This is the way of the Torah: Bread and salt you will eat, measured water you will drink, on the ground you will sleep, a life of suffering you will live, and in the Torah you will labor. If you do this, ‘You are fortunate and it is good for you’ (Psalms 128:2). ‘You are fortunate’ — in this world; ‘and it is good for you’ — in the World to Come.
This week’s mishna, though well-known, presents some obvious difficulties. As we know, Judaism does not believe in poverty or self-flagellation. I’ve written many times before that the Torah instructs us to live “normal” lives — ones of material and physical as well as spiritual fulfillment: marry, earn a living, rest on the Sabbath. (And as I heard R. Berel Wein once put it, though we sentimentalize the poverty of our Eastern European ancestors — practically convincing ourselves that the “truly pious” Jew is dirt poor, the Talmud writes somewhat less sentimentally: A poor man is considered dead (Nedarim 64b).)
We are taught, rather, that the world, in all its awe and beauty, was meant to be appreciated and enjoyed; that its natural, G-d-given beauty bespeaks its inherent worth and value in the eyes of G-d. The Sages tell us, “A person will one day give reckoning for everything his eyes saw which, although permissible, he did not enjoy” (Jerusalem Talmud, Kiddushin 4:12). “I granted you this beautiful world and you ignored it?!” says G-d. G-d’s world is not here for us to ignore or resist. If we do not utilize the world in the manner intended — certainly if we deny our own natures — the world will be just a little less fulfilled. If, however, we live in the world and use it in the manner G-d intended — for man to benefit from and appreciate G-d in the process, we bring the entire universe to its ultimate fruition.
In truth, we do hear of great and pious Jews separating themselves from the pleasures of this world. Jewish thinkers, however, view this as a stepping stone — to overcome the shackles of physical lust in order to devote themselves entirely to G-d. Ultimately, when they do enjoy the pleasures of this world it will not be a slavish yielding to their passions — further removing them from G-d, but an act of Divine service — enhancing their love and admiration for the G-d who has granted them so much.
Thus, our mishna would at first seem difficult to integrate. It seems to promote abject poverty and denial as the ideal — going so far as to promise contentment in this world to the underprivileged. And furthermore, besides the fact that this flies in the face of practically everything else Judaism teaches about this world, what do the Sages even mean — “You are fortunate in this world?” Perhaps dedication to Torah is well worth a little (or a lot of) sacrifice of creature comforts. But how can the Sages even pretend that this is the path to happiness in this world, let alone recommend it as the “way of the Torah?”
Allow me to veer off of the subject slightly and look at another occasion when we are asked to deny ourselves the pleasures of this world: Yom Kippur. On this one day at least, the “ideal” state is suffering — to live with hunger and abstinence.
We tend to view Yom Kippur in terms of penance. During the year we were sinful — we did a lot and enjoyed a lot for which we need forgiveness. And we effect this atonement through fasting and affliction: we voluntarily bring some pain upon ourselves — before G-d decides to do so Himself. Thus, regardless of Judaism’s relatively sanguine attitude towards the physical world the rest of the year, on Yom Kippur we recognize that for the most part we go too far — and on this one Day of Reckoning we make up for it.
There is some truth to this appraisal. We are told on Yom Kippur to fast and “afflict” our souls (Leviticus 16:29). But Yom Kippur is much deeper than this. The Torah also instructs us to make ourselves “pure” (ibid., v. 30). My teacher R. Yochanan Zweig explained as follows.
Imagine a busy day at the office (most of us do not have to imagine very hard). There are two people who skip lunch. One just *has* to meet a deadline. He is giving a presentation that afternoon and just has to finish his slides and rehearse them in time. He would love to run down the street for a bite, but just too much is at stake. So hungrily he works through his lunch hour.
The second individual is busy at his computer working on a very captivating piece of code. (No laughing — this really could happen.) 😉 He is so involved with his coding, testing, debugging and fine-tuning that he does not even notice the time: he never even felt hungry. All of a sudden he looks up and realizes it’s 3:15. “Might as well just munch on an apple and wait till supper at this point,” he muses — and goes on programming.
These, explained R. Zweig, are the two types of individuals who experience Yom Kippur. Most of us are quite hungry during the fast. Although we find the prayers meaningful and uplifting, we do look anxiously at our watches (at least come lunchtime), eagerly awaiting that final shofar blast and the breaking of our fasts. For us too Yom Kippur is meaningful and rewarding. We were human beings — we wanted to eat — but we did not. Why? Because G-d said so. And that is a true and meaningful sacrifice. Being the physical beings we are, it was difficult to “afflict” ourselves and fast. But we did so all the same. And G-d will certainly view us favorably on this Day of Judgment.
This, however, is not what Yom Kippur is really about. G-d tells us more than to afflict ourselves. We are told to purify ourselves as well. On this one day a year, we are told to so involve ourselves in cleaving to G-d, to become so angelic, that we do not even want to eat. We are so involved with — so sated from — closeness to G-d, that we hardly think of, let alone desire, any pleasure this world has to offer. One who reaches this lofty state will feel no affliction in fasting. Yom Kippur will be a day of communion and exhilaration. He will enjoy it! And in his experience, he will gain so much more than the rest of us who in our self-sacrifice have to force it.
This is as well the ideal state of mind of the true Torah scholar. Let us return to our mishna. It did not tell us that privation is the life we mortals should live or even aspire to. We are fortunate if Yom Kippur gives us a once-a-year taste of this exalted level. But our mishna does describe this as the “way of the Torah.” True Torah scholars will live contentedly under conditions of denial and poverty. They will thrive on G-d’s word, with no sense of “affliction” or lacking. They are so sated with G-d and His Torah that they are fortunate in this world as well — simply because they are not bound by it. They are enthused and energized by forces far beyond anything this world has to offer. Their happiness, their fulfillment does not depend on their physical surroundings — if they notice them at all. If anything, they will see physical comfort as a distraction from the one thing they truly desire — closeness to G-d. They are creatures of the next world. And their joy and pleasure even in the world we know will be far beyond any pleasure known or imaginable to the creatures of this world.
Text Copyright © 2006 by Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld and Torah.org.