Playing with Fire
Chapter 3, Law 2
"A person must direct all his actions towards 'knowing G-d' alone. His
sitting, standing, and speech should all be directed to this. How? When he
is involved in business or working for a salary, his intention should not
be the amassing of wealth alone. Rather, he should do such in order that
he be provided with his physical needs -- by way of food, drink, dwelling,
and marriage needs.
"So too when a person eats, drinks, or engages in marital relations, he
should not focus his heart on doing such things in order to enjoy himself
alone. If he does, he would eat and drink only sweet things and have
relations only for pleasure. Rather, he should remind himself that he's
eating and drinking in order to make his body and limbs healthy. Thus, he
won't eat whatever the palate desires, as a dog and donkey. Rather he will
eat things which are beneficial to him, whether bitter or sweet. And he
will not eat unhealthy foods even if they taste good.
"How is this? Someone whose body temperature is high should not eat meat
and honey and should not drink wine. This is as [King] Solomon wrote
allegorically 'Eating honey excessively is not good' (Proverbs 25:27).
Rather, he should drink endive water even though it is bitter. Such a
person will be eating and drinking for his health alone -- in order that
he will be healthy and whole -- as it is impossible for a man to live
without food and drink.
"Likewise a man should engage in relations only to keep his body healthy
and to procreate (lit., 'to establish his seed'). Therefore, he should not
engage in sex whenever he desires but when he knows his body needs to
ejaculate for health reasons (lit., 'as the way of medicine') or in order
Last week the Rambam discussed the fallacy of those who believe man's body
is basically wicked, an evil animal which must be subdued and crushed. As
we discussed, not only is such a denial of human nature and failure to
appreciate the great gifts G-d has bestowed upon man, but it is bound to
backfire in multiple ways. Rather, a Jew must view his body as a temple,
one which must be revered and cared for as a vessel fashioned in the
Divine image and capable of being used in His service. True, many things
don't belong in a temple. Yet anything G-d created -- certainly man, the
crown of His creation -- is wholly sacred and must be utilized in the
manner G-d desires.
There was, however, one basic gap in last week's discussion. We
demonstrated quite convincingly that man must not view his body as his
adversary: destroy it or it will destroy you. Yet how does one
his body and physical drives? Don't many of the things our bodies crave
basically draw us away from spirituality -- if they're not outright
sinful? True, you need a body to serve G-d and fulfill the commandments --
and so it can be viewed as a worthy and venerable vehicle for Divine
service. Yet what about so many of the other things our bodies want to do?
Are they just "evil" drives which must be quelled? Can such pleasures be
enjoyed without compromising one's spirituality?
(When I was young, there used to be a popular saying which went: "Anything
good is either illegal, immoral or fattening." (Do they still use that one
today? Maybe I just don't hang out with people who think that way any
more.) I'd like to think my definition of "good" has progressed since
then. Yet we must respond to this basic dilemma. Even if we enjoy nothing
but permissible pleasures, don't they bring out the animal within us,
making us less receptive to G-d?)
I feel Judaism's approach to this issue is addressed in the law we studied
today. We are not to deny our desires or challenge them head-on. We must
rather enjoy them -- but at the same time keep in mind that we are doing
so ultimately for sacred reasons. My body is a temple. I cherish it and
treat it with care. But I do not worship it -- for it is not simply a
temple; it is a temple of G-d. It must be made happy and sated, but it
must know it is because it must deliver. It must be used in service of our
souls and divine calling. Work to the extent you need, eat to your fill,
keep yourself in shape, marry and raise a family -- but only do so knowing
that physical fullness and satisfaction can and must be directed upwards.
As I've pointed out in the past, I believe that generally different
approaches to this may be found among the world's major religions. On the
one hand, some see the ideal path as disassociating oneself with outside
world. Live celibate, in a monastery; take vows of poverty. For indulgence
leads to the vulgarization of man. The only true path is separation and
denial. Although religions today are practical enough to recognize this is
an ideal the vast majority of man cannot aspire to, such is still the
truly spiritual life.
Others, recognizing that so basic a part of man cannot be denied, take the
precise opposite approach, elevating physical pleasure to the plane of the
spiritual. The promised world for them is a huge harem, full of all the
pleasures imaginable to man. (I actually see such claims as a marketing
tool -- as a great way of gaining "believers" (ones even willing to
sacrifice themselves in order to go upstairs) -- if your religion is
invented and you have the luxury of setting the rules.) As preposterous as
such a belief is theologically and as embarrassingly it cheapens the
spiritual potential of man, such an attitude does at least recognize that
the physical is not all evil, utterly removed from G-d. If there is
beauty, it must have some divinely-endowed sanctity to it. (Keep in mind
that our forefathers and foremothers were all physically beautiful people,
and that the Holy Land is a place of physical as well as spiritual
majesty. External beauty without should ideally reflect spiritual
Judaism has never been plagued with such doubts or ambivalence. Virtually
all of Israel's greatest men married and had children (if they merited).
Though most lived austerely, they never saw wealth as an evil to be
shunned. Such people recognized that any drive G-d has granted us must
potentially be good -- meaning usable in a purposeful way. We must only
look into the Torah to find out what that way is and how to best utilize
it. And further, the stronger we are tempted to misuse a drive, the
greater the potential for good it must have -- and thus the dark side of
the force attempts all the more to ruin it.
Judaism thus strikes a very healthy balance between asceticism and
physical satisfaction. It is perhaps the most realistic approach to life.
Yet in an important sense, it actually confronts man with an even greater
challenge. It's actually much easier to completely ignore or crush a drive
you feel is detrimental to your spiritual well-being (or to just fall prey
to it). Stay completely away from it; don't play with fire. But in a
sense, this is a cop-out -- running from challenge rather than meeting it.
Judaism demands something different. We are to engage in those very
activities which may overwhelm us. We must play with that fire -- for only
through this do we become whole people, dedicating every part of us and
every drive within us to G-d. Enjoy this world, but do it for G-d's
sake -- because He commanded it and because ultimately only through this
can we be fully realize our Divine potential.
Thus, the Torah, while offering complete fulfillment, presents us with the
ultimate challenge. And it makes for a difficult balancing act. We must
find every ability and every drive within us, neither crushing nor
indulging it, and utilize it in G-d's service. And only through this can
we experience true satisfaction.
There is one final important thought here -- one particularly relevant to
us. I'll begin by way of illustration. The Kotzker Rebbe (R. Menachem
Mendel Morgenstern, 1787-1859), one of the greatest, most insightful and
most demanding of the great Chassidic masters, was once sharing a Sabbath
meal with other great rabbis (I believe he was at the table of his father-
in-law; other greats were present.) One of the others, before he partook
of a certain delicacy, launched on a long soliloquy, something like: "For
the sake of the holy Sabbath and not for the slightest consideration of
physical enjoyment whatsoever..." The Kotzker, no doubt catching on to the
other rabbi's affected manner, promptly picked up a piece of herring (or
whatever), and announced his comeback: "For the sake of my pupick
(stomach)!" and took a large bite. When the other rabbis expressed
surprise, he responded, "At least I'm telling the truth!"
I believe this sheds some important light on the challenge of all this.
There are in fact two tracks here. Ideally a person should enjoy this
world for G-d's sake alone. And the more we are able to remove ourselves
from the picture and think G-d, the better. R. Moshe Chaim Luzzato great
18th Century Italian scholar, philosopher and ethicist), in his _Path of
the Just_ (Ch. 26) sees this as the ultimate human being -- whose very
eating a meal can assume the sacred dimensions of a sacrifice consumed on
the altar. For such a person, the physical world does not conflict with
the spiritual whatsoever. His very physical activities are directed
Yet as the Kotzker readily admitted, very few of us can aspire to such a
level. Most of us have bodies with a mind(?) of their own. And for such
people too, there is a way. We enjoy this world. We can't help it; we know
that denying our natures and desires would simply backfire. We know we
must have sated bodies, not too weak or frustrated to function as vessels
capable of Divine service. Yet we must live with an overall sense that
ultimately we enjoy this world for G-d's sake: not for the sake of
indulgence but simply so we are well and sated. And at the same time, if
enjoyment is important to us, we can do so appreciating the G-d who placed
such in the world.
(Note likewise that the Rambam above wrote that when one is earning money
or enjoying this world he should not have in mind his enjoyment
For the vast majority of us, pleasure is something we are hardly beyond.
We are not told to pretend we do not like pleasure, yet we must
mind the ultimate purpose of our involvement in this world.)
And this too is a difficult balancing act: Enjoy enough that you're not
frustrated but not too much that you begin to live for it. This is no
small feat, and as we saw above, the greatest rabbis can easily fool
themselves. And we likewise can appreciate the value of occasional
abstinence -- of denying ourselves certain pleasures so they don't get the
better of us (which the Sages view as an important stepping stone to true
Yet in the eyes of the Torah, this is clearly not the ideal. G-d's world
is not here to be denied or ignored -- nor worshiped. As part of G-d's
handiwork, it is beauty and perfection. It may take much effort to keep
our physical in line, but we must never fail to recognize the truth.
Ultimately we are to enjoy all G-d grants us while not distancing
ourselves from Him in the slightest. For it's a beautiful world out there -
- of beautiful sights, sounds, tastes and pleasures. And G-d created it
all for us.
Text Copyright © 2008 by Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld and Torah.org