The Anatomy of a Mitzvah

For the week ending 25 January 2020 / 28 Tevet 5780

Running on Willpower

by Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein
Library Library Library Kaddish

Last week we discussed various meanings and derivatives of the Hebrew/Aramaic word tzvi. In this essay we will focus on how tzvi in the sense of “desire/want” differs from its apparent synonyms in the words ratzon (whose verb form is rotzeh) and chefetz (whose verb form is chafetz).

Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim of Breslau (1740-1814) explains that tzvi, “desirable,”is derived from the root TZADI-BET, which means “standing.” Something desirable remains perpetually in one’s thoughts as though it is constantly “standing” in front of him. Tzvi connotes a continuous (perhaps obsessive) “desire” or “yearning” that persists over an extended stretch of time, rather than a fleeting “want” that is more short-lived.

Nonetheless, we find that the Aramaic word tzvi is almost synonymous with the Hebrew ratzon. This is reflected in Targum Onkelos, which translates cheshek (Deut. 7:7) and chefetz (Deut. 25:7) as tzvei, but also translates cheshek (Gen. 34:8, Deut. 21:11) and chefetz (Gen. 34:19, Deut. 21:14, 25:8) as raavon. Raavon, in turn, is the Aramaic form of the Hebrew ratzon (because when translating/converting Hebrew words into Aramaic, the letter TZADIin Hebrew commonly becomes anAYIN in Aramaic).

Rabbi Aharon Marcus (1843-1916) explains that ratzon, “will/want,”is related to “running” (ratz) because one “runs” with greater determination and resolve to do something that one wants to do. Similarly, the word tzvi, “desire/want,”was borrowed to refer to deer because they are known to run quickly. Alternatively, one might argue that because a deer is so swift it escapes capture, allowing it the freedom to run towards its goals. Accordingly, a deer may be called tzvi on account of its being free to follow its heart’s “wants” and “desires.”

Interestingly, the Midrash (B. R. §5:8) asserts that the word eretz (“Land”) is related to ratzon and ratz by explaining that when G-d first created the world, the Land wanted to follow G-d’s will, so it started running to cover as much of the Earth’s surface as possible, until G-d told it to stop. In this Midrash, the words eretz, ratz, and ratzon converge into one idea.

A number of commentators explain that chefetz is a stronger, more physical type of desire, while ratzon is the more subtle desire to do the right thing.

Rabbi Pappenheim explains that the difference between ratzon and chefetz lies in the intensity of will: ratzon connotes a simple “want,” while chefetz expresses a strong-willed “wanting” that cannot be as easily suppressed.

Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda Kook (1891-1982) similarly explains that chefetz is a stronger form of “wanting” than ratzon,because chefetz is closer to the perceivable reality and is less abstract than razton. This is why all tangible realia are called chafetzim in Mishnaic Hebrew (see Rashi to Eccl. 3:1).

Along similar lines, Rabbi Aharon Yehuda Leib Margolios of Frankfurt (d. 1811) in Beis Midos explains that razton refers to a person’s innate desire to do good, while chefetz generally refers to his animalistic, physical desires. He thus explains that “To do Your will (retzoncha) — O G-d— I have desired (chafatzti)” (Ps. 40:9) means that one has taken G-d’s will (His ratzon) as something that one wants to do on a behavioral level (chefetz). Meaning, he was able to harness his more powerful motivating drive of chafetz to do G-d’s will.

Rabbi Meir Leibush ben Yechiel Michel (1809-1879), better known as the Malbim, explains that chefetz refers to the soul’s emotional desires, while ratzon (will) is the mind’s intellectual desires (and as such usually has a positive connotation). He explains that chefetz is used when somebody is attracted to somebody/something without his consciously choosing to desire it. A non-intellectual desire like chefetz can theoretically drive one to “want” that which is bad for him (for example, Isa. 66:3). On the other hand, when a person's mental faculties are in play, he would never — “in his right mind” — choose to want something that is bad for himself, so ratzon always refers to “wanting” something good and noble. This is because ratzon refers to man’s choosing what he “wants” by exercising his freedom of will. The word ratzon also means “appeasement,” which is an attempt to sway man’s freedom of choice in favor of something.

Malbim explains that sometimes one’s chefetz can get in the way of his ratzon, and trump his true will. For example, the Torah commands that a man marry his childless brother’s widow. However, sometimes the man’s emotions might get in the way of his fulfilling this moral duty, and he might “not want” to perform this great mitzvah. In such a case, the Bible uses the term chefetz to denote his emotional will blocking him from doing his ratzon (Deut. 25:7-8, Ruth 3:13).

Rabbi Avraham Bedersi HaPenini (1230-1300) takes issue with those who (like Malbim) explain chefetz as referring to an emotional want or desire whose appearance arises beyond one’s control. He cites a bevy of Biblical passages which speak of G-d as being chafetz someone or something (e.g., Num. 14:8, Isa. 42:20, 53:10, I Kgs. 10:9, Ps. 147:10, I Sam. 15:22) and it is difficult — if not heretical and blasphemous — to say that G-d might have a “desire” or “want” that He did not choose. Instead, Rabbi Bedersi concludes that chefetz must also connote a type of “wanting” which is within the realm of free will and one chooses to “want” it. [To defend Malbim, we may posit that the Bible uses chefetz-related words when speaking about G-d as terms simply borrowed from the human context where it refers to a want/desire that comes without a person consciously choosing it. But this does not mean that G-d could “want” something which is beyond His choice; if He “wants” it, then, per force, He “chooses” to want it.]

Rabbi Yehuda Leib Edel (1760-1828) offers a totally different take on the difference between chefetz and ratzon. He explains that chefetz refers to one’s final goals, while ratzon can alsorefer to intermediary goals. Ratzon refers to both the means to an end and the end itself, while chefetz denotes the final goal.

To better illustrate Rabbi Edel’s point, let’s take an example in English: “I want to buy pizza” versus “I want to eat pizza.” In the first case, my “want” to buy pizza is only an intermediary goal. My real desire is to eat pizza, but since I don’t have any at home I must buy it in order to eat it. According to Rabbi Edel, when I refer to wanting to buy pizza the word ratzon is most appropriate because that “want” is not my ultimate goal. However, when I say “I want to eat pizza” eating pizza is my final goal, so the word chafetz is more apropos. [Let’s not forget that in an earlier essay (entitled “Deleterious Desires,” June 2017), we wrote that according to the Vilna Gaon, chafetz refers specifically to food-related desires.]

The Torah’s commandments and instructions are called G-d’s Will (razton Hashem), which according to Rabbi Edel would suggest that they are a means to His ends, and not His ends in and of themselves. Indeed, the Mishnah (Maccot 3:16) makes this point by citing Rabbi Chananya ben Akashya’s teaching: “G-d wanted to create merits for the Jewish People, therefore He gave them a lot of Torah and mitzvot, as it says, ‘G-d wants (chafetz) for the sake of his [either Israel’s or His] righteousness to make the Torah bigger and glorify it’ (Isa. 42:21).” This teaching reveals that G-d’s final will (His chefetz) — that is, to create more merits for the Jewish People — is that which fuels His more “intermediary” will (ratzon) as revealed in the Torah’s commandments.

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