The Duties of the Heart
Gate Nine: "The Gate of Abstinence"
As we'd already said, everyone abstains from things for one reason or
another. But it's clear that people have different motivations for doing
that. So let's explore what drives various people to do without things.
We'll find that some do it for more idealistic reasons (which the Torah
clearly favors) while others abstain from things for rather mundane,
sometimes Machiavellian reasons.
There are three different degrees of abstaining from things for idealistic
reasons. Some do it so as to "be on par with the angels", as Ibn Pakudah
depicts it (which is of course humanly impossible, though it's still
admirable as a goal). Those sorts of people always look for ways to draw
close to G-d and subsequently reject everything having nothing to do with
that; so they might live in the desert or woods, eat only grubs and
growths, and wear coarse wool or tattered old clothes. And they yearn to
fear and love G-d, but aren't at all concerned with the fear and love of
anyone else. But as Ibn Pakudah says clearly, they're too extreme; their
service "is the furthest removed from the moderate form of it that the
Torah favors, because its followers utterly abandon the world".
Others of that sort practice a more *temperate* form of abstinence which
is healthier and more admirable. They tend to reject extraneousness like
extra food and drink, more expensive clothing and lodging, and more
frivolous forms of entertainment and diversion -- yet they never withdraw
from society as the first group do, so much as temper their exposure to
it. And so they're able to hold down positions of responsibility in
society. Nonetheless, they're said to "live in solitude in their homes ...
(thus) accomplishing two things and earning two portions at the same
time", as Ibn Pakudah puts it. That's to say, they're able to live in the
world and away from it to degrees, and to thus foster a closeness to G-d
and to mankind at the same time. They're said to be "*closer* to the Torah–
authorized moderate path" than the one cited above, but still off the mark.
And others yet practice the most lenient form of abstinence, which is in
fact the sort the Torah charges us to follow. "They detach themselves from
the world *in their hearts and minds*" we're told, and yet they also join
in on society's demands, though *externally* only. That's to say that
they "participate in all the trials mankind must endure in this world
which imprisons him; suffer all the afflictions and experience all the
alienation and the sense of having been cut off from the world of spirit"
that the rest of us do. But they "yearn for the World to Come, and both
await and are leery of death" which means to say that while we're out-and-
out leery of death, they're somewhat leery too, being only human. But they
also fully trust in the reality of the Afterlife, so they prepare for
their stay there by storing up a full stock of spiritual goods.
But as we said, there are those who abstain from things for less-than-
Some do it to get a reputation for being "other worldly" and pious, the hy
pocrites that they are. And they do that in order to persuade others to
trust them or perhaps to entrust them with their money, and to divulge
their secrets to them. Ibn Pakudah describes them as "the worst of all
sorts of people" -- the lowest of the low, and he says that
they're "further from the truth and more despicable than anyone else"
since they use a profound medium for spiritual growth, abstention, toward
Others are simply *stingy* and do without as much as they can only to
hoard money (which is after all a form of abstinence, though we don't
think of it that way). And they barely begrudge themselves things mainly
because they haven't any trust in G-d's ability to provide for them. Now,
while they might seem to be above mere materialism to some, they actually
do what they do because they love the physical world and would want
nothing better than to have more things, if they could.
And finally, others only do without things because they're poor -- and
they're also too ashamed to ask for the sort of help they're entitled to.
They indeed make do with little, as the others do, but they actually
needn't do that. And they're not selfless so much as hapless, and they're
also unwilling to allow others to help.
Text Copyright © 2005 by Rabbi Yaakov Feldman and Torah.org