Rabbi Dr. Abraham J. Twerski
Rabbi Dr. Abraham J. Twerski

Shavuos: Dawn of Intellectual Emotion

We did our thing. We were up all Shavuos night, and were inspired by the dramatic account of mattan Torah. And now? Business as usual, right?

After the awesome revelation at Sinai, Hashem said "Return to your tents" (Devarim 5:27), and commentaries say that the message was, "Here at Sinai you reached the lofty level of spirituality, naaseh venishma. Take this spirituality back to your tents, and conduct your daily lives with the attitude of naaseh venishma." We must take the spiritual gain of Shavuos with us as we return to our daily routine.

The gift of Torah was daas. "If there is no daas, how can one distinguish right from wrong?" (Jerusalem Talmud, Berachos 5:2)."If you have daas, you lack nothing" (Nedarim 41a). The chassidic writings say that in the enslavement of Egypt, the Israelites were bereft of daas. As slaves, they had no opportunity to exercise daas, so it atrophied. During the seven weeks between the exodus and Sinai, they began to reclaim daas, although this was not fully attained until forty years later, as Moses said, "But Hashem did not give you a heart lodaas (to know) …until this day" (Devarim 29:3). The failings that they had on the desert were due to their lack of daas.

I used to take offense at the scientific classification of man as homo sapiens, which in simple English means "a baboon with intellect." It is clear to me that intellect is not the primary feature that gives man his uniqueness and separates him from other creatures. Firstly, it is evident that animals do have intellect. If you observe a lion stalking its prey, one can see that the lion calculates just the right moment to make its attack. Secondly, if intellect is the primary characteristic that defines man, then the person with the highest intellect should be the most ideal human being, and this is simply not true. Prior to World War II, the country most advanced in intellect was Germany.

In Happiness and the Human Spirit I elaborated on the concept that it is the spirit rather than intellect that gives us our uniqueness as human beings.

But I have gained new respect for intellect and am perfectly comfortable with being a homo sapiens. It is only a matter of putting sapiens, the intellect, to proper use.

Yes, animals, too, have intellect, but except for domesticated pets that can pick up human traits, animals use their intellect solely to satisfy their own needs. Animals are driven to act by their bodily desires, and they use their intellect to satisfy them. The animal intellect is a tool that serves the desire.

In Tanya, the Alter Rebbe posits that the human being has two spiritual components, one that is identified with the physical body (nefesh habehamis) and one that is identified with the neshama (nefesh elokis). Both of these are comprised of intellectual traits and of affective or emotional traits. The difference between the two is that in the nefesh habehamis, as in all animals, the motivation is provided by the affects, and the intellect is then used to satisfy the affective drive; i.e., the intellect is a tool of the affect.

In the nefesh elokis, the Alter Rebbe says, the reverse occurs: The intellect give rise to the affect. This is reminiscent of the story of the doctor who told the patient, "You can eat whatever you like, and here is what you are going to like."

This is a revolutionary idea. Conventional wisdom is that we like something because we like it. Our emotions are spontaneous. You cannot tell someone that he must develop a particular emotion, and that he must like something.

The Alter Rebbe's position, however, is proven by the mitzvah in the Torah, "You shall love Hashem." One can be commanded to do something, such as to put on tefillin or to sit in a sukkah, or to refrain from doing something, like working on Shabbos. Actions can be legislated, but how can one be ordered to love something? Yet, we are commanded to love Hashem (ahavah) and to be in awe of Hashem (yirah), both of which are emotions that are not subject to volition. But the Torah does not ask the impossible of us.

Rambam addresses this question, and says that the way to develop ahavas Hashem is to contemplate His wondrous creations (Yesodei HaTorah 2:2). The commentary explains that Rambam is redefining ahavah to mean not only love, but also adoration, and appreciation of Hashem's wondrous creations can indeed produce adoration.

The Alter Rebbe introduces a novel concept: intellectual emotion. I.e., if a person does not feel love for Hashem, but understands intellectually that Hashem should be loved, that, too, is fulfillment of the mitzvah to love Hashem.

Mesilas Yesharim addresses this issue by citing a principle found in Sefer HaChinuch, that behavior can determine emotion. I.e., even if one is unable to feel love for Hashem, if one acts as if one did feel love, these actions will generate love.

Whichever approach one takes, the Alter Rebbe's point is validated. Intellect can produce emotions. This use of intellect is uniquely human, and allows me to accept the appellation homo sapiens.

This is more than a philosophic discussion. We are witnessing an unprecedented incident of failure of marriages. As Chana Levitan explains in I Only Want to Get Married Once, western civilization's concept of "love" is more rightfully called "infatuation," an affect originating in the nefesh habehamis which gradually wanes, resulting in couples "falling out of love." It is possible, however, to develop a true love ala nefesh elokis, a love generated by the intellect. Respect for another person and appreciation of that person's character traits and virtues can produce an ahava which does not wilt with the passage of time.

If this concept seems strange, it is because we have been impacted by the idea of "love" that prevails in our environment, which threatens the stability of marriage. If we implement the sapiens properly, to be master of the affects rather than its tool, we can preserve the wholesomeness of marriage. This is the Torah concept of daas, which was given to us at Sinai and which we commemorate on Shavuos. We must take this spiritual gain of Shavuos as we return to our daily routine.

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