Pesach: Pleasures and Priorities
Pleasure is an integral part of Judaism. We must serve Hashem with joy, and a person cannot be joyous unless he or she experiences pleasure in life...
by Rabbi Lazer Brody
Everything in Hashem's universe has an absolute value. This is its raw potential. In mathematics, absolute value describes the distance of a number on the number line from 0 without considering which direction from zero the number lies. The absolute value of a number is never negative.
Here's a practical example to aid in understanding: a one-pound rock is excellent as a paper-weight or a door-stop, positive use; yet, it can be a lethal weapon when hurled at someone, negative use. Going to the extreme, the same atomic power that can illuminate an entire city is capable of destroying an entire city.
The mitzva of Parah Aduma - preparing the purification water with the ashes of the red heifer – has baffled human brains for centuries. The purification water is a necessary element in purifying someone who has come in contact with a dead body, thereby becoming spiritually impure. True to its name, the purification water is a key element in purifying someone from the worst type of spiritual impurity. Yet, strangely enough, the same exact water contaminates the Cohanim, the priests who take part in preparing it. It also contaminates any other ritually-pure individual. The outcome is that the very same substance purifies those who are ritually contaminated yet contaminates those who are ritually pure.
Although no one understands the concept of the red heifer and the purification water, if we look closely, we see a recurrent theme of absolute value. This theme not only permeates the mitzvoth of Torah, but serves also as an underlying principle in effectively establishing successful priorities for a happy and fulfilling life.
Judaism is not a religion of ascetics and self-flagellation. No way. Hashem gives us mitzvoth to perform that are utter pleasure. Take the Shabbat, for example. We are commanded to take pleasure in the Shabbat, to eat the finest foods and drink the finest wines we can afford. We are required to dance until our knees cave in on Simchat Torah or during Simchat Bet HaShoeva. The Torah implores and obligates us to make our wives the happiest women on earth.
Pleasure is an integral part of Judaism. We must serve Hashem with joy, and a person cannot be joyous unless he or she experiences pleasures in life.
Let's see how absolute value of pleasure affects our daily lives:
The purpose of maintaining good health is to serve Hashem in joy for as many years as we can. In other words, by maximizing the longevity that Hashem gives us, we are serving Him faithfully. Eating a healthy diet and exercising are prime examples of physical activities which are totally spiritual endeavors when a person's priorities are in the right place. How?
The endorphins, the "feel-good" hormones, are what makes a person feel so fantastic after an invigorating workout. Amazingly, eating healthy foods and laughing also induce endorphins. That's the pleasure you feel.
Hold on, though.
If the priority of eating that 16-ounce rib steak is your love of steak, in other words, 100% bodily indulgence, it falls into the category of lust. The "absolute value" of that steak goes to the dark side. But, if you eat the same steak at a Sabbath or festive meal, then the "absolute value" of that steak goes to the side of holiness and benefits the soul as a mitzvah. The same goes for eating that steak to replenish your protein level after a kettlebell workout, for your goal is hypertrophy, muscle-building, which can keep an eighty-year-old feeling young in his service of Hashem.
A woman must maintain her attractiveness for the purpose of sanctifying Hashem's name and to gratify her husband. This puts the "absolute value" of her beauty in the positive side and invokes every blessing on her and on her family. But, when her beauty efforts became vain attempts to call attention to herself and she oversteps the boundaries of modesty – then according to the Zohar, she does the exact opposite and severs herself and her family from Divine abundance.
Marital gratification and procreation are the loftiest mitzvoth in the Torah. But, as soon as they become bodily indulgence and priority aimed at bodily pleasure and devoid of holy intent, they become contemptible lust.
The lesson of the Red Heifer is to channel life's pleasures toward the benefit of the soul, which keeps them holy. When geared and steered toward the body, the same pleasures become lust.
Let's hope that Moshiach will come soon, so that we can eat the Pascal Lamb on Passover as a lofty mitzvah that we've dreamed of performing for centuries, and not because we love lamb chops. Happy Pesach preparations!
Rabbi Lazer Brody was born in Washington, D.C. in 1949. After receiving his bachelor's degree in agriculture from the University of Maryland in 1970, he moved to Israel and joined the Israel Defense Forces regular army, and served in one of the elite special-forces units. He is a decorated combat veteran of two wars and numerous of counter-insurgence and anti-terrorist missions on both sides of Israel's borders.
Rabbi Brody is the English-language editor of Breslev Israel's highly popular English-language website at www.breslev.co.il, and the founder and director of Emuna Outreach. Between Breslov Israel and Emuna Outreach, he devotes his time to spreading emuna and particularly the teachings of Rebbe Nachman of Breslev around the globe.
"Lazer Beams," Rabbi Brody's award-winning daily web journal, has been instrumental in helping tens of thousands of people around the globe find joy and fulfillment in their lives.