What is pleasure? We use the word in relation to so many
and diverse things. What do a steak, a musical composition
and an idea have in common? Yet pleasure is our
word of choice in describing our experience of a meal, a concert,
or an intellectual revelation. For as different as the sensations
derived from these things may be, they share a common essence:
the capacity to impart a sense of fulfillment to the human
Indeed, all pleasures flow from the same font. The teachings
of kabbalah describe the created reality in terms of a chain
of evolution (seder hishtalshelut), whose uppermost
link is G-ds pleasure in His creation, which spawns
the divine desire to create. This divine desire then passes
through many stages and metamorphoses, evolving into worlds
and realities of increased tactility. Every object, force
or phenomenon is simply another form of the generic divine
desirethe differences between them lie only in the manner
and extent of their† evolution. The higher a reality is in
the chain, the greater its awareness of its source;
it is thus more spiritualmore subservient
to the divine will, less possessive of a sense of being and
self. The further down it passes through the chain, the more
distant it becomes from its source: the less aware
and subservient, the more tactual and egocentricthe
Hence, the more spiritual a thing is, the more profound the
pleasure it yields, for it is closer to the source of all
pleasure. The ultimate pleasure lies in the experience of
union with G-d through the fulfillment of His willan
experience that relates to the very first link in the chain,
where pleasure resides in its most pristine, unprocessed
In its lowest reaches, the chain of evolution
yields things that are unconduciveor even contraryto
what G-d wants. The capacity of these things to give pleasure
is an existential paradox: all pleasure is but the embodiment
of the divine pleasure in creation, while these pleasures
are divine displeasuresthings contrary to G-ds
will. Yet they, too, are products of the divine desire, since
their capacity to give pleasure fills a certain function in
G-ds purpose in creation: G-d desired that we be confronted
with a free choice between good and evil so that our deeds
should be meaningful and significant. But G-d wants that these
things should exist only in order that man should reject them
as contrary to His will; so theirs is an existence whose inner
essencewhose function and raison dÍtreis
not to exist.
Chassidic teaching employs the metaphor of† digestion
to explain this phenomenon. Digestion is the process by which
food passes through the various organs which break it down
and separate its finer elements from its coarser ones. At
each phase of the process, this separation grows more and
more defined; ultimately, the finer elements in the food evolve
into body-building cells and energy, and its coarser elements
are ejected by the body. Both the nutrients and the waste
are products of the digestion process; but the
former is generated to be used, while the latter is generated
to be rejected and thereby enable the bodys absorption
of the former.
By the same token, the chain of evolution is
the cosmic digestive system in which the essence of creation
is processed into the substance and energy of the universe
that G-d desired. This process (like every process we know)
also generates wasteelements that must be separated
and disposed of in order for the desirable product to properly
develop. Of course, G-d could have evolved His world in such
a manner that the good develops without any separation of
waste (or, for that matter, He could have not
evolved it at all), but He desired that the good
in creation should be all the more sharply defined by its
contrast with the rejected evil; that human life should be
an exercise in refinementin distinguishing between the
calories of divine energy and the sludge of putrid waste in
our own self and character, our environment and our world.
Indeed, the very concept of good, as we know it,
would be devoid of all meaning were it not for the challenge
of rejecting the evil that vies for validation and indulgence.
Thus, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi explains the following
incident related in the Talmud:
Rabban Gamliel, Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah, Rabbi Yehoshua
and Rabbi Akiva were traveling, when they heard the sounds
of the crowds of Rome from a distance of one hundred and twenty
mil. They began to weep, but Rabbi Akiva laughed.
Said they to him: Why are you laughing?
Said he to them: Why are you weeping?
Said they to him: These barbarians, who prostrate
themselves before statues and sacrifice to idols, dwell happy
and secure, while wethe footstool of our G-d was consumed by fire.
Shall we not weep?
Said he to them: That is why I am laughing. If for
those who transgress His will it is so, how much more so is
it for those who do His will.
Rabbi Akiva is saying: if the waste produced
by the divine desire in creation can yield such pleasure for
the hedonist, imagine the pleasure to be derived through the
fulfillment of His will, which is the source and essence of
In the Fortieth Year
Therein lies the deeper significance of the idolatry of Peor,
to which the Jewish people succumbed on the eve of their entry
into the Land of Israel, as related in the 25th chapter of
Numbers. The worship of Peor was a particularly
repulsive form of idolatry, in which the worshipper exposed
himself to the idol and defecated before it.
In truth, however, this was but the physical enactment of
what a person does each time he prefers a mundane pleasure
over a spiritual-G-dly one: he is worshipping the offal of
creation, venerating something whose only significance is
its need to be rejected in favor of the energies that were
extracted from it.
This is why Israels vulnerability to Peor
came about at the close of their forty-year sojourn in the
desert as they camped on the eastern bank of the Jordan River
poised to enter and settle the Land of Canaan. For forty years,
the people of Israel had enjoyed a wholly spiritual existence.
Manna from the heavensspiritual food that yielded no
them; the miraculous well of Miriam sated their
thirst; clouds of glory sheltered them from the
harsh realities of the material world. Thus insulated, they
were free to pursue the divine wisdom of Torah without distraction
or interference. They inhabited a spiritual idyll, in which
the waste of creation was unknown.
But now they stood at the threshold of a new era: they were
to settle the land, till its soil, engage in commerce and
politicsi.e., to live a physical life sustained by physical
means. For the first time in their history as a nation, they
were to be in direct contact with the nether levels of the
chain of evolutionwith that part of the
cosmic digestive tract which separates the waste from the
body of creation. For the first time, they were called upon
to differentiate between vital mattermatter that nourishes
a spiritual endand mundane mattermatter as an
end in itself.
Not all were equal to the challenge. There was an outbreak
of Peor worship in the Israelite camp, as many
were enticed by the pseudo-pleasures to found in the undesirable
by-product of creation. Until one manPinchascame,
and with his selfless commitment, unclouded vision and decisive
action, put a halt to the plague of Peor.
Based on an address by the Rebbe, Shabbat Parshat Balak,
5723 (July 6, 1963)
Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe by Yanki Tauber
. This is not to say that because, in our experience,
the processing of a substance produces waste, this is how
it had to be with G-ds processing of creation.
On the contrary: because G-d so chose to create the world,
our reality reflects the dynamics of His creation.
. The Holy Temple in Jerusalem.
. Talmud, Makkot 24a-b.
. Rashi, Numbers 25:3.
. Likkutei Sichot, vol. IV, pp. 1327-1328. See Torah