Enjoying the pleasures of the world

Dear Rabbi Fried,
I presume that everyone agrees that putting forth effort to do a mitzvah is encouraged (i.e., shaking a lulav), and engaging in comfort in the context of an averah (sin) is discouraged (i.e., premarital contact between the opposite sex). My question is: What does Jewish philosophy say about effort not in the context of a mitzvah (such as taking the stairs instead of the elevator up to my apartment) and comfort not in the context of an averah (like putting my favorite dressing on my salad)? On the one hand, I have heard about the concept of avoiding comfort even when it is not in the context of an averah, since the avoidance of comfort will help develop one’s discipline muscles, thus increasing the chances he or she will overcome the challenge of engaging in a future averah… On the other hand, I also heard about the concept that one should engage in the material world in order to be able to thank and appreciate God for the pleasure he/she has been given, which would imply that comfort not in the context of an averah should be engaged in.
I am having a hard time reconciling this apparent contradiction and would love to know your thoughts.
Dear Sammy,
After eating or drinking most foods and drinks, we recite an after-blessing called “borei nafashos.” Within this blessing we thank God for “creating many beings and providing what they lack, upon all that You created to provide life to all which have the soul of life…[we thank You]…”
What is the difference between “what they lack” and “all that He created to provide life”?
The commentaries explain the following. “What they lack” is referring to the basic necessities which each creation needs to exist. For the carnivores, God provided a food chain of animal life which enables each species along the chain to maintain themselves by feeding on the animals down the chain. For herbivores, God custom-made various plants which are appropriate for each species. There are leaves high in the trees for the giraffes, away from the ground-feeding species, and vice versa and so on.
For humans, as well, there are basic necessities we require for our sustenance, with which we can remain alive and healthy.
There are, however, entire categories of foods which are not at all required for sustenance, but they bring us pleasure. Nobody “needs” a piece of cake at the end of an otherwise healthy meal, but, often, it brings one pleasure and lightens the mood, creating a good feeling. Many such pleasures, if consumed wisely and in measure, not only do not hurt one physically, but help enhance a feeling of pleasure, contentment and happiness. Those feelings can actually foster well-being and health.
That is the meaning of the second half of the blessing, “upon all that you created,” thanking God not only for the basic necessities, but also for the pleasures He created for us.
The blessing continues, “to bring life to all which have the soul of life.” This teaches that the pleasures of life are not merely tolerated, but actually enhance life (see Tur Orach Chayim Ch. 207).
The deeper side of this is a teaching of the Kabbalistic masters who declare, “Man was only created to derive pleasure from God” (see Mesilas Yesharim, Ch. 1). God, who is the ultimate Good, created mankind to receive His goodness through a multitude of pleasures, some spiritual and some physical. Even the physical pleasures are an avenue through which we can tap into the spiritual goodness of God, transforming the physical into the spiritual. “Taste and see the goodness of God” (Psalms 34:9).
If one feels they need to tame themselves of certain lusts or desires, there may be room to temporarily curb certain physical enjoyments, like we find with the Nazirite who needs to refrain from wine for 30 days to overcome certain issues in his or her life. But the overarching Torah approach to life is that pleasures are there to be enjoyed! The pleasures of life were gifted to us by a loving God who wants us to enjoy life.

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