Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Messilas Yesharim (Tues., Sept. 4th)


You will note that there are three levels of things to be avoided: those things actually forbidden by the Torah; the "fences", that is, the ordinances and preventive measures enacted by our sages for all of Israel; and the "safeguards", those optional prohibitions taken on as personal protective walls by anyone who wants to practice abstinence, which include those things that were never forbidden to other Jews but which these individuals forbid themselves to have for the express purpose of greatly avoiding bad.

Perhaps you will say, "What right have we to continue adding on prohibitions? The sages themselves asked, 'Hasn't the Torah forbidden enough things for you-- would you forbid even more?'" (Jerusalem Talmud, Nedarim 9:1). Perhaps you will say, "What our sages saw fit in their wisdom to prohibit and to use as a safeguard should be such, and what they saw fit to allow should be allowed and not prohibited. So why are you coming up with decrees they didn't see fit to make?" Or, "There's no end to this! It would come out that a person would have to suffer desolation and deprivation, and derive no pleasure from this world at all! Have our sages not said, 'You will have to give a reckoning and account before G-d for each permitted and available thing your eyes saw to eat that you did not eat' (Jerusalem Talmud, Kiddushin 4:12), which they connected to the verse, 'I withheld nothing they ever asked for from my eyes' (Ecclesiastes 2:10)". The only answer to that would be that abstinence is certainly necessary. In fact, our sages (Sifra) exhorted us about it by saying that when the Torah says "You are to be holy" (Leviticus 19:2) it means to say "You are to be abstainers". They also said, "If the Nazirite is called holy, we may extrapolate from there that one who fasts is all the more so to be called holy" (Ta'anit 11a); and, "It is written, 'The righteous person eats to satisfy his soul' (Proverbs 13:25). This refers to Chizkiyahu the King of Judah who had just two bundles of vegetables and a measure of meat placed before him every day, while the Jews would laugh and say, 'This is a king?!'" (Pesichta); and they said about Rabbi Judah the Prince that when he was dying he lifted his ten fingers and said, 'It is known and revealed before You (G-d) that I have not derived even a pinky-finger's worth of benefit from this world'" (Ketubot 104a); and "Until a man prays that words of Torah fill his belly he should pray that food and drink not enter it" (Yalkut 830). All of these statements clearly indicate the need for and the obligation to practice abstinence. We must nonetheless respond to those teachings that say otherwise. The point is that there are many fundamental differences in the matter: there are abstentions we are commanded to follow, and there are abstentions we are warned against so as not to come to stumble. It was this category that King Solomon was referring to when he said, "Do not be over-righteous" (Ecclesiastes 7:16).

We will now discuss the good type of abstinence. After we have come to see that all that happens to us in this world is a test (as we have said and proven beyond the shadow of a doubt already), and after man's over-all weakness has become self-evident to us as well as how natural it is for him to lean toward the bad, it becomes clear that you should do all that you can to escape from these things so that you will be well-protected from the bad that comes in their aftermath. There is in fact no earthly pleasure that does not have some sin following in its train.

Let us take food and drink as an example. After you will have removed all forbidden aspects of it, eating certainly becomes a permitted thing. However, a full stomach carries with it the removal of the yoke of the Kingdom of Heaven, and wine-drinking leads to licentiousness and all sorts of immorality. How more so is this true when you are accustomed to filling yourself with food and drink. And if you will not be able to do so once, you will be pained and very aware of the lack. You will eventually be forced to subject yourself to the clutches of the drive for livelihood and possessions so that your table could be set the way you would like it to be, which will lead you to wrong doings and thievery, which will themselves lead you to vain oaths and all sorts of transgressions that naturally follow these. Ultimately you will remove yourself from Divine service, Torah and prayer. You could have been free of all that if you had not drawn yourself toward those pleasures in the first place. In this vein our sages taught us about the rebellious son that "The Torah was projecting forward to his ultimate intentions" (Sanhedrin 72a).

So too in regard to licentiousness our sages said, "Whoever sees a promiscuous wife in her disgrace should become a Nazir and abstain from wine" (Sotah 2a). You should note that this is a wonderful device to save yourself from your yetzer hara. When you are in the midst of a transgression it is hard for you to conquer your yetzer hara and stop; therefore you should stay farther away from the transgression from the first so it will be difficult for your yetzer hara to draw towards it. Sexual relations with your spouse is certainly thoroughly permissible. Yet the sages once ordained that a man was to immerse himself in a mikveh after having relations so that Torah scholars "would not act like roosters" with their wives, even though the act is perfectly acceptable between them. They enacted such a law because the sex drive is so ingrained in people that they can be driven to sexual prohibitions. As our sages said, "A man has a certain small organ which is only satiated when famished and is famished when satiated" (Sanhedrin 107a). Even when it was fitting and proper for him to have sexual relations Rabbi Eliezer said that he would uncover a hand's-breadth and cover-up two, and he would be like one coerced by a demon so that he would derive no pleasure even as he was involved in it (Nedarim 20b).

The Torah never warned us against beauty or stylishness associated with clothing or jewelry other than to tell us that we are not to wear the combination of any materials which cannot be worn together, and that we must put tzitzit on the ends of our garments. Otherwise, all is permitted. But as everyone realizes, the wearing of fine embroidered clothing and accessories is bound to encourage arrogance and licentiousness-- in addition to jealousy, lust, and extortion which follow in the wake of the acquisition of things that are difficult to come by. As our sages said, "As soon as the yetzer hara sees someone genteelly balancing on his heels, fussing with his clothing or curling his hair it says, 'This one's for me!'" (Breishit Rabbah 22:6).

Even though pleasure trips and small-talk are certainly not things forbidden by Torah law, a lot of neglect of Torah study comes as a result of them, as well as much slander, deceit, and levity. As it is said, "There can be no avoiding transgression with a lot of conversation" (Proverbs 10:19). The point is that since everything in this world is potentially gravely dangerous, how can you not praise someone who wants to escape from or avoid all that?

This is considered to be good abstinence: taking nothing from this world in all your usages of it other than what you absolutely need by your nature. It is what was so praiseworthy about Rabbi Judah when he said that he would not even take as much as a pinky-finger's worth of enjoyment from this world. And he was a leader of the Jewish nation whose table was like a king's table because of his high stature. As our sages said about the verse, "There are two nations in your womb" (Genesis 25:23) -- "This stands for Rabbi Judah and Antonious who always had lettuce, cucumbers and radishes on their tables-- whatever the season" (Avodah Zara 11a). This was the case with Chizkiyahu, King of Judah, as well. This statement (as do all the others we have quoted) comes to teach us that you are to abstain from all earthly delights so that you will not fall into their traps.


© 1996 Rabbi Yaakov Feldman