Pleasure is a difficult subject to learn with a beginner in Chassidus. Most people are brought up with a prejudice that, since pleasure feels good, more must logically be better. People assure us this is so. The media scream it and indeed personal experience, to a limited extent, suggests it.

Loosely put, the argument is that providing one is not hurting another, life’s goal is to maximize physical pleasures, whether they are food, drink or sexual relations. Barely post-teenage writers in the advertising industry advise the trusting masses “If it feels good, do it”. People who have been slowly conditioned respond with glee. They forget to test the intellect, let alone the wisdom, of the pagan manipulators who create the advertisements.

What happens when we do test the pleasure notion? If the more pleasure the more happiness, are those indulging their pleasures to every conceivable extent happy? Is Hollywood happy? Why do the Elvis Presleys suicide? Ah yes you say. With my perspective’s and their capacity to buy pleasure I would be happy. Wrong. If we learn only one thing together with this book, know that pleasure is at best irrelevant to happiness and fulfillment.

This may seem to be disappointing news. It is not. Everyone will grudgingly agree that happiness is much more important than pleasure. They simply do not want to surrender the pleasures in which they indulge, but the path to happiness for a Jew lies in fulfilling his purpose, not in exercising his tastes for ecstasy.

The question that we will address together then is, what is the status of pleasure? How much is a positive? Is it correct to move away from it absolutely or partially, and if so, what is gained? Alternatively, is there a positive in either complete or partial indulgence?

In general terms physical pleasure is the domain of the Nefesh HaBahamis and the yetzer hora (See Building Block No. 6). The more you feed it the more it grows and the greater is it’s consequent appetite.

It is possible to become more expert in every pleasure. Sadly from the perspective of the pleasure seeker, the law of diminishing returns applies. More pleasure is required to do the same job. The level of expertise increases with practice, but the more vigorous the habits the less the return. Furthermore the more frequent the physical pleasure activity, the less room there is for the Nefesh HoElokis (See Building Block No. 6).1

Conversely, and curiously, the more that pleasure is denied the more the need withers; the more the need is stunted in its growth, the greater the space for growth of the spiritual. This is very important because there is absolutely no comparison between the benefits which flow from the spiritual to those enjoyed at the physical.

The early Chassidim would try to avoid enjoying any physical pleasures. The Alter Rebbe used to say that, that which is forbidden is forbidden without question, but that which is permitted one also does not have to do2. Accordingly some Jews throughout history have gone to great lengths not to enjoy anything physical. Some especially wore ill fitting clothes, some ate food they especially disliked. Some over salted the food to diminish the pleasure of tasting it.

This was done by some of the greatest Rebbeim of all time, and this chapter does not question their action as correct at the time. In those generations it was obviously correct to do so. The times were of great physical poverty and in those generations the tests were therefore tests of poverty. Today the tests of our generation are different, and are amongst others, tests of wealth.

Since the turn of the century the test of Jews all over the world Boruch Hashem seems to be a ridiculously divergent wealth; ridiculous compared to the socio economic fabric of the rest of humanity. If the number of Jews are considered against the backdrop of world population, the average per capita socio economic position of Jews against the rest of humanity is extraordinarily disproportionate. This is particularly remarkable because no longer can this be attributed to different education standards or isolated living conditions.

It is our generation therefore that is given the job of introducing spirituality into physical plenty.3 This was not the task of the early Chassidim bereft of anything but the barest essentials.

We elevate that environment by bringing spirituality into physicality and we know that the Rebbe has encouraged use of every form of technological advancement, explaining that the task for Jews is to convert that technological advancement to good.4 For example, a video can be used to watch negative entertainment or it can be used to watch something which lifts the soul. It is impossible to make a dwelling place in physicality by ignoring physicality.

This being so there appears to be a dilemma; on the one hand we are encouraged to deny excess of comfort and pleasure. Even acknowledging that this allows for more spiritual growth and even supposing a beginner can be satisfied that any self denials are really gates to freedom (as every man on this journey will testify,) still by doing so, one inhibits the opportunity to elevate the very physicality necessary to make a dwelling place for Hashem in the physical world. To sit and be a spiritual being twenty-four hours a day may be fine; but then there is no reason for the neshomah to descend into a body. The neshomos on earth could have remained just as well with the angels in Gan Eden.

The whole point of the descent is to overcome a series of difficult tests, which everybody experiences, and to grow from them, in so doing elevating the neshomah and refining the environment. (See Building Block No. 2)

Accepting then our affluence (compared to the rest of the world), what should be the level of involvement in the comforts and pleasures this may bring? The level of involvement is the critical issue. Let us take the example of food. Is the eating of the food undertaken with a berochah and for the constructive purpose of fueling the body to learn Torah and perform mitzvos in which case the natural enjoyment is secondary, or is the eating and the pleasure derived therefrom an end in itself?

Pleasure undertaken for its own sake as we have seen leads nowhere but to disappointment. Furthermore it is destructive to spiritual progress. Rejection of pleasure on the other hand, although this will be an effective way of enhancing spiritual progress, is in effect an abdication of the responsibility of our generation. The ideal level is to participate in every pleasure permitted (and obviously this includes those which accompany mitzvos) but with a focused perspective.

This perspective involves an appreciation of the plenty being enjoyed. It acknowledges the fact that, although there were people who would reject such plenty, in this generation there exists the capacity not to reject but to infuse it with spirituality. The involvement must be with the infusion; not the pleasure itself.

The power to infuse physicality with spirituality has become increasingly available in our times. This is the reason why the early Chassidim turned their backs on it. This power is amazingly potent; know that there is a capacity for a Jew to learn Chassidus, to learn Torah and to be rich, and yet to be unmoved by that wealth except to recognize a responsibility to give tzedakah.

Each of us bless each other for the test of great wealth and the power to overcome being shortchanged by its misuse.