Craving Connection:
Three Levels
Of Intimacy

"Just as water is the source of all life and growth, it is the love and connection that we feel that is the source of all of our vitality."

"The path of elevation encourages us to reframe how we look at pleasure and try to turn it into a growth experience."


Rabbi Shlomo Buxbaum

We yearn for love and connection, as well as a pull toward physical gratification.

Human beings are, by nature, pleasure seekers. Most decisions we make are motivated by either our desire to experience pleasure or avoid pain. And as we go through life, we become explorers to try to find what it is that will bring us that true pleasure.

Unlike the animal kingdom, we aren’t satisfied just living with the bare minimum to keep us safe and secure, when there are a myriad of pleasurable experiences that we want to try. We aren’t complacent, settling for bread and water for survival when there is steak and sushi to be enjoyed. But even greater than mere physical gratification, our desire for pleasure yearns for something even deeper and more meaningful. A pleasure that can only be found through feelings of love and connection.

This brings us to the struggle that exists within the water element in a person. Water represents our feelings and emotions, the pleasures we experience on a soul level. It is at this level that we experience both a yearning for love and connection, as well as a pull toward physical gratification. In fact, research has shown that both feelings of love as well as physical pleasures activate related areas in our brains, known as pleasure centers. The close relationship between the two shows us that desire for physical pleasure used correctly is a powerful tool that leads to love or to enhance existing love.

Just as water is the source of all life and growth, it is the love and connection that we feel that is the source of all of our vitality. When we feel loved, we feel a great sense of pleasure. And when we feel that a lack love and connection, we begin to feel an inner emptiness which causes our brains to look for an easy way to substitute the drought that is caused by our loneliness. We naturally gravitate toward substituting that desire for pleasure with other pleasurable experiences that give us a “quick fix,” fooling our brains to temporarily think that everything is good. This can lead us to indulge in excess pleasure and generate feelings of lust and inappropriate desires.

It is for this reason that mental health professionals have found that many clients that have fallen into the trap of some addictions are at their core looking for love and connection. The void in their hearts that really needed to be filled with love and affection now causes them to look to supplement that lack by indulging in other pleasures that will give them a false sense of satisfaction. That inner pure desire to feel love and connection is replaced with an unquenchable thirst for more physical pleasure. It is because of this that we find that illicit physical pleasures are referred to in the Torah as mayim genuvim, “stolen waters.” (Proverbs 9:17)

In order to become a master over the water element one needs to learn to excel in the following areas:


Our Sages teach us about a trait called gevurah, translated as inner strength or discipline. To understand this trait, we turn back to our Sages in Ethics of Our Fathers, who teach us: “Who is considered a person of strength? One who has learned to conquer their desires.”

To conquer one’s desires does not mean making them go away. It means having them under your control to use them however you would like. When an army conquers a city, the greatest expression of strength is not to destroy the enemy. It is to take them under their control. That is true gevurah, discipline.

The path of elevation encourages us to reframe how we look at pleasure and try to turn it into a growth experience. So, instead of engaging in a physically pleasurable activity just for the sake of the pleasure that we get from it, we try to develop a mindset as to what we are really achieving through that activity. Some of the ways we can be more mindful is to focus on the following:

  • How this pleasure will give us good health or energy
  • How it might strengthen us physically, emotionally, or mentally
  • How it will give us the ability to appreciate the Almighty for the gift of pleasure
  • How we are utilizing and transforming the raw materials of creation into sources of strength so that we can become the best version of us and serve God better

Water is composed of two elements: oxygen and hydrogen. When they come together, they create something new: water, the foundation of life. But the only reason that those elements combine is because of their polarity. The pleasure we experience from love is when two individuals come together — not for selfish reasons or to indulge in their own benefits — but for the specific desire of completing the other. It is also the movement and fluidity of water that symbolizes the flexibility of both parties that allows them to evolve and grow together. Water easily mixes and seamlessly becomes one unit. It is the water part of us that allows us to become one with another.

This adage from King Solomon further draws a parallel between love and water:

“As the face is reflected in water, so is one’s heart reflected in another.” (Proverbs 27:19.)

When we see our reflection in water, we realize that we are looking at ourselves. Successful relationships happen as we begin to see the other as a part of us. On a body level, we might be two separate people, but on a soul level we are connected. The other’s growth is my growth, his or her pain is my pain, etc. The transformation of lust to love happens when we no longer see ourselves as separate entities but as one and the same. Until then, we will still prioritize our own self-interests. If our relationship is centered on our own benefit and pleasure it can be easily uprooted when an outside object of lust presents itself.

When we consistently work on engaging in mindful pleasure and creating/maintaining deep, loving connections in which we focus on the other, we will find that the water realm inside of us will overflow with “waters of life” that will provide us with a life of meaning and vitality.

Based on the book

Four Elements of an Empowered Life A Guidebook to Discovering Your Inner World And Unique Rabbi Shlomo Buxbaum


Rabbi Yonason Goldson

A person who dreams of a river, a kettle, or a bird, will enjoy peace in his marriage.

In biblical Hebrew, there are three different words used to communicate will or desire.

  1. ta’avah, relates to physical pleasure.
  2. cheifetz, refers to wishing for or striving toward a goal.
  3. ratzon, looks toward satisfaction through completion and fulfillment.

In Talmudic literature, we are told that the curious imagery of the river, the kettle, and the bird is describing three different levels of marital intimacy, best understood through these nuances in the Hebrew language.


On the most basic level, a marriage is a partnership, an arrangement in which one party receives tangible benefits, whether physical, emotional, or financial, that make it worth his while to supply his spouse with tangible benefits valuable to her.

This type of relationship may be compared to a river, by way of which one city engages in commerce with another, each supplying what the other wants in order to acquire what it wants for itself.

It is the lowest level of relationship, one based on ta’avah, personal gratification.

Indeed, if the parties involved never mature beyond this stage, the marriage is unlikely to last, for sooner or later one or the other will no longer consider the benefits to outweigh the costs.


At the next level, two people come to appreciate that they are complementary, with each bringing to the relationship strengths and qualities that make the two of them together much more than the sum of their parts.

This kind of relationship, with the resulting bond of common purpose and appreciation, is compared to a kettle, which enables fire and water, by nature incompatible, to become partners.

Through the medium of the kettle, fire and water join forces instead of consuming one another, producing something positive instead of destroying themselves.

In this second type of relationship, the wife uses her strengths to compensate for her husband’s weaknesses and vice versa.

Their marriage becomes a true partnership where each feels both needed by and dependent upon the other, not merely using the other for personal gain.

They have grown into a relationship driven by cheifetz, the desire to attain a common goal through mutual commitment and combined effort.

Many happy and successful marriages remain on this second level.


A bird possesses a dual nature: it is a creature both of the earth and of the sky.

In order to function in the air, the bird’s design sacrifices a measure of efficiency upon the ground.

Similarly, in order to operate upon the ground, it gives up a measure of efficiency in flight.

Each capacity is in some way diminished to accommodate and empower the other. The bird sacrifices mastering one skill in a singular domain, in order to achieve more overall by integrating two abilities into one unified being,

This is the highest level of human intimacy, where each partner no longer sees himself or herself as one of a pair but as part of a single whole.

Where neither individual feels any sense of sacrifice for the other because what is best for the other is what is best for the one.

This level of relationship is characterized by ratzon, the most elevated expression of desire that seeks fulfillment through completion.

Each partner, feeling deficient in the absence of the other, attains the most intense satisfaction when the desires of the other are fulfilled.

His own desires become secondary or, more accurately, the desires of the other become his own.

The great sage, Rabbi Aryeh Levin, reportedly said to his wife’s physician:
“Doctor, my wife’s foot is hurting us.”
In Rabbi Levin’s relationship with his wife, there was no “I”, only the collective “We”.

At the birth of a Jewish child, friends and neighbors traditionally offer the benediction: 

“May you raise this child to enter into Torah, marriage, and good deeds. “

Why do we mention marriage before good deeds?

Can we not perform good deeds before we marry? 

Marriage is the training ground for good deeds, the institution that teaches us how to do for others not only without expectation of reciprocity, but without even the notion of reciprocity.
Because what we do for our spouse we do for ourselves, and neither of us desires anything more than the happiness of the other.

For a more in depth discussion of this topic, see the book

The River, the Kettle, and the Birdby Rabbi Aharon Feldman

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