The Duties of the Heart
Gate Nine: "The Gate of Abstinence"
Ch. 7 (Part 1)
There have been special souls practicing abstinence throughout the ages,
but by varying degrees. We ourselves are forced to practice a more
stringent form of it, because of the exigencies of the age (though still
with moderation), while our ancestors didn't need to. What got us to this
point? Let's review the history of the yetzer harah, if you will, to see.
The ancient holy ones, like Enoch, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Job and his
companions, only needed to do a few things to serve G-d wholly and deeply,
and they had to abstain from very few things, since they had such heart–
felt faith in Him -- and also, most significantly, because they
were "lucid in their reasoning, their yetzer harahs were weak, and because
they were governed by reason" as Ibn Pakudah puts it.
Now, that's a vital point. It means to say that those ancient ones were so
clear-minded, they could so easily distinguish between what truly mattered
and what didn't, and that they were so motivated by truth rather than by
temptation, that they didn't need much external prodding to do the
right things, and didn't have to avoid doing many things that might thwart
their devotions. But people didn't stay on so exalted a level for very
For when our ancestors came to dwell in rich and lavish Egypt, they began
to enjoy their surroundings (obviously, before their enslavement), they
began to want more and more, and temptation began to prevail over their
clear reason. So, they needed a form of abstinence that would enable them
to withstand their yetzer harahs. They were thus instructed to observe the
traditional physical mitzvot (as opposed to the duties of the heart),
since despite their struggles they themselves didn't need to take more
stringent restrictions upon themselves.
But when our people then came to settle in the Land of Canaan (after the
redemption, and despite the revelation of the Torah) and savored its
richness, they were drawn into greater temptations. And in fact, "the more
they settled the land, the more ravaged their sense of reason became ....
and the more difficult it became for them to make the right (ethical)
choices", we're told. So they needed to practice "a more austere form of
abstinence that would withstand their desires, like the practice of
becoming a Nazir, and taking on the customs of the disciples of the
prophets we cited earlier".
As time passed, reason weakened even more so while temptation grew
stronger yet. It has come to the point where we're so utterly distracted
and enthralled by worldly things and delights that we're willing to settle
for spiritual mediocrity. And while the ancients could occupy themselves
with both worldly and otherworldly concerns at the same time to full
advantage, we're compelled to detach ourselves from the world nearly
completely when engaged in our spiritual practices, to the detriment of
both on some level -- but we haven't any choice, lest we abandon our
dreams of spiritual progress altogether.
Our prayer, of course, is that we take it upon ourselves to strive higher
and higher, and that we learn to delight more in the lusciousness and
sublimeness of things G-dly over more prosaic earthly delights.
Text Copyright © 2005 by Rabbi Yaakov Feldman and Torah.org