Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Taking Your Part in Pleasure

Parshat Naso
2 Sivan 5771 / June 3 – 4, 2011
Bamidbar 4:21 – 7:89

Taking Your Part in Pleasure
by Laura Wolf, formerly of MH London

דבר אל בני ישראל ואמרת אלהם איש או אשה כי יפלא לנדר נדר נזיר להזיר להשם

“Speak to the Children of Israel and say to them: A man or woman who shall dissociate him or herself by taking a Nazarite vow of abstinence for the sake of G-d...” (Numbers 6:2)

Although Nazirs (a form Biblical asceticism) are praised for their restraint, they are still commanded to bring a sacrificial sin offering at the end of their vow which seems paradoxical. You would think that a person should be completely rewarded for partaking in less of this physical world.

In his commentary to the Torah, Rav Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin writes that there is certainly a positive aspect to being a Nazir, but that it is not for everyone. Abstaining from the pleasures that G-d intended for us to enjoy is, in a sense, sinful for the average person.

Soon we will be celebrating the festival of Shavuot, commemorating the receiving of the Torah. Rabbi Yechiel Michel Epstein, author of the classic halachic work Aruch Hashulchan (1829-1908), writes that the festival of Shavuot is referred to in the Torah as “atzeres,” restraint, because the Jewish people were instructed to abstain from physical indulgence prior to receiving the Torah. Surprisingly, the Talmud tells us that one should consume delicacies on Shavuot – the very same holiday whose name represents restraint from physical pleasures!

The Talmud states that one who fasts excessively is called a sinner, because he adopts a path that is contrary to what the Torah asks of us. We are not bidden to abstain from earthly pleasures altogether, for they were placed here to enhance our earthly existence and to utilize in the service of G-d. Rather, our mandate is to limit our intake of these pleasures and not to allow them to take control of us. So long as one is careful not to allow themselves to indulge and as a result compromise their physical and spiritual health, there is no reason to refrain from appreciating the abundance with which G-d has showered us. One who abstains from it altogether has confused asceticism with piety.

When we were given the Torah at Mount Sinai we were given the tools to transform the material into the spiritual. So my blessing to everyone is that we all have the strength to not be fooled and consumed by the material world and to keep our souls in the driver’s seat so that we can rise above our base nature and ego to make the world a more spiritually pure, peaceful and beautiful place.


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