a face to the water” (now we would say like a face in the mirror), as one face to the other face in the water, so is one heart to the other heart. The idea is that, if I love somebody they can not be completely indifferent. When God says, “I yearn for you.” I may think, “leave me alone. Mind your own business.” Some people will answer like this. And for others it’s a very compelling power, the power that comes when you know that somebody is yearning for you.

But many responses are possible, and sometimes it is as though somebody changed my mind. Like the points of the compass, I now am pointing in another direction. Just yesterday, I couldn’t care less and now it is the only thing that matters. It happens. It happens sometimes when people fall in love. I saw a face, I saw a person, and for some time it was of no consequence, of no importance. Now there’s a click, and it becomes more and more and more important. For some people, it’s not a matter of a click. It’s a matter of a really slow move. And in some cases, a voluntary move. I want to go in a certain direction. I want to go there. I am in a way channeling my ability, my power, my inner sense of yearning in a different direction. And in some way I think that everybody can and does do it.

Now I am saying that the same ability is there also to shut off, to close all sorts of things. There is a Chassidic story that somebody sent one of his disciples to the home of another one. So, he came to the home, it was nighttime. Knocks on the door. No answer. He knocks, and knocks, and knocks again, and again…well, he was commanded to meet the fellow. So he’s still there, and knocks on the door, and nothing. And then, after some time, the host opens the door and says, “You know what I wanted to teach you? That man has the ability to allow whomever he wants to enter.” There are lots of knocks on my door. And I can decide: I don’t want to allow it to enter. It’s as simple as that. Let them ring.

So I think that this kind of ringing is not only about ringing. Look, I may say there is a whole world ringing. They want from me this thing and the other thing, and people want from me lots of things. Family. Acquaintances. And I may just say I don’t want it, I want other things. Just as simple as that. They called you, and you are not going. You are not available. I may say, “I don’t care for you.” It’s a freedom. And sometimes it’s, “I don’t care for you.” Full stop. Or, “I don’t care for you,” not to put a full stop, “I care for something else.” I used to play the piano. I am not going to play the piano. I’m going to play football. And I think it’s important, because a change in the desires means eventually also a change of life. When I don’t want certain things, they no longer count, and they are no longer a part of my life. They disappear.