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Beit Midrash Series

Are We Permitted to Enjoy this World?

I recline in an armchair in the lobby of the hotel and look over the menu. After the crazy day I've had, I deserve to relax and enjoy a good meal. Suddenly, I am menaced by a disturbing thought: Am I really permitted to enjoy myself in this world?
Various Rabbis13 Shvat 5768
3576
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and look over the menu. After the crazy day I've had, I deserve a little enjoyment, to relax and enjoy a good meal. Suddenly, I am menaced by a disturbing thought: Am I really permitted to enjoy myself in this world?



To Elevate the Mundane
Rabbi Michael Hershkovitz
We find two opinions regarding one who prevents himself from enjoying the pleasures of this world: There are those who believe that such a person is a sinner, and there are others who call him a saint. In the words of the Talmud (Taanit 11): "Shmuel says, 'Whoever denies himself pleasures is called a sinner' ... Rabbi Elazar says, 'Such a person is called a saint.' "

These approaches are given expression in other sources as well. The Jerusalem Talmud (Kiddushin ch. 4) informs us: "R' Chezkiya says in the name of Rav, 'In the future [world] a person will have to give account for everything his eye saw yet he did not eat." On the other hand, it is written (Ketubot 14): "As Ribi (Rabbi Judah the Prince) was dying, he held up his ten fingers toward heaven and said, "Master of the Universe, You are well aware that with my ten fingers I labored in Torah and did not derive pleasure even with my little finger."

Criticism and negation of the ascetic path apparently stem from the fact that the ascetic believes that the material must bow to the spirit, that the more the body is cultivated, the more the mind deteriorates. Such an idea runs counter to the pure spirit of Israel.

Not only is there no contradiction between mind and matter, but the mundane, physical realm is in fact the content of the sacred, and it is the sacred that gives it its form. We must elevate the mundane to the level of the sacred. Our flesh is stamped with a covenant, the "brit milah," at the very center of man's passions, in order to elevate and refine them, and this symbolizes the lofty spirit of Israel.

Rabbi Eleazar Hamodin echoes this idea when he says: (Avot 3:15) "One who desecrates sacred things, one who denigrates festivals, one who publicly shames his fellow man, one who brakes the covenant of Abraham, and one who brazenly affronts the Torah, controverting the law, even though he possess Torah and good deeds, he has no portion in the World to Come."

The Maharal of Prague explains that each of the actions mentioned in this Mishnah aim at embracing the spirit and rejecting the material world.

One who desecrates the sacred things does so because he considers it a disgrace to sacrifice a material entity to the Creator, and one who denigrates the festivals does so because the joy and physical pleasure that characterize the festivals appear, in his eyes, a disgrace.

One who breaks the covenant of Abraham does so because he considers it a disgrace that our covenant with God should be attached to this particular organ (i.e., circumcision).

The expression "one who brazenly affronts the Torah, controverting the law," according to the Maharal, refers to one who disparages the commandments that are performed with one's body, and this happens to people who seek to embrace the spiritual and reject the material.

One who publicly shames his fellow man does so because he considers man material and therefore insignificant.

Regarding all of these actions the Mishnah tells us that the desire to embrace the spirit and estrange the material causes one to lose his World to Come, the world of the spirit.


Three Perspectives
Rabbi Yehudah Melamed
Regarding the question of worldly pleasure, there are three lines of approach: the mussar (ethical) perspective, the intellectual perspective, and the kabalistic, mystical perspective.

The mussar perspective. The school of mussar, moral discipline, looks upon worldly pleasures with reservation and suspicion. The material world is fraught with dangers. It is dark and cloudy. All interaction with material comfort is liable to taint the spirit and pull man down into the abyss.

Let not man fool himself into believing that if he partakes of worldly pleasures as much as possible, he will find peace. If a person does not pull himself upward, he is doomed to tumble downward. Therefore, a person should make use of the bare minimum. Even when tending to his physical necessities, a person should not intend to derive physical pleasure, but should carry out his actions for the sake of Heaven. For example, one should eat with the aim of revitalizing his body in order to serve God.

The intellectual perspective. The body and its faculties are vessels: If a person uses them in a positive manner, well and good; if he uses them in a negative manner, he damages himself and the world.

A person should not allow himself to become swept up by his physical senses. Yet, neither should he be frightened by them. A person should foster a practical approach. Every matter has a proper time and place wherein it fulfills its purpose. When every matter receives its appropriate emphasis, an individual achieves fulfillment. In this manner, a person is able to know God and to serve him as best as possible.

According to this perspective, the mussar approach to the material world causes one to forget that it was God Who created the body, and that He does not hate it. According to this line of thought, the middle path is also the most effective when it comes to dealing with the evil inclination and its temptations. There is no tension here between the body and the mind. The mind is the ruler, and the body is its subject.

The mystical perspective. Precisely in this world, via the various physical senses, there is great potential. However, a person does not reach this level if he has not yet reached the previous two. Only if one knows how to avoid being swept up by the intoxicating pull of the senses, only if he approaches the senses and emotions in their refined state, not their crude state, does one discover that every subtle emotion and every refined sense contains an opening to lofty spiritual worlds.

This is the reason that the Kabalists speak in a language of senses and imagination, allusions and parables. According to their approach, this is the most appropriate language for expressing God's greatness, not the intellect. One who has not purified his senses would be best to stay away from these mysteries, or at least make due with their intellectual message. But one who has purified his senses is capable of experiencing profundities that no language of intellect or rationale is capable of enunciating.

In sum, it may be that each path is appropriate for different senses. The sexual impulse should be treated according to the first approach - extreme caution and safe distance. The approach to the food and sleep impulse should accord with the second approach - to satisfy bodily needs in a balanced and healthy manner. The approach to sight, smell, hearing, can follow the third path - by embracing the entire world, its beauty, its air, its music, the soul can be uplifted.

Pleasure - Source or Assistant
Rabbi Saadia Danan
"The honey and the bee sting" are inherent in worldly pleasure.

On the one hand, God created "beautiful fruit trees for man's enjoyment," so much so that in the future, man will have to give account for the fact that he had the opportunity to enjoy yet refrained from doing so. In addition, we are commanded to "indulge in delights, fatted fowl, quails, and fish" on the Sabbath. The sages further tell us, "A pleasant house, a pleasant wife, and pleasant furniture give a person a contented disposition."

On the other hand, the Original Sin began with "And the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight for the eyes" (Genesis 3:6). And Rabbi Judah the Prince attests that he derived no pleasure from this world, even with his little finger. The worldly pleasures pull man down to the level of animal. Even when indulging in permissible pleasures, man must strive not to be a "miscreant with the Torah's permission."

Therefore, the question arises: Is there a distinction that can guide us in our daily confrontation with permissible pleasures?

Yes. It is the distinction between "hanaah" (with an alef, "pleasure") and "hana'ah" (with an ayin, "setting in motion"). In other words, a person must ask himself if he views pleasure as the very source of his drive to reach his goal ("hana'ah"), or as an expedient ("hanaah").

If pleasure is viewed as something that helps one reach his goal, it has the power to uplift his soul and bring composure, and is therefore fitting and necessary.

However, if pleasure is seen as the very source of a person's action, that which moves him to act at all, it is dangerous. In such a case, whenever a person faces a challenge that is without subjective pleasure and calls for true exertion, he will back down in favor of comfort.

Pleasure can never serve as a yardstick for revealing truth; rather, truth must itself be the motive that obliges a person to act, even if one must "eat bread and salt . . . sleep on the ground . . . and labor over the Torah."

The pursuit of pleasure as a motive addicts a person to worldly pleasures and passions. One who adopts this path will not succeed in fostering his faith and will be unable to express his uniqueness and life goal. We must therefore focus on developing the divine truth inherent in our nature, so that all pleasure we experience lead us to our true goal, the joy of the radiance of the Divine spirit.
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