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On the Essence of Pleasure

On the Essence of Pleasure

Ethics 4:17

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"Better one hour of teshuvah ("return") and good deeds in the world as it is now than all the life of the world as it will come to be. And better one hour of pleasure in the world to come than all the life of this world now." (Ethics of the Fathers, 4:17)

"There is nothing higher than pleasure." (The Book of Formation)

The world, the sages tell us, is made of pleasure. Pleasure condenses and contracts and becomes Wisdom. Wisdom condenses further and becomes Understanding. And so the process continues for infinite contractions until the light of Pleasure has condensed so far as to become a world we can squeeze between our fingers.

All begins with pleasure. Whose pleasure? The pleasure of the One who is called Infinite Light. And in what does the Infinite Light find pleasure? In being. For pleasure is being and being is pleasure.

Have you ever had the pleasure of being? All our lives, we run from pain and chase after pleasure. We are like the rivers, ever-moving, for whom stillness is death; for each pleasure brings its own pain and each pain drives us towards another pleasure until our lives are a state of ever-becoming, rarely, oh so rarely, just being.

But they do happen, those eternal moments; those moments of the pleasure of "is."

I cannot know your memories, but I will reveal one of mine: As a child, with all the family sitting about the fireplace, no one fighting, no one crying, and my father, surrendering to my mother’s assertions of what a father should be doing after dinner, is reading out loud for all of us one of his detective novels, just as he would dictate a legal transcript for his typist. But his lack of dramatic intonation does not matter, neither does the story he reads -- as though we ever knew what it was about. There is this glowing aura of pleasure, that we are all together and that is all that matters right now.

It was a moment that never ended, for it was never a part of time. It was a stillness; within time and beyond time. It was a point of is.

There are pitifully few more, but I will not say them -- as you do not need to reveal yours. It seems they almost all have to do with the woman or man with whom we have made an eternal covenant and with the family we have been blessed through such a union. With those with whom we can feel secure and in whom we find our essential selves.


Our lives are but a reflection of the divine. We are, in the words of Leonardo da Vinci, "G‑d looking in a mirror, with everything there but the essence." All that He creates, the Mishna tells us, He creates for His glory, for He finds pleasure in each and every one of them.

But there are pleasures and there are pleasures. All the angelic hosts of spiritual heavens above, they bathe in the pleasure of endless enlightenment and divine wisdom, ever-striving higher and higher in their unquenchable thirst for the pure ecstasy of the infinite light. But the core pleasure of G‑d, the delight of being -- of "is" -- that can only be found on the muddy bottom floor called earth. It is the pleasure G‑d has from a world that also perceives the "is" -- for it believes itself to be as real as its Creator.

So what is His pleasure with this world, if it is so distant, so unenlightened? Just as ours: it is the pleasure of union with a soul that is distant from Him and chooses to come close; a soul that will make for Him a home out of the raw materials of a dark world; a soul that will give birth to beautiful deeds in which G‑d can see Himself clearly reflected. In all those lie the ultimate pleasure of the One who is called Infinite Light.

It is not fair that He should have all the pleasure and we only the pain. Yet, if we would feel His infinite delight in those moments of return and good deeds, our world would cease to be; it would vanish as an ephemera of the shadows vanishes when the curtains are suddenly drawn open and the light of day bursts in.

Only in the world as it will come to be, once it has been fully transformed into a home for the Divine, then we will share in His pleasure He has now. Then we will say, and fully know, its truth, "Better one eternal moment of return and good deeds in that world that was, then all the life of this world as it was meant to be."

Based on the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, of righteous memory; rendered by Tzvi Freeman.
Artwork by Sarah Kranz.
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Anonymous May 5, 2010

What a truly beautiful article Thank you.

How the deep pleasure we have with our spouses and family is like the pleasure G-d has with this world remains aloof to me. No doubt that is the core pleasure of a human being, but how is that like G-d's pleasure in our world.

As I write, a possible answer comes to me, that our familiy is us, an extension of the pleasure of being. In our Divine service, it is about discovering you we are are, peeling away the layers covering our Divine soul also about the pleasure of just being. What do you think? Reply

Nochum Kurinsky Ponte Vedra, FL via chabadbeaches.com January 22, 2010

Grandson Rabbi Freeman i just came accross this comment, i''m flattered that you mentioned my grandfather obm. Reply

Tzvi Freeman (Author) October 5, 2006

to daniela Not so fast! Leonardo may well have been Jewish. See Sam Kurinsky's amazing site HebrewHistory.info . Look in the Fact Papers for da Vinci. Reply

daniela October 3, 2006

<<We are, in the words of Leonardo da Vinci, "G-d looking in a mirror, with everything there but the essence.">>
Do you have a reference for that? I'd like to have a look and put that in context. That said, I disagree. It's no surprise that in his christian (although original) perspective Leonardo looks at himself and sees an image void of any reality, any impact on the universe, an empty and immaterial illusory appearence. The Jewish soul is not the empty mirror-reflection or shadow of G-d. All the contrary, it is the dwelling of as much of the essence of G-d that can exist apart from His Oneness. Thank you for this excellent article and many other ones. Reply

Ethics of the Fathers is a tractate of the Mishna that details the Torah's views on ethics and interpersonal relationships. Enjoy insights, audio classes and stories on these fascinating topics.