Pursuit of Pleasure, God, and Kabbalah

    February 2011            
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The Pursuit Of Pleasure

By Mendel Weinberger

    "And take pleasure in G-d and He will give you the desires of your heart." (Psalms 37:4)

    "We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness." (Declaration of Independence, 1776)

The pursuit of happiness is considered a fundamental right for Americans and by association most citizens of the western world. But what most people mean by happiness is the pursuit of pleasure. Pleasure can take many forms and whole industries are built around them.

Some people take pleasure in food and drink, so every major city has hundreds of restaurants to choose from. You can eat fast food burgers and pizza, Chinese food, southern fried chicken, Thai food, Middle Eastern, Haute cuisine, etc. Alcohol has always been a way to find temporary pleasure and escape from reality.

Other people find pleasure in sports, so one can run, swim, ski, skydive, play baseball, football, soccer, or basketball or you can be a spectator and take pleasure in watching others play. Playing or listening to music, going to movies, reading books, playing computer games, and traveling to exotic places are further ways to find pleasure. There is the great pleasure of falling in love which many say is the greatest pleasure of all. But even romantic love and the sexual pleasure that accompanies it eventually ends. In fact a great rule of pleasure seeking is that it is always time-bound. So even the most sublime pleasure one can imagine has limits to it. Most people struggle through life pursuing pleasure and once they have attained it seek another even greater pleasure. It is an endless and often frustrating search.

This Psalm comes along to turn this relentless pursuit of pleasure on its head. King David writes, "Take pleasure in G-d". What does this mean? To answer that question we need to understand what G-d is and what He isn't. Do we understand G-d to be a wise old man dwelling up in heaven, sitting in judgment of the creatures on earth, rewarding the righteous with health, wealth, and honor; and punishing the wicked with poverty, disease an disgrace? Or is our conception of G-d one of an apathetic Creator, who made the world, then left it to man to create his own destiny? Does G-d love us and care for us or is He so transcendentally sublime that earthly matters don't concern Him at all? Is creation some kind of Divine Joke or is there a deeper meaning to it all?

It is important to understand that all definitions of G-d are doomed to fail. G-d is the one who defines creation by contracting His (sic) infinite being and allowing something else to exist. The parameters of created beings depend on the quantity and quality of G-d's light that is emanated to them. A stone requires a small amount of godly light to give it existence; a rose needs more, a lion still more, and a human being the most light of all. Kabala explains that even in the spiritual realms of sephirot and angelic beings, each are limited by its particular identity. Chesed (kindess) is the quality of giving and is opposed by the gevurah (severity) which limits the flow of divine light. The angel of healing Raphael is limited by his task of healing as is the angel Gavriel, who carries out punishment and destruction. So we can say that all of creation by definition is limited. But the infinite Creator is absolutely unlimited.

We return now to the question, how can we take pleasure in the Infinite, unlimited G-d? There doesn't seem to be a point of connection between us as finite beings of limited intelligence and the all-knowing, all encompassing G-d. But on closer examination there really is a point of contact and that point is the human soul. According to Kabala there are five levels to the soul, each one enlivening a different part of who we are. Nefesh is the lowest part of the soul, the basic life force of the physical body. This spark of life enters into us at conception and keeps us going until the moment of our death. It is what makes the heart beat, the brain synapses fire, the involuntary response of breathing and digestion, and the smooth working of the nervous system. Without the nefesh, we would be an inert lump of flesh.

Ruach is the life force of the emotions. It is the spark of love we feel for our spouse or a newborn child, the fear we feel on a deserted street late at night, the anger in the face of a personal insult or abuse. Like a tree that is continually either growing or dying, our emotions appear, grow large then fade away.

Neshama is the life-force of the intellect. It is the unique feature of the human being, who is capable of abstract thought and symbolic language. The divine light that fuels the neshama is what has enabled the invention the wheel, the building of the Parthenon, the flight to the moon and back, or the creation of a symphony. It is the power behind the mind of Socrates, Aristotle, Lao Tzu, Maimonides, and Einstein.

The three parts of the soul explained above, nefesh, ruach, and neshama are contained within the boundaries of the body so they too are limited. Even though scientists say we use only a small part of our brains and the rest lies dormant, still the human mind by its nature is limited by the fact of being created within the boundaries of the corporeal world. The highest levels of the soul do transcend nature and that is where the human and divine meet.

The fourth level of the soul is called chaya. It is not contained in the body but it does hover close to it like the aura that surrounds a person. This level of the soul surrounds each of us individually and the nation of Israel collectively. When a person is in touch with the chaya of his or her soul, there is a feeling of pleasure far beyond anything the world can offer. This pleasure is felt in the body and mind, but because its source is outside the physical, it does not have the limitations of the material world. There really aren't words to describe this pleasure for it is beyond the limits of language.

Yechida is the fifth and highest level of the soul. It is a spark of G-d's Essence connected to a Jew in a way that he is not really aware of at all. There is not much to say about it except that it is the true identity of a Jew and the source of his being willing to give up his life for the sake of the Torah.

How does the average Jew begin to seek the pleasure in G-d? The Torah points the way. Begin to align your will with G-d's will by performing mitzvoth (commandments). Align your emotions with love and fear of G-d in prayer. Align your mind with G-d's mind by learning the Torah, especially the hidden wisdom of the Kabala as explained in Chassidut. Limit your indulgence in physical pleasures, even permitted ones. Associate with other Jews who are inspired in their service to cleave to the Divine Presence. However, one should know that all of our efforts don't accomplish the task. In the end, pleasure in G-d is a gift granted from above as the verse concludes, "and He will give you the disires of your heart".


from the February 2011 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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