Dear Rabbi Fried,
Thank you so much for the response concerning pleasure in last week’s TJP. I have a couple of follow-up questions:
1) The more comfort one engages in, the more one’s desire for comfort increases. The more one’s desire for comfort increases, the more likely one will be to serve himself than Hashem. Doesn’t logic dictate that it would be best for both man and Hashem if the former minimizes his comfort as much as possible? If so, more time, energy and money will be available to serve Hashem which will, in turn, generate more of the ultimate good for man.
2) The Mishna in Pirkei Avos 6:4 seems to corroborate the above logic: “Such is the way [of a life] of Torah: You shall eat bread with salt, and rationed water shall you drink; you shall sleep on the ground, your life will be one of privation, and in Torah shall you labor. If you do this, ‘Happy shall you be and it shall be good for you… Happy shall you be in this world, and it shall be good for you in the world to come.’”
How does your analysis fit with this Mishna?
Thank you for the help!
I will start by addressing your second question first.
There are commentaries who explain the Mishna you reference not to mean that one should strive to live that way. Rather, that if one finds himself in dire straits, he should still be willing to toil in study of Torah. That would be the application of the Mishna for most people.
So, the answer to your first point is that it is not a Jewish ideal, for the vast majority, to strive towards asceticism. It is, in fact, considered sinful to live an ascetic life. This is why, for example, a Nazirite is required to bring a sin offering at the end of his or her period of Nazirus, because they vowed not to drink wine during that period. Additionally, additional prohibitions should not be added upon oneself beyond those already mandated in the Torah. See Numbers Ch. 6 and Talmud Tractate Nazir 19a for additional information.
In this way, among others, Judaism is in direct opposition to the philosophy of Catholicism, which lauds asceticism and holds that to be holy, one needs to refrain from the pleasures of this world, such as the life of a monk, or most priests who refrain from marriage as it represents sin. From the Jewish standpoint, a life of refraining from marriage and its pleasures is considered a sin.
That being said, you are correct that one can easily become overly engaged in pleasures that could pull him or her away from spiritual pursuits and into a life of physicality. Our sages teach that the antidote to that concern depends on one’s mindfulness when engaging in any sort of pleasure.
When one engages in pleasure for pleasure’s sake, as an end in and of itself, it carries the concern you voiced in your question. Pleasures have the potential of becoming addictive and becoming one’s life pursuit, not a positive thing.
If, however, one has in mind to enjoy this world as a vehicle for enjoying God’s gifts, and to give oneself the joy to better fulfill mitzvos, to study Torah, to be a positive force in the world and better help others as a happy and content individual, the life’s pleasures take on a spiritual perspective. If one enjoys a deliciously prepared steak to bring honor to the Shabbos, the consumption of that steak itself becomes a mitzvah. When one takes the family to a beautiful national park to enjoy the creations of God and to bring the family closer together, that trip becomes a mitzvah.
Such pleasures don’t carry the potential of addiction to bigger and better pleasures, or a movement away from spiritual pursuits. The pleasures themselves enhance one’s spirituality, leading to higher goals and aspirations. This is the beauty of Torah.
Dear Rabbi Fried,