Thought / Adventures in Ideas
February 3, 1998 / 7 Shevat, 5758


What it is, exactly, and how can we achieve it?

By Rabbi Noach Weinberg with Paul Benson

WHAT'S THE ONE THING all parents want for their children?

Their happiness.

When children are happy, the parents feel energized; when the kids are miserable, the parents are distracted. And parents go out of their wits when their children are depressed. The way parents identify with the feelings of their children is universal.

Jewish wisdom teaches that G-d is our Father in Heaven. He created the world simply to bestow pleasure upon his children, because just like a human father, all G-d wants for his children is their pleasure.

What kind of pleasures do we want our children to enjoy?

We want them to enjoy good food, vacations, tennis, music, etc.

But we also want them to have deeper pleasures than food or tennis. We'd like them to have a good career. We'd like them to marry and have children. We recognize that playing tennis is fun, and we want our children to have that fun, but we want them to go beyond that and have more enriching experiences. Who wouldn't feel frustrated to see their 30-year-old unmarried child sitting around playing tennis all day? We all want our children to develop so they can enjoy everything life offers.

Now if someone became aware of all the pleasures available to human beings, and also found out that it's possible to achieve pleasures far beyond what we thought life had to offer, we'd certainly want our children to have those pleasures too. We'd even teach them these pleasures, along with the tennis and music lessons.

That's exactly what G-d wants from us and that's what He came to teach us. What does the word "Torah" mean? Literally, it means "Instructions." Instructions for what?

Instructions for living. Which is why the Torah is so often called "Toras Chaim," or "Instructions for Living."


What do we mean by five levels of pleasure? It's similar to the various ways a person can travel on an airplane. Anyone flying from New York to Los Angeles will be spending five hours in the air and can get a seat in a variety of classes. Obviously, the best way to travel is first class.

Of course, no airline uses the designations of "second class," "third class," or "fourth class." People don't say they were second-class passengers, so the airlines create euphemisms like "Executive Travel," "Business Class," "Tourist," "Coach" and "Economy." Left to our own imagination, we'd think that "fifth-class" flying means the stewardess gives us a rope and says "Hold on tight."

Unfortunately, most people travel through life fifth class, just barely holding on. And sometimes, they let go.

There was a book called Final Exit that sold 800,000 copies in the United States and was on The New York Times Bestseller list for several months. The book teaches people how to commit suicide in the comfort of their own homes. People didn't buy the book because it's such fascinating reading -- it's extremely technical. They just want the book on their shelf in case they want to let go. The popularity of the book shows how many people there are in the world who are not getting the kinds of pleasures that make the effort of living worthwhile.


What's fifth class pleasure? It's the most basic, most obvious and most available pleasure to all human beings: physical pleasure.

There are thousands of different experiences in the world categorized as physical pleasure. Physical pleasure is any experience that a person partakes of with one of their five senses. Either we smell it, touch it, taste it, see it or hear it.

Jewish wisdom views physical pleasure as a very important part of living. It teaches that G-d made a physical world not to frustrate us, but for us to enjoy. In fact, the Talmud in Brachos tells us that we will be held accountable if there is a fruit in this world we didn't at least taste once to see if we enjoyed it. The idea is similar to the mother who prepares a tasty dish for dinner, then gets upset when the children refuse to try it.


Before we get into the specific levels of pleasure, we must first understand three concepts that pertain to every class of pleasure.

1) Become a connoisseur.

Ever take a course in wine tasting? They teach that there are a whole variety of pleasures available in every glass of wine, like the bouquet, the color, and the texture. Believe it or not, there are actually many parts of the mouth which taste the wine, each part offering us a totally different taste experience. We barbarians are totally unaware of the richness available in a glass of wine.

Life offers a lot of opportunity for pleasure. A beautiful day could give us hours of pleasure if we sensitized ourselves to all of its exquisite details. But without learning to do this, the beauty gives us a momentary lift, and then we're left flat again.

With each level of pleasure, we can learn how to appreciate and enjoy the pleasure that's available to us, or we'll be unable to access the pleasure. Just as we can't fully appreciate the pleasures of a glass of wine without a wine-tasting course, humans can't fully enjoy the entire spectrum of pleasures available in life without knowing what those pleasures are.

2) Focus on the pleasure, not the effort.

Every pleasure we want in life has a price tag attached to it. The price tag for pleasures is effort. The greater the pleasure, the greater the effort needed to acquire it. Superficial pleasures require far less effort to attain them. Truly appreciating each level of pleasure requires us to learn focusing on the pleasure, not the price.

If we focus on the effort, we lose sight of the pleasures of life. We might not even bother getting out of bed in the morning. When we focus on the pleasure, no amount of effort can deter us.

3) Avoid counterfeit pleasures.

The third concept is to beware of counterfeit pleasures. Imagine somebody left $100,000 on our doorstep. We'd be ecstatic until the police show up to escort us to jail. What happened? The money was counterfeit.

Just as there's counterfeit money, there's counterfeit pleasure. People make mistakes all the time thinking they're going to get pleasure. They wind up with a can of worms.

Within each level of pleasure, there's a counterfeit experience telling us to invest our time and energy to attain it. But it's only an illusion of what true pleasure really is.

Getting pleasure is serious business; we almost have to be businesslike to achieve it. If someone came to our office with a plan to earn several million dollars and all he needs is a few hundred thousand dollars to start things off, we wouldn't say "Great, let's go." We'd first investigate whether this guy's for real or not.

Similarly, if we really want pleasure, we have to make sure that we invest our most precious resources our time and energy in pursuit of real pleasures, not counterfeit.


One counterfeit pleasure, more than any other, inhibits our attaining of pleasure.

To explain this, we ask the following question: What's the opposite experience of pain?

Nine out of ten people will say, "Pleasure."

That's not true, however. The opposite of pain is not pleasure but "comfort." And comfort is not pleasure. It's only no pain.

In truth, pain is the price we pay to get pleasure. Anything we get in life that's really worthwhile -- good relationships, successful careers, the pursuit of meaning -- all of life's lasting pleasures require a lot of pain and effort to achieve. Pursuing comfort rids us of pain. It also robs us of any achievement. If we try to get pleasure by spending our life avoiding pain, all we end up with is the counterfeit: comfort. Without effort, we'll never get real pleasure.

Physical pleasure, however, is not the ultimate experience either. If we had guests for dinner and after serving them the appetizer, they said, "What a great meal," what would we say? "What are you talking about? We're just getting started. The best is yet to come!"

Physical pleasure is only the appetizer of living. Jewish wisdom teaches that the best is yet to come.

Next installment: Love.

Rabbi Noach Weinberg is dean of Aish Hatorah in Jerusalem's Old City ( Paul Benson is a Jerusalem-based writer.


© 1998, Paul Benson