The Art of Desire: Ethics of the Fathers 1:16

May 9, 2009

8 min read


Get a rabbi so he can teach you how to really enjoy life in a permissible, holy fashion.

Rabban Gamaliel said: "Get a rabbi, and remove yourself from doubt; and don't guess when you tithe because you will end up giving more than necessary." Ethics of the Fathers, 1:16

Oy vey! Computers!

My machine was running slow… getting slower every day. And those frustrating pop-ups! My home page was even getting changed to some "Shopping Page" without my permission.

I emailed my nephew, the family computer genius, a recent grad with a degree in computers. (You have to be at most 23 or 24 to really know something about computers.) He told me about adware and other unwelcomed software that can be downloaded to your computer without your knowledge. He also directed me to a few downloads that could clean out my computer, which in fact improved things right away.

But some problems persisted, and I wanted all traces of the nefarious software eliminated. I emailed my nephew, who told me there were some advanced things to do but without him sitting in front of my machine it would be hard for him to do it (and he lived far away).

A few days later another slew of pop-ups hit. That was it! I was going to get rid of it myself. I surfed and found a couple of techie websites, gleaned from them what I could, took out my virtual scissors, and started cutting all the traces of the evil software hiding in some God-forsaken sub-sub-sub-directory on my hard drive.

And it worked. My machine was flying. The pop-ups ceased. I felt victorious, not to mention proud of myself too…

Until my CD drive stopped working…

And my anti-virus software was nowhere to be found …

And strange things were happening at start-up…

Then I remembered our Mishnah: "Get a rabbi…" Go to the expert. Don't rely on your own ingenuity, your own amateurish knowledge, as smart as you think you are. If I had taken this advice for my computer needs I wouldn't have been in this predicament.

They say about medical students that the only license they have is a license to kill. Incomplete knowledge is sometimes worse than total ignorance, because it comes with a tendency toward arrogance, toward thinking you can do it all -- when in reality you are not the expert.

Getting a rabbi doesn't mean getting a guru, someone who looks into a crystal ball and relieves you of the responsibility to think for yourself.

Getting a rabbi doesn't mean getting a guru, someone who looks into a crystal ball and relieves you of the responsibility to think for yourself. However, it does mean acknowledging that you are not the expert. An authentic rabbi is more valuable than your best friend; he is someone intimately familiar with the impossibly complex meandering, winding river of life -- its spiritual as well as material pitfalls.

The Underlying Psychology

This idea was discussed in an earlier Mishnah that uses almost the exact wording as ours (See: Crossing The Narrow Bridge). However, a couple of new elements are added here:

  1. The reason why one should find a rabbi, i.e. "removing oneself from doubt";
  2. The warning: "Don't guess when you tithe because you will end up giving more than necessary."

Commentators see the clause about tithing as a concrete illustration of the problem of not finding a rabbi to remove oneself from doubt. If guessing when setting aside your obligatory tithes can work to your disadvantage, how much more so guessing when addressing your overall spiritual needs.

On a deeper level, this teaching exposes an important underlying truth about human nature: Good people -- and Judaism assumes we are all good people at heart (See: Human Nature: Inherently Good Or Evil?) -- tend to be stringent in situations of doubt. That's why you'll end up tithing more than necessary. You won't want to cheat on your obligations to God and fellow Jews, so you'll make sure to give more than necessary.

But what's so bad about giving more than necessary? If someone gave an extra few dollars, or more, he may not have enough money for the next good cause, but at least he gave those funds to one. So he won't have those extra dollars to buy that item or go to that restaurant. It's not the end of the world.

The problem here is that Judaism teaches there's a beautiful world out there, with a lot of good and pleasure -- spiritual and physical -- and it's not merely a shame to miss out on that good, it's also a sin!

My Beautiful Alps

A great 19th century European rabbi, a man known for his austerity, once told his constituents that he was planning to see the Alps. They were shocked. In their minds, the Alps represented frivolity, a resort spot associated with something totally out of character for their very serious rabbi. Seeing the look on their faces he explained.

"The Sages teach: After a person dies he will have to give an accounting before God for every permissible pleasure that his eyes saw but did not partake of. I am afraid," the rabbi said, "that after I pass on and come before God, He will say to me, 'How come you didn't even once come to see My beautiful Alps?'"

"God caused every kind of tree to grow from the ground, attractive to the sight and good for food..." (Genesis 2:9)

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch asks why this verse mentions "attractive to the sight" before "good for food"? He explains that satisfying the human aesthetic need comes before gratifying his sense of taste. God put both aspects -- beauty and taste -- in the world so human beings could partake of them. Failure to do so -- in a permissible way, as we'll explain -- frustrates God's plan in creating them.

Sanctifying the Physical

The Torah is at odds with those religions and doctrines that preach asceticism. "Be fruitful and multiply," means that a person must marry, raise a family, live in a home, and have an income. We are fathers, mothers, breadwinners, and builders.

Even our Sabbath, the holiest day of all, is very physical. It's sanctified Friday night on a cup of wine. Then we eat, sing, and interact with our family until the following nightfall.

In the Torah outlook, spirituality is not primarily to be found in ascent from the body -- in rituals and practices that deny physical, bodily, earthly life. Rather, it is to be found in descent -- descent of the Divine element -- into the physical, bodily, and earthly aspects of life.

The goal is finding ways to bring heaven down to earth, not escaping earth to go into heaven.

Through the commandments, which tell us how to conduct ourselves in the physical world, we partake in the physical in the prescribed fashion. We thereby sanctify the earthly and transform it into a mirror of the heavenly. In the Torah outlook we are here to harness every possible element of the world, not suppress or deny it. The goal is finding ways to bring heaven down to earth, not escaping earth to go into heaven.

Kosher Cheeseburgers

This is not just good theology, but a very important idea for living.

A person who gives up permissible pleasures (and/or gives away money and things more than is necessary) may, over time, feel resentful that his religion demands so much from him. This is especially tragic when in fact it's not the religion that's doing the excessive restricting, but ignorance, or laziness to seek out expert advice.

Get a rabbi and remove yourself from doubt, our Mishnah exhorts, not so he can make you into a religious fanatic, but so he can teach you how to live and enjoy life in a permissible, holy fashion. There is no bodily desire that is not rooted in an authentic soul-desire.

Yes, cheeseburgers will always be not kosher. But nowadays one can find imitation parve (i.e. something that is neither meat nor a milk by-product) cheese that tastes just like real cheese. Nowadays you can even sprinkle on the burger kosher bacos if you like the taste of bacon.

And, yes, Judaism also forbids gluttony, even if the glutton is consuming nothing but 100% glatt kosher food. Nevertheless, every desire has a kosher outlet and a kosher way of enjoying it. One needs a true rabbi to help him find it.

A Reservoir of Infinite Joy

Most of the time, good people deny themselves the enjoyment of a kosher pleasure if they're unsure whether it's permissible or not. On the surface this may not sound so bad, but an accumulation of missed-out kosher pleasures can have an effect on one's outlook, turning it gray and dull.

Every person has a reservoir of infinite joy inside. Barriers, however, can block this source from pouring forth. Therefore, find a rabbi and remove the blocks. The more you know the more you know you can do. The more you do the more you can truly enjoy life.
Knowledge is freedom in Judaism. And no one knows more than authentic rabbi. So seek one out and start living.

This article was written with my father, Chaim Benyamin ben Esther, in mind. May he have a refuah shlaimah.

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