The Advanced Course: Prishus
The Hebrew word for abstinence is "prishus." But prishus does not mean self-denial. Prishus refers to mastering our desires in order to raise ourselves spiritually. Self-denial is not a Jewish idea. A person is not allowed to torture himself and it's actually sinful to fast if one shouldn't (Taanis 11a). The Torah is not about suffering. G-d acknowledges our human urges and He tells us how to use them to better ourselves.
The Nazir (Nazirite - one who voluntarily bans certain pleasures from himself) must bring a sin-offering at the end of his Nazir period. Why a sin offering? What did he do wrong? Chazal (our Rabbis) tell us it is because he unnecessarily deprived himself of permitted pleasures (Nedarim 10a, quoted by Rashi on Numbers 6:11).
Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto ("The Ramchal" ) in his magnum opus, Mesillas Yesharim (Path of the Just) says that man was created for the sole purpose of having pleasure. However, Rabbi Luzzatto cautions us, the real pleasure is to be found in Olam HaBa (the World to Come); the purpose of this world is for us to prepare ourselves (see Avos 4:21).
Prishus, the Ramchal tells us, is separating ourselves from things that will lead to trouble, even though they themselves may not be trouble right now. He describes three levels of things to avoid. First are the forbidden things themselves (Torah prohibitions). Next are the "fences" that the Rabbis made ("d'Rabbanan" laws). Finally are the safeguards that every person must make for his or her self based on self-knowledge.
We have to use good judgment when we are tempted. Look at the example set by Chava (Eve) in Bereishis (Genesis). The Torah tells us (3:6), "She saw that the tree was good for eating, so she took some of its fruit and ate. She also gave some to her husband and he ate."
She decided that eating from the tree was "good," even though G-d said not to. If she could have foreseen the consequences of her actions - expulsion from the Garden, working for a living, pain in childbirth, etc. - she might not have thought it was such a "good" idea, after all. Similarly, when we are tempted by something, all we have is our own opinion and G-d's word on the subject. If it's something that G-d says not to do, it's not "good," even if you don't see how right now.
Some things are permitted, but that doesn't mean we should be indiscriminate. They should be moderated. Eating is permitted, but there are rules. We have to eat kosher food, make a bracha (blessing) and follow other related laws. We must also recognize that eating is only a momentary pleasure; after you've eaten, you feel just as full whether it was a loaf of bread or a stuffed pheasant, so what good is gluttony? Similarly, sex with one's spouse is permitted, but Sages are discouraged from going after their wives "like roosters." Really, one would be able to keep within the letter of the law, eating, drinking and having sexual relations all day long. However, he would earn the name, "menuval bir'shus haTorah," someone who acts despicably without violating any laws. He may not be acting sinfully, but his actions are base and do nothing to raise him spiritually or bring him closer to G-d.
The purpose of prishus is not denial, which is about self-deprivation and is not appropriate. Prishus is about mastering our desires, which raises us spiritually. The Ramchal places the trait of prishus between the stages of "cleanliness" and "purity," which comes before "saintliness." It's a step in our growth towards Hashem.
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