Thursday, September 06, 2007

Messilas Yesharim (Thurs., Sept. 6th)


The best way to acquire abstinence is to realize the crassness of the pleasures of the world and their inherent inferiority, as well as the great bad that can so easily result from them. What inclines us towards these pleasures so much that we require a lot of strength and ingenuity to escape from them is their seductive powers. The eyes are seduced by things that seem to be good and tempting. Seduction is in fact what caused the first sin to be committed. As the Torah attests, "The woman saw that the tree was good to eat and that it was pleasing to the eyes... She took from its fruit and ate from it" (Genesis 3:6). When it becomes clear to you how utterly false, unreal and ephemeral these pleasures are, and how real and immanent the bad that will come from them is you will certainly be disgusted by them and have no desire for them at all. So this is all you have to learn to do: come to recognize the vacuity and inanity of these pleasures to the point where you are disgusted by them and you will not find it difficult to get rid of the desires for them.

As an example, the most concrete and palpable of pleasures is the desire for food. Is there anything shorter-lived than this pleasure, which only lasts the length of your gullet, from where your food goes to your stomach and is completely forgotten? You could be just as full eating stuffed swan as you would eating coarse bread. You just have to visualize the many diseases you could expose yourself to by your diet, or the feeling of heaviness or dull-mindedness that could come over you after eating to realize the truth of what we are saying. Certainly, no one would want anything to do with something whose disadvantages are real and whose apparent benefits are a sham. It is true with all the other pleasures of the world as well: if you would just reflect upon them you would see that even the apparent good in them is only short-lived, while the bad that can come from them is serious and long-lasting. It does not make sense for an intelligent person to endanger himself for the minute benefits that might accrue to him through them. Is that not obvious?

When you accustom and convince yourself in the truth of what we have pointed out you will slowly, surely and willingly free yourself from the entrapment of all the foolishness that is brought about by the darkness of the material world. You will no longer be seduced by its so-called pleasures, but you will be disgusted by them and come to realize that you should only take from the world what you absolutely must, as we have said. Just as reflection upon all this can bring you to abstinence, confusion in it, and closeness with people of power and control who run after glory and add to the general emptiness can destroy it. It is impossible to be around riches and elegance and not desire or long for them. Even if your yetzer harah will not get the better of you, you would still find yourself in the midst of a great battle, and be in danger. Solomon referred to this when he said, "It is better to go to a house of mourning than to a tavern" (Ecclesiastes 7:2).

The best thing to do is practice seclusion, because by removing worldly matters from your eyes you remove the lust for them from your heart. King David praised solitude by saying, "If I could be given the wings of a dove I would just fly away and dwell somewhere else. I would go far away; I would lodge in the desert" (Psalms 55:7-8). We find that the prophets Elijah and Elisha set aside places in the mountains to be alone in, and the early sages and saints followed in their footsteps. They all found solitude to be the most propitious means of acquiring wholeness and abstinence, and of not being swayed by the emptiness of empty company.

What you have to be careful about when acquiring abstinence is to not leap to the opposite extreme in one fell swoop, as this will certainly not be to your advantage. Instead, you should come to it slowly, settling into upon one aspect of it today, and another tomorrow until you accustom yourself to it so thoroughly it becomes second nature to you.



Purity entails the reparation of your emotions and thoughts. It is what David referred to when he said, "G-d has created a pure heart within me" (Psalms 51:12). Its essence is that you not allow your yetzer hara to interfere with your actions, and that you act only through wisdom and reverence, not through sin and desire. This even refers to the physical and material acts you might involve yourself in after you will have habituated yourself in abstinence and taken nothing but what you must from the world. Even then you will need to purify your emotions and thoughts so that even that small bit of pleasure you might take from the world will not be taken with the intent of enjoying pleasure or fulfilling a desire, but rather with the intention of doing it for the good that will come from it in terms of wisdom and Divine service. As it was said of Rabbi Eliezer, "he would expose a hand's-breadth and cover over two hands'-breadths during intercourse, and he would be like one coerced by a demon" (Nedarim 20b) -- he would derive no pleasure from the act at all, and would only do it for the mitzvah and the Divine service inherent to it. King Solomon would say, "Know Him in all of your ways and He will right your paths" (Proverbs 3:6).

But you should know, that just as purity of thoughts pertains to bodily actions, which are inherently close to the yetzer hara (and should be avoided so they will not become his own) it also pertains to righteous deeds, which are close to G-d, are not connected to the yetzer hara, and which you should not avoid. This is the whole matter of doing mitzvot "for an ulterior motive" mentioned many times by our sages. But, as has been explained, there are many varieties of mitzvot done in the mode of "for ulterior motives". The lowest level of them is when you do something not for the sake of service to G-d, but only to deceive people and to propagate honor or wealth for yourself. It is what the sages were referring to when they said, "It would have been better for him to have been turned around in his after-birth (and suffocated)" (Jerusalem Talmud, Berachot 1:7), and what the prophet was referring to when he said, "We've all become sullied and our righteousness has become like rags" (Isaiah 64:5).

There is another sort of doing of mitzvot for ulterior motives. It involves doing something good for the sake of the reward. It is regarding this that it is said, "A person should always be involved in Torah and mitzvot for ulterior motives so that he might eventually, thusby, come to do them altruistically" (Pesachim 50b). However, if you have not yet reached the level of doing the mitzvot altruistically after having done them for ulterior motives you are still far from whole.

What requires even more reflection and effort are the subtle admixtures of the prohibited within the permitted. You may start out to do a mitzvah utterly altruistically, simply because it is something our Father in Heaven has decreed, and yet may not hesitate mixing in some other motivation: either the fact that people would compliment you for it, or that you would get some other reward for it. Sometimes, even if you do not intend to be complimented for having done the mitzvah, you might be pleased with the praise nonetheless and become more exacting in it. This was the case with Rabbi Chaninah Ben Tradyon's daughter who would walk daintily, and who would take even more care in her walk when she would hear people say, "How prettily that young girl walks!" (Avodah Zara 18a). Her additional effort was a direct result of the power of the compliments given to her. And even though this prohibited aspect is nullified by the minute part it plays in the big picture, it nonetheless makes the act somewhat impure by its inclusion.


© 1996 Rabbi Yaakov Feldman