Educating For Desire: A Lesson From Dante & Rav Kook

We could sense that the shiur was nearing a close. It had been, as usual, a tour de force of emotion and insight that characterized these once-weekly gatherings of the entire Yeshiva.

The Rebbe then turned to each of us, his eyes wide, scanning the room, and boomed: “!חבר׳ה, אל תהיו לי סתמניקים — Guys, I do not want you to be stamnikim!” At the time, it was eminently clear to each of us what the Rebbe meant by this, but by now, many years later, the memory and clarity fades. What follows here is an attempt to reconstruct what he meant, perhaps a powerful and resonant message for educators and Jewish leadership today.

At the outset of his descent through the Inferno, Dante finds himself with Virgil standing at the gates in the “vestibule of Hell”, ready to commence their journey into the 9 burning rings of fire.

I then, with horror yet encompast, cried:
“O Master! What is this I hear? What race
Are these, who seem so overcome with woe?”
He thus to me: “This miserable fate
Suffer the wretched souls of those, who lived
Without praise or blame, with that ill band
Of angels mix’d, who nor rebellious proved,
Nor yet were true to God, but for themselves
Were only. From his bounds Heaven drove
Them forth. Not to impair his lustre; nor the depth
Of Hell receives them, lest the accursed tribe
Should glory thence with exultance vain.
(The Divine Comedy: Inferno, Canto III)

These “wretched souls” are those who did not merit to enter Heaven and yet do not deserve to enter Hell. They are, as we have described in the past1, the pareve of Humanity, too lazy to do good and too shiftless to do evil. Here they remain, cast aside and forgotten, embodying the terrible vision of “why dost Thou forget us forever, and forsake us for eternality?” (Lamentations 5:20).

Virgil explains that the reason behind these souls’ unique fate was their sheer lack of drive to do anything. For better or worse, they remained as they were throughout life and that was their great failure. There was no drive, no yetzer to speak of. The Mussarists encapsulated this with the phrase “if you are not going up, of necessity you are going down.” In the spiritual journey, there is no neutral position.

R. Abraham Isaac ha-Kohen Kook (1865-1935) has a startling take on this, perhaps even at odds with the traditionally accepted Jewish approach to personal growth. Writing in his commentary on selected Aggadot, Eyn Ayah2, R. Kook’s words perhaps offer a clue as to what our Rebbe was saying when he lamented the malaise of the stamnik.

The Talmud discloses a strategy for contending with the yetzer ha-ra:

R. Levi b. Hama said in the name of R. Shimon b. Lakish: One should always incite his good inclination against his evil inclination. If one succeeds and subdues it, excellent. If he does not succeed, he should study Torah, according to the verse “say to your heart.” If he subdues the evil inclination, excellent; if not, he should recite Shema, as it is stated “upon your bed.” If he subdues the evil inclination, excellent; if not, he should remind himself of the day of death, alluded to in the verse “and be still, Selah.”

Rav Kook comments [emphasis added]:

The goal of all of Man’s energies, both the good and evil, is to use them in the best way possible. Therefore, it is not necessarily a good idea to suppress and diminish those negative powers that emanate from the evil inclination, because they are often essential for eventually achieving good… therefore, the best educational advice is to cultivate all of an individual’s character traits in their full expression — whilst ensuring that the good traits still are dominant in the soul, controlling the negative energies. For in truth, even those negative traits are essentially good, so long as they are kept in check… If there is a possibility to focus on strengthening good traits rather than upon suppressing bad ones, it is undoubtedly a better path, because when one suppresses the essential aspects of their soul, it is to be expected that it will be at the detriment of those good characteristics as well.

I do not think it an overstatement to say that R. Kook was not especially interested in the type of spiritual education which seeks to subdue and ultimately eradicate those negative aspects and character traits — even objectively evil ones. R. Kook did not see that as a goal of hinukh, and freely acknowledges that these drives are naturally present in all souls: “it is Man’s very nature that their negative energies are more readily available and present in the psyche than their positive ones.” Whereas other educators would see the quashing of those energies and drives as a desideratum, R. Kook envisions a different path, whereby those considerable powers — evil included — are enlisted in the service of God and in the quest for wholeness and authenticity. (To put this in terms popularized by Chabad hassidut, it seems R. Kook is more interested in “ithapkha” than “itkafi’a.”) He takes the Mishnaic injunction (Berakhot 9:5) “to serve God with all of one’s heart — both the yetzer ha-tov and ra”, in its rawest, fullest meaning. At the very least, one might advance a reading that the latter simply is not a particularly effective spiritual strategy in our generation.

A parallel passage in Middot Ra’AYaH, a smaller work also by R. Kook printed together with the well-known Orot ha-Torah and Orot ha-Teshuva, makes clear what this all means in pedagogical terms. Under the heading ratzon, or “will,” R. Kook explains (§1):

In general, we must work to develop desire and drive, to bring it to its fullest expression, and then afterward direct it to flourish in holiness; the standard educational path, for young and old must first and foremost be the cultivation of desire and drive — allowing it to blossom — and thereupon polishing and refining it…

This is not simply a recapitulation of the Talmudic teaching that “one only learns that which their heart desires” (Avodah Zarah 19a), but rather a reimagining of how teachers deal with the unique personalities and souls of their students. It is a call to allow those innate capacities the student is endowed with to bloom regardless of their superficial presentation as good or bad. I submit that perhaps R. Kook knows that this is playing with fire, but prefers the unencumbered expression of the soul to the languishing stamnikim whom Dante encounters at the vestibule of Hell. This is advocated while fully understanding the narrow bridge such an educational approach traverses, with the gaping void and the inferno beneath should it fail. As always, R. Kook’s prophetic optimism both informs and shapes his perspective, certain that the true educator will be able to fan the sparks of desire into flames of faith.3

Understood this way, we discover a key goal for Jewish leaders and educators: הגברת הרצון, cultivation of desire and tending to motivation as a pedagogical and spiritual objective. To be sure, we risk “the blame” that comes from a will improperly directed, because it contains the potential for “the praise” and reinvention that allows the student to “mix with the Angels.” Better we entertain the hazards of rebellion than to sterilize ourselves of all desire, condemned to bemoan for all time a life lived without passion.

1. See our previous essay on this theme, “Mesillat Yesharim & Wasting Your Life”, Daf Aleph 11.17.16

2. Berakhot vol. 1, p. 13; Makhon R. Tzvi Yehuda Kook: Jerusalem, 1994

3. In particular, this may serve to frame the narrative of Reish Lakish and R. Yohanan, Bava Metzia 84a. I propose that R. Yohanan is just such an educator, who understood the already fully-developed, yet negatively expressed strong personality traits of Reish Lakish as fertile ground for the development of a future tanna and intellectual sparring partner. This is summed up in his first riposte to Reish Lakish as he leaps into the Jordan: “חילך לאורייתא! Your strengths should be for Torah!”

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