Should pleasure be minimized? Or not?

Dear Rabbi Fried,
Thank you for your elaborate response clarifying the concept of comfort and pleasure, which was published in last week’s TJP.
As a follow-up, when I engage in pleasure, it is not for the purpose of enjoying God’s gifts, as indicated, but rather out of pure desire. I think this makes me more materialistic which, in turn, hurts my service toward Hashem.
As far as “giving one joy to better fulfill mitzvos,” this would seem to imply that engaging in pleasure is simply a necessary means so as to enable one to perform direct service of Hashem through Torah learning, mitzvos and others, at the highest level. If this is the case, this would line up with my suggestion that it would be best, through a baby-step approach, for one to minimize one’s engagement in pleasure, thereby minimizing the amount of pleasure one needs to be a happy and content person. This in turn, would eventually present maximum time, money and energy dedicated to the service of Hashem.
Based on the points above, wouldn’t it be ideal for someone like myself to minimize pleasure through a baby-step approach, thereby maximizing my efforts toward the service of Hashem?
Thank you again!
Dear Sammy,
As we elaborated in the past columns, refraining from physical pleasures is not necessarily the Jewish ideal, as God created pleasures to be enjoyed. There is, however, a level that you describe for individuals who seek a higher existence.
It would be very dangerous for one to embark on such a path without proper guidance, however. A template to what you are asking is outlined in the classical Jewish philosophical and practical guide to Jewish growth, the “Mesillas Yesharim.” This was written by the renowned 18th-century sage R’ Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, first published in Amsterdam in 1738, and known in English as “Path of the Just,” Feldheim Publishing Company.
This unique and profound work is one of the foundational treatises of the “Mussar Movement,” which we discussed in previous columns. This Jewish scholarly movement focuses on character growth, self-improvement and utilizing the mitzvos to “climb the ladder” to a higher and closer connection to God. That “ladder,” its rungs and how one is able to climb it, is outlined and elucidated in great detail.
Among other suggestions which flow from a profound understanding of the world and man’s place and purpose in it, Mesillas Yesharim deals with the proper attitude toward pleasures: the extent that one should seek them or be involved in them when they present themselves. Luzzatto often explained that the attitude toward pleasure depended on what rung of the ladder on which the individual stood.
While this work is recommended if you are sincerely seeking a path of growth in the spiritual realm, I would caution you to do so under the guidance of a Torah scholar to whom you can address your questions.
Although Luzzatto’s teachings are timeless and, indeed, are a pillar of Jewish thought, many people today are not truly at the levels he discusses. If you study this work slowly and deeply you may, however, truly find the path you seek.
The only other practical advice I would offer is something first offered in the classical 13th-century guide to repentance, “Shaarei Teshuva” by Rabbi Yonah of Girondi, Italy, in the essay “Yesod Hateshuva.” Quoting the holy sage Ravad, Yonah suggests a new type of “fast,” though he suggests we should not refrain from foods that the Torah allowed and encourages us to enjoy.
However, as gluttonous eating is the source for many spiritual and emotional downfalls, one should not eat until one is overly full. But rather than completely finishing off a good meal and cleaning the plate, leave a small amount to the side as a “fast,” to demonstrate you are in control of your desires. Because you do this to gain strength to serve God, such a “fast” is more beloved by God than even the offerings brought in the Holy Temple. That is because, unlike the offerings one could only bring from time to time, you bring this “offering” day in and day out. With it comes the strength to serve the Almighty in every situation.
This is known in scholarly circles as “Ravad’s Taanis,” or the “fast of the Raavad.” Perhaps this is something you could try, in conjunction with the study of the Mesillas Yesharim, and you will find a healthy and satisfying path to growth.

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