In this week’s Torah portion we find the laws of a Sotah, a woman who is suspected of adultery (see Numbers 5:11-31). In describing her actions, the Torah writes: “Ish ish, ki ‘sisteh’ ishto - any man, if his wife will go astray…” (the Hebrew word sisteh is related to the word sotah, “one who strays”, and means “shall go astray”)
However, the word sisteh is also related to the word shotah, “fool”, so that it can be taken to mean that she “shall act foolishly”.
Thus Rash”i quotes a Midrash that teaches: “Adulterers do not commit adultery until a ruach shtus, a spirit of foolishness, enters them”. The Sages of the Talmud expanded this teaching further, explaining that it applies to all sins (see Sotah 3a).
Now we can certainly understand why only a foolish person would commit adultery. After all, it is no more than a fleeting pleasure which cannot last, and often has dire consequences.
But are all other sins only done by foolish people? There are a lot of criminals out there with brilliant minds who are motivated by greed, money, fame etc. ..but one could hardly call them foolish! What then did the Talmudic sages mean when they taught that sinners only sin when a “spirit of foolishness” enters them?
Of course we can always explain this to mean that all sinners are foolish because they neglect to take into account the punishment they will receive for their sins from G-d in this world or the next, making their choice to sin a truly “foolish” decision, no matter how much money they make.
However, I would like to share with you a different explanation, based on the words of Rabbi Tzadok HaKohein Mi’Lublin (1823-1900) in his work Takanas HaShavim (page 3a):
The Kabbalists teach that in each and every one of us there are three levels of soul: (1) neshamah (situated in the moach, brain, seat of our intellect and spiritual drives); (2) ruach (situated in the lev, heart, seat of our emotional drives); and (3) nefesh (situated in the kaveid, liver, the largest physical organ in the body and the seat of our physical and material drives).
The neshamah which resides in the brain is the true essence of the person and can never be tainted by sin. It remains forever pure and whole and unsullied by our sins and negative actions.
It is for this reason, explains Rav Tzadok, that upon rising from bed in the morning, we say the prayer: “My G-d, the neshamah that You placed within me is pure…”. Note that we don’t say that it was pure, but that our neshamah is pure and untainted, even after we have committed many sins.
So long as the neshamah of a person is in the driver’s seat and in control of the rest of the body, he will not sin.
As our Sages teach us, each and every one of us is supposed to be a melech (king) over himself, in full control of his desires, passions and emotions at all times. Melech, spelled mem, lamed, khaf, is an acronym for the moach (brain), lev (heart), and kaveid (liver) in which the three levels of soul reside. If the neshamah/intellect in one’s moach is in the driver’s seat, he will not be swayed by every emotion in his lev, nor will he succumb to every passion in his kaveid – and he will truly be a ‘king” over himself.
So how does sin happen, you ask? It happens when the foolish ruach inside a person’s heart makes a free-will decision to follow his lev or kaveid and to sin against G-d, and drives the pure neshamah out of the driver’s seat inside the brain, thus allowing him to commit a sin.
This then is what the Sages meant when they taught us that a sinner only sins when a ruach shtus, a “spirit of foolishness’ enters him. It is referring to the ruach inside a sinner’s heart which enters his brain and drives out his neshamah.
Of course, the path to teshuvah (return) – explains Rav Tzadok – requires a realization on our part that our neshamah, which is our essence, was never actually tainted by the sins that we committed, and that it was merely “hijacked” by the lower levels of soul which caused us to sin. Once we realize this, we can then ‘return’ to our true selves, and restore our pure neshamah back into the driver’s seat where it rightly belongs.