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THE PLEASURE PRINCIPLE

by Rabbi Binyomin Friedman    
Torah from Dixie Staff Writer    

Experience longer, more satisfying pleasures with the pleasure principle. No, you have not mistakenly picked up a checkout counter periodical. This is a lesson taught to us in Ethics of Our Fathers: "The more flesh the more worms, the more possessions the more worry. . .however, the more Torah the more life" (Ethics of Our Fathers 2:8).

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Editor's note: During the weeks between the festivals of Passover and Shavuot, many communities have a custom to study Pirkei Avot (Ethics of Our Fathers).

Experience longer, more satisfying pleasures with the pleasure principle. No, you have not mistakenly picked up a checkout counter periodical. This is a lesson taught to us in Ethics of Our Fathers: "The more flesh the more worms, the more possessions the more worry. . .however, the more Torah the more life" (Ethics of Our Fathers 2:8).

Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzatto, a great 18th century Jewish philosopher, teaches that Hashem created human beings for the purpose of finding pleasure in Him. This pleasure is incomparable and the path to it is difficult. Instead, many people turn their pursuit to achievements in the material world and its pleasures. However, according to the Maharal of Prague, one of the seminal figures in Jewish thought of the last five centuries, the above Mishnah is issuing us a warning. Material pleasures have severe limitations.

One limitation of material pleasures is that in excess, they can be harmful. Food, for example, is good for us and it is also pleasurable. However, at a certain point, food is no longer beneficial. In excess, food can even become fatal, all the while being pleasurable. Material pleasures have another limitation. Man's appetite for pleasure far outstrips the ability of the material world to satisfy it since, in reality, Man is seeking the ultimate pleasure in Hashem. The second time we experience a material pleasure is rarely as good as the first time. In an attempt to recapture our original pleasure we increase the dosage of stimuli more food, a faster car, or more exotic travel. As the dosage increases we imperil our health, finances, and other worthwhile goals just to achieve the same pleasure we had the first time. As the Midrash teaches, "no one dies having fulfilled even half of their material desires" (Kohelet Rabbah 1:34). This means that no matter what we experience, we are still far from satisfaction.

Conversely, Torah infuses us with life. As the Mishnah above teaches, more Torah brings more life. Who ever had too much life? Not only does spiritual pleasure have no limit, but our increased involvement in the spiritual realm heightens our sensitivity, providing greater pleasure from even smaller doses. This is represented by the student of Torah who delights in the study of a single line of Torah, or the grandparent who thrills at the simple act of pushing the baby carriage.

Based on the Maharal's understanding of the Mishnah, we may postulate the pleasure principle. Given that material pleasure has limitations and spiritual pleasure has none, perhaps we may increase the capacity of material pleasure by investing it with the spiritual. How do we go about doing this? This is the gift of the Torah. By regulating our physical activities according to Hashem's desires, we invest the physical with the spiritual. The vacation spent appreciating the wonders of Hashem's creation, the food upon which the blessing has been lovingly pronounced, the intimacy shared according to the dictates of the Torah all afford more pleasure than when they are indulged exclusively for physical gratification. By employing the pleasure principle, the Torah does not deny us material pleasure, but actually makes it last longer and become more satisfying. That is one message you will not find in the periodicals at the checkout counter!

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This article is excerpted from a lecture series which Rabbi Friedman delivered for the Atlanta Scholars Kollel entitled "Happiness."

Rabbi Binyomin Friedman is spiritual leader of Congregation Ariel in Dunwoody and a founding member of the Atlanta Scholars Kollel.

You are invited to read more Acharei Mot & Kedoshim articles.

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