The Purpose of the Emotions


Moshe Ben-Chaim



Reader: Your site is truly excellent. It is inspiring to read rational essays which attempt to arrive at truth, rather than the more common type these days which don’t seem to go anywhere in particular. My question is about emotions: clearly, God gave them to us for a purpose. However, if we are to approach His wisdom entirely from a rational standpoint, then what are the proper role of emotions and sentimentality in our lives and service of the Divine Will? 


Mesora: I will answer your question, and will also address another related question asked by Tamara. She asked why God made people so different from each other: “We all have the same emotions, but the degree of variation in each person, along with his personality and preferences, makes us so different. Why did God want this to be?”


The Talmud states that they once tied up the instincts (Yetzer Hara) and this resulted in chickens not laying eggs, and man not moving to accomplish anything. Emotions are needed to drive man and beast; both require an “energy source.” This emotional energy drives man, motivates him, and is responsible in all its forms for man’s accomplishments. This energy fuels our many emotions. A Rabbi once explained Ecclesiastes 1:7 (the metaphor of a river flowing) as referring to this “energy source” in each person. This energy may be let loose, when we do not restrain ourselves from any desire, or they may be directed by our intellect as to when and where we express, indulge or restrain from emotional involvement or gratification. King Solomon opened his work Ecclesiastes with a description of how man operates psychologically, so we may appreciate his subsequent words describing man, his downfalls, and his correct lifestyle. I believe the Torah does the same, using water again in Genesis.


A wise Rabbi once lectured on Ibn Ezra on Ecclesiastes 7:3. There, Ibn Ezra describes the three major components of man, and how one may arrive at the life of wisdom. He commences by describing man’s three major components of his mind; 1) the Nefesh (base drives), 2) the Neshama (intelligence) and 3) the Ruach (ego). Ibn Ezra then explains how man can become perfected and negotiate his varied natures towards success:


“It is known that when the base drives (nefesh) of man are strengthened, the intelligence (neshama) becomes weak and has no power to stand before it, for the body and all instincts strengthen that nefesh. Therefore, one who indulges in eating and drinking will never become wise. [But] when one joins the intelligence with one’s ego (ruach) one may succeed over the nefesh, the base drives. Then, the “eyes of the intelligence” are opened a small degree and one is enabled to understand physical science. However he cannot [yet] understand the higher areas of wisdom due to the power of the ego which strives for power; and it is that ego which creates anger. And after the intelligence reigns over the base drives via the assistance of the ego, the intelligence requires to be immersed in wisdom, that it will strengthen it, until the intelligence succeeds over the ego, and the ego is now subjugated to the intelligence.”


This amazing Ibn Ezra means as follows: At first, man enters the world as a child, completely controlled by his instincts, as his mind is not yet available. As he grows, his mind begins to stir, but the instincts have a head start on the intelligence, and it is impossible to conquer them alone. Man requires teaming his intelligence with another new, developing part of his mind: his ego. One’s ego is a formidable adversary to the base instincts, as one will seek ego satisfaction over instinctual satisfaction at a stage in his development. However, this ego and drive for power and fame limits a person, and causes him to become angry when he does not get his way. This means if his energies are not solely devoted to study for study itself, some of his energy still flows towards the ego. What he must do is to fully immerse himself in wisdom, and only then he will begin to attach himself to ideas, with no ulterior motive. This attachment possesses a greater hold on him, as it is his mind that is now engaged. The mind has the greatest magnetism of all man’s components, as God designed man to be attached to wisdom over all else. 

God gave man his greatest strengths in the realm of his intellect. But to arrive at this level of attachment to truth and wisdom, Ibn Ezra teaches that man must encounter these various stages, and address each stage as outlined: man must overcome the first set of drives he encounters, i.e., the base instincts, by teaming his ego with intelligence. Then man must immerse himself in wisdom, and this will loosen the hold, which his ego has on him. Man can arrive at a state where his mind is attached to the good, more powerfully than how strong his ego and base drives were attached to their objects of passion.


Once at this final level, and even before, God’s plan is that man harness his instincts and use them in service of the Torah lifestyle. Thus, King Solomon wrote in chapter three of Ecclesiastes that “there is a time to kill and a time to heal…a time a time to cry and a time to laugh…a time to love and a time to hate”. Meaning, no feeling or attitude is correct at all times, but must be guided. What guides it? Our intellect. War may be correct to remove killers, but killing innocent people is not correct. Love is good for creating societies, but wrong when used to pity a murderer. Harnessing emotions for Torah’s goals can be expressed positively as in loving your neighbor, lending money to the poor, and negatively by speaking loshon hora – evil speech. In some cases we must force ourselves to maintain more positive feelings, as in helping a friend with a heavy burden. At the same time, we must subjugate our “natural” feeling of resistance to helping our enemy, and bear the yoke for sake of the Torah’s loftier goals, until we appreciate why we should help an enemy in certain cases.

Emotions, or the Yetzer Hara, are comprised of numerous feelings that may be categorized under larger headings. For example, man’s sense of self – his ego – generates many “sub-emotions”: ego may be the cause for his hating someone who wronged HIM, as in, “Who does he think he is to do that to ME?!” In this case, one’s self image caused him to get riled up, as stated by Ibn Ezra above. Had he cared less about another person’s words, or little about his popularity, he would have let those intended insults pass with no affect on his demeanor. But the fool who hears ridicule will seek to protect his fragile ego, subsequently taking revenge on the one who slandered him. He also feels rejection, (the emotion that started this process) another expression of his need to maintain his desired self-image. In all these cases, the primary faculty of “ego” is responsible for all the trouble this poor individual suffered. So from a single faculty – ego – many emotions are heightened and acted upon, or controlled. And although praiseworthy, mere control is only one level. There is yet a higher level of existence we may achieve, where we are removed from the stress of controlling our emotions. That level is when the emotion is minimized as far as possible. How does this work?

 What is the Torah’s perspective on how to handle insult? The Torah lifestyle is where God always retains the focus. Man is most happy when his essence is satisfied: when his mind is engaged in perceiving new ideas and he arrives at a new truth about how the world operates, seeing new levels of wisdom in creation. Thereby, the self decreases in focus, and ultimately becomes of little concern: “The righteous eat to satisfy their souls”, “Bread with salt he eats”, “I am but dust and ashes.” These Torah sentiments display the true Torah perspective, where the self is maintained properly, but not excessively, and where one’s self-image is accurate: man is but “ashes” compared to God and creation. He does not live as a monk, he is not morbid, but he caters to his needs and desires guided by the Torah’s prescription. He strikes the balance where all of his emotions are in check, a middle ground as prescribed by Maimonides. This middle ground is where man is equidistant from both poles of a given emotional spectrum: he is not greedy, and not overly charitable; he is not callous, but not overly empathetic. Being equidistant was explained by a wise rabbi: the means by which the intelligence is the least pulled by the emotional poles. Imagine two magnets at either side of a table. In order to maintain the least pull they may exert over a steel ball bearing, we place that ball bearing exactly in the table’s center. Neither magnet has any more of a pull than the other, and the ball bearing remains at the center; never overpowered by either magnet. The emotions work in an identical fashion.

 When man attains a correct perspective of himself, and his emotions fall in line after having studied reality and Torah, he does not need to control himself from lashing out when ridiculed, as the ridicule has no affect at all on his demeanor. He realizes too, that words do not alter reality! If he possesses good values before the insult, the insult cannot change that truth. God and His world humble him, enough, not to be bothered by the insult. Nor did the insult change reality. God created our psyches, and knows best how we should manage them so as to achieve happiness and fulfillment. In this example, man followed God’s Torah, and found that what is prescribed by God, works perfectly, that he lives a far better, undisturbed life. Less matters stress him, and thereby, he is even afforded greater energy to pursue God’s wisdom.

 Now what about Tamara’s question? Why is each person designed so differently from the next? Not only do we all possess these various feelings, but also, every person varies in his “degree” of emotional strength (passion) and personality traits. One man may be passionate about money, while another is passionate about ideas and wisdom, caring little for money. The difference in these two people is explained by the latter having developed his mind, and discovering a new truth: wisdom offers a real happiness, which far exceeds the joy imagined by the first man to result from wealth. Both individuals have a large quantity of energy (we all do) but they differ in what they “value” and therefore place their energies in different pursuits. I recall asking a wise Rabbi why there are so few Jews entering the Rabbinate today. “Have people changed?” I asked. He responded, “No at all. But our society has placed higher value on wealth than on wisdom. The same numbers of great minds exist, but they gravitate towards lesser pursuits.”  He continued, “The Ivan Boeskies of the world could have been great Rabbis, had they realized that a life of wisdom is far greater than a life of pursuing wealth.” If all men and women would be shown the truth, they would all desire it equally. The difference in what people follow has less to do with God’s design, and more to do with man’s ignorance. 

That explains the “choices” man makes about his occupations. But why did God make people so different than one another? Why are some people delicate, others are hard or stubborn; some people like working with their hands, while others lack any such ability? Why are some people leaders and some people followers? 

I recall an explanation, but not the source. Peoples’ differences enable the world’s continued function. Had all men and women become doctors, but not one person became a baker, shoemaker, farmer, Rabbi or a builder, we would perish physically and spiritually. God, in His wisdom, created each person with different inclinations and abilities. Some traits may even be learned, while others are innate. This enables all human needs to be addressed by those suited for the job. Our differences enabled the continued existence of mankind. 

I hope this offers some glimpse into why we possess emotions, and why God made us all different. 

Now, having gained this knowledge, it will benefit us all if we start to examine ourselves, make note of our individual natures, see where we are failing, admit our errors, and use the Torah as a guide to return ourselves to a life of real happiness and fulfillment. God created our psyches, and knows best how we should manage them so as to achieve happiness and fulfillment. We all possess the ability to examine life, just as King Solomon did. He realized that a life of wisdom far exceeds any other material pursuit, or lifestyle. He was the wisest man next to Moses. 

Let us first study his work Ecclesiastes, understanding his teachings, and then be led by reason to alter our lifestyles to match what is true, what is our purpose, and what will offer real happiness.