18. The Garden of Pleasure
Every human activity is a pursuit of pleasure.
The purpose of all that G-d created was to bestow of His good to another.
In our last class, we were introduced to a fascinating idea: that the entire purpose of your existence is to get pleasure.
(1) Pleasure through Logic
The Ramchal brought us to that understanding through logic: If there's an infinite Being, there's no need for Him to create, because He can't get anything out of it. Therefore if He did create, it must have been purely for the benefit of His creations.
We can see this same idea from two other important sources: Torah, and our own experience of life.
(2) Pleasure through Torah
When G-d first created Adam and Eve, He placed them in a Garden of Eden. G-d put Adam and Eve in a garden with hundreds of varieties of fruits and vegetables, with beautiful scenery, with the potential for an intimate spousal relationship, and with the opportunity to experience G-d's presence. In short, this was a garden full of pleasure. Most of us have never stopped to consider what the word "eden" actually means. In Hebrew, eden actually translates as "pleasure!"
Before Adam and Even sinned, there was nothing to worry about: no competition, no jealousy, no need for physical exertion. Probably not even mosquitoes! (The Ramchal will explore this issue in depth later.)
Of course, not all pleasures are created equal. A pizza tastes great, but it's nowhere near the joy of love. The real task of life is not to get caught in the lower pleasures, while missing out on the higher pleasures.1
Similarly, when G-d gives the first commandment to the first Jew, He tells Abraham to leave his homeland and go to the Land of Israel. G-d uses an unusual expression to command Abraham – "Lech Lecha" – which can be translated as "go for yourself." As the preeminent commentator, Rashi, points us, this implies: "Go, because it's good for you." In other words, this seminal commandment reveals the nature of G-d's commands. G-d isn't telling Abraham to go because G-d needs him to do Him a favor. He's essentially telling Abraham, "Do yourself a favor, because I know what's good for you." This is the general framework for commandments.
Similarly, when G-d later chastises the Jewish people in the desert for not listening to Him, He says, "You should know in your heart that just as a father chastises his son, so does G-d chastise you" (Deut. 8:5). In other words, even the pains and difficulties that we experience should be seen as an act of love coming from our "merciful Father," as the prayers call Him.
Once the Ramchal introduces the concept of our being created for pleasure, we have to recast our understanding of Torah altogether. The Ramchal will say much more about this later, but for now, let's consider one important consequence of this idea. If G-d created us for pleasure, and we see that G-d also gave the Jewish people 613 commandments, what are we to make of it? That we're created to get pleasure but there are 613 restrictions and obligations to contend with?!
This answer is, as odd as it may sound, that the purpose of these commandments is to direct us to getting the pleasure that G-d wants us to have!
From previous discussions, we know that G-d has no needs. So it's inconceivable to say that we follow G-d's commandments because He needs us to. G-d can't possibly suffer if we fail to follow His instructions. It must be that the commandments are G-d's instructions, not for serving Him, but to focus us on how to get the deepest pleasures that life has to offer – emotional, social, moral, spiritual, and even physical.
(3) Pleasure through Life Experiences
A third way of verifying that the purpose of life is "pleasure" is to look at our own psychological drives. If an alien from another planet came down to visit us earthlings, he would observe a wide variety of human pursuits. Some people play basketball, some learn Torah, some save whales, and some rob banks. Some are benevolent and some are cruel. How does the alien make sense of it all?
If he would spend some time interviewing people, he would discover something fascinating. Every human being, in every one of their activities, is just pursuing various forms of pleasure! It must be that the pursuit of pleasure is built into our hardware. The alien would then make the assumption that if these earthlings had a manufacturer, the manufacturer must have created them for this very purpose – to pursue and attain pleasure.
In short, Judaism is telling us that the purpose of life is to get pleasure. If you've never encountered this idea before, it sounds radical, hedonistic, almost anti-religious. Even those who are already familiar with it sometimes need to refocus: We can get so caught up in the details of Judaism that we lose sight of how the purpose of it all is to attain pleasure.
Moving forward, the Ramchal will explore the implications of this idea, and give us the tools to incorporate it into our lives.
- What are the three ways that demonstrate we were created to get pleasure?
- Can you think of any episode in the Torah where G-d treats the Jewish people, and even individuals, in a way that's not ultimately for their own good? What about wiping out the generation of the Flood? Or banishing Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden?
- See Rabbi Noah Weinberg: Five Levels of Pleasure.