What You Really Want
There are different kinds of wanting. Sometimes a person wants something because he understands that he needs it for a real purpose. Other times a person wants something just for the sake of wanting it, even though the object has no real purpose. This second kind of wanting is called impulsive cravings, or ta'avah in Hebrew. In this week's portion, even though the people had more than enough good food to eat as they made their way through the desert, they craved different food and ended up letting their cravings get out of control with unhappy consequences. Wanting things is okay within reason, but simply following one's impulsive desires not only doesn't make a person happy, but often causes him to lose out on the things he really wants much more.
In our story, a boy learns how to get what he really wants.
"All right!!!" Alex shouted, as he waved the open envelope back and forth.
"What's up Al? You won the lottery or something?" asked his big sister Leah.
"Next best thing," he laughed. "Grandma's birthday money!"
Alex and Leah could always count on a generous gift from their Grandma Sarah, but this time, she really outdid herself. "You'd better send her a BIG thank you note," Leah said as she leaned her head in to peek at just how big a windfall her brother received.
"Yeah, for sure, but first things first. I'm off to Wide World of Sports. Now I can finally get those DLX professional hockey skates I've been wanting."
Before Leah could blink, Alex was out the door with an ear-to-ear smile, and a fistful of money.
The boy could already feel himself sliding across the ice rink on his new skates. Sure they cost a lot, but they were worth it. He was part of an after school league, and these skates would really improve his performance during the games.
He had almost got to the sporting goods store, when a sign he had never seen before caught his eye. GIANT SUPER SAVINGS - EVERYTHING IN THE STORE - 99 CENTS!
He was about to pass by, when a thought crossed his mind. 'In a store like that I could go wild with all the money Grandma gave me. Why should I just get one thing, when I could fill up a whole shopping cart!'
Before he knew it, he was following his feet into the huge, colorfully laid out store. His original plan to buy skates faded further and further away as Alex marveled at the aisles jam-packed with what seemed like everything under the sun - the candy aisle alone seemed a mile long - and best of all it was all for bargain prices!
Alex enthusiastically grabbed one of the oversize shopping carts, and began his safari through the jungle of unbelievable bargains, hungrily pulling down items off the shelves like they were delicious fruit from a tree. 'This is really great,' he thought as he filled his cart with games, books, and tapes he never heard of before, with enough pens to write an encyclopedia, enough digital watches to set one to every time zone in the world, and enough candy to - well, create business for every dentist in the state.
'Well this is probably all I can afford,' figured Alex as he got ready to bring the stuff up to the check out. But when he did a rough count of how much all the items were going to cost, he was surprised to find out he hadn't spent nearly half of what he could.
So he took his half-full cart and began round two. Talking key chains, soap that smelled like pizza, three different color shoe polish (boy would Leah laugh, neither of them would remember the last time he polished his shoes in any color.) For some reason he didn't feel quite as excited as when the shopping spree began. But he pushed the feeling aside. Why shouldn't he be happy? After all, he was getting so much more than he had planned. The boy trooped on, undaunted, scooping up as many bargains as he could. He took a fish bowl even though he didn't have any fish, a flashing dog collar for a dog he didn't yet own. 'Maybe I'll get one some day.' Alex trudged on and on, strangely feeling relieved as the cart finally filled up, signaling a light at the end of the tunnel.
He got in line to pay and the people in front of him were also packed with stuff. But despite their great bargains, nobody really looked so happy, at least not as happy as they did when they first walked into the store.
Finally Alex's turn came. He looked into the shopping cart and shook his head. Sure it was a lot of stuff, but he had to admit to himself that out of all of it, there wasn't really anything he actually needed - or even really wanted for that matter. Certainly not nearly as much as the pro skates he had had his heart set on for months.
"Yes son, pile 'er up on the counter. You're next," said the lady at the cash register with a bored half-smile.
Alex began to unload his bargains and his heart sunk. 'What am I doing?' he thought to himself. He had gotten caught up in the 'thrill of the chase,' but now thinking it over, he realized it was a big mistake.
"Well?" asked the lady to the hesitating boy.
"Um, I'm sorry," he said, "but I think I changed my mind. Don't worry, I'll put everything back."
As he pushed the cart away, he was surprised when the cashier, rather than getting mad, actually looked up and smiled at him. "Good for you," she said with a wink. "People just come here to buy for the sake of buying. Between you and me, it's all really a bunch of junk, isn't it?"
Alex carefully put all the stuff back, feeling his heart growing lighter along with the shopping cart. He'd go and get his skates after all, something he really wanted and needed - and something he almost let slide away.
Q. How did Alex feel when he began his shopping spree?
A. He felt happy to be able to buy so many things.
Q. How did he feel in the end?
A. He felt disappointed, even though it was a lot of things, since he had only bought them because of an impulse and not because he really wanted or needed them.
Q. Alex was on his way to finally buy skates he had really wanted for a long time. What made him suddenly change his mind?
A. He saw the flashy sign and displays, and was taken over by a craving to go in and grab as much as he could, even though he would be giving up something much more valuable. This is the way impulses work - they temporarily shut down our better judgment and get us to do things we would never do otherwise.
Q. How can a person know if he really needs something or merely craves it?
A. A genuine need almost always has a sensible reason behind it, i.e. "I'm hungry because I haven't eaten since breakfast." A craving doesn't, i.e. "I need one more slice of pizza even though I had ten already and I'm about to get sick, because ... it tastes good." Also, for a need, a person is willing to invest himself in a long-term plan to get it, whereas for a craving he feels like he must get it NOW. Also, after a person fulfills a genuine need he generally feels good about it, while after giving in to a craving he often regrets it.
Ages 10 and Up
Q. Our sages teach that the ability to overcome and act contrary to one's impulse for the sake of a higher value is a unique human quality and a measure of one's spirituality. How and why is this so?
A. Animals act only according to impulse; if they are hungry they eat, if they are angered they attack, etc. Something external may impede them, like a bigger animal that wants to eat the same thing they do, but never will they refrain from eating because they are, say, fasting that day in solidarity with their hungry and oppressed brothers across the globe. But God has granted us a unique, higher level of consciousness, with an ability to choose to respond to higher values. To the extent that we tap into and act upon its dictates - instead of listening to our animal impulses - we lift ourselves spiritually.
Q. Often when we give in to our impulses, which at the time seem so desirable, we regret it soon afterward. Why do you think this is so?
A. Each of us is really made up of two parts. We have within us a lower self, which is the source of our impulsive, self-centered cravings, and a higher, more spiritual self which is more focused on giving. When we follow our taking impulse, our lower self experiences a short burst of pleasure which is almost immediately superceded by our higher self's anguish at our have chosen to act selfishly.