Innui vs Asceticism


Rabbi Ruben Gober


When one searches through the words of Torah and Chazal, one can easily see that Judaism doesn’t view the physical pleasures of the world as inherently evil. Certainly, they must be enjoyed within the framework that the Torah sets up, but there is no reason for one to feel that to be close to G-d one must be totally removed from the physical. The Rambam, in the Fourth Chapter of his introduction to his commentary on Pirkei Avos, explains that the Torah does not value abstention the abstention from physical pleasures as an ends to itself, like taking on extra prohiitions. In fact, he says that the Torah is critical of the Nazir for taking added prohibitions upon himself, which is the reason why he must bring a sin-offering. Furthermore, we see that there are mitzvos that demand that a person engage in some physical pleasure, such as eating on Shabbos and Yom Tov. Of course, the reasoning of these types of mitzvos goes beyond the physical pleasure itself, but it is clear that the Torah makes use of these pleasures, demonstrating that bodily pleasures aren’t viewed as inherently evil. This contrasts with the philosophy of Asceticism, a view that maintains that any physical pleasure is inherently evil and damaging to a person. Ascetics go to extreme lengths to avoid any and all worldly pleasures, for they feel that to be on a spiritual level, one must be removed from the physical world. Clearly the Torah labels such an opinion as false and untenable. G-d put man in this world as a physical being to utilize all of its opportunities for the service of G-d.


However, when we come to Yom Kippur we find a mitzvah which has a striking resemblance to asceticism, that of ‘Innui’, affliction. The Torah says that on Yom Kippur one must afflict himself and separate from worldly pleasures. How do we understand this commandment in the framework of the Torah’s view on worldly pleasures?


The Torah uses a similar term of Innui by the event of the ‘mon’, the food which G-d gave to the Jews in the desert. Moshe Rabbeinu says, in Devarim 8:2, that G-d gave them the ‘mon’ “in order to afflict” them. There are two questions that must be asked on this statement. Firstly, what does it mean that the Jews were afflicted by their receiving the ‘mon’? Where was the harm in their receiving food? Secondly, what was the purpose of their affliction in the desert? What did it accomplish?


The Talmud, in Yoma 74b, addresses what the affliction was in receiving the ‘mon’. According to one opinion, the affliction stemmed from the fact that they didn’t have ‘bread in the basket’. Rashi explains that each day, they only received enough ‘mon’ for that day so that they were concerned about what they would have to eat the next day. But we are still left with some questions. What is so bad about not having food stored up for the future, when G-d Himself said that He would provide it for them? Even more, we need to understand why this affliction was so important that G-d wanted the Jews to experience it; what is the big deal about not having food for tomorrow if don’t need it now anyway?


If we look around at society, we can easily see that the Talmud has sharp insight into human psychology. We do not have to look far to see how people are so concerned with having food for the future; some people go so far as to have pantries and freezers filled with food for weeks to come, even if there is no need for it in the foreseeable future and despite the fact that it costs them money now.  People do not just get food when they need it; they want it way in advance, knowing that it is there for them. Having ‘bread in the basket’ certainly does provide people with a sense of security, and this is what the Talmud is talking about. Still, we need to ask why-- why is man so concerned with his food for weeks to come? What is this security that man looks for?

Food is a type of object that is distinct from all other types in that it is essential for a person’s survival; without food, one will starve to death. This dependency on food means that a person must depend on something external to himself for his own existence. Because of this, man cannot be absolutely independent—he needs that which is external to himself and which he cannot provide by himself. This fact, however, isn’t so simple for man to accept; man, by his very nature, thinks highly of himself and wants to feel as if he can do everything on his own. People don’t like to feel that they are dependent on some external source or object for anything, and certainly not for their very survival and existence. Man’s ego wants to convince him that he can control everything that affects him on his own. Because man resists accepting the reality of dependency, he must find ways to delude himself of this fact, and allow him to feel that he’s not dependent in actuality. This is why we find people who constantly store food in their house, even before the need or the possibility of need for it arises. By storing food in one’s house, a person can act as if he is independent and feel secure about his survival; he doesn’t have to go anywhere or to anyone for his sustenance and he can feel that he has the ability to continue to survive on his own. With food within his own reach, he need not look anywhere else for his continued survival and, through this, he may feel independent.


With this principle in human psychology, we can now understand the affliction that the Jews experienced with the ‘mon’. In the desert, the Jews never had this security since G-d only provided food for that day. Even though they didn’t actually need more food at the time, there was still that part of them that wanted to feel independent and secure, which means having ‘bread in the basket’ so that they need not worry about tomorrow. This feeling of constant dependency was an ‘affliction’; since its against the natural human desires, it had to cause some psychological pain.


Now we can explain why G-d did this to the Jews in the desert. The purpose of this affliction wasn’t for them to just be in pain and insecurity; as we said before, there is no value in pain per se. G-d did this to them to teach them an idea that they must live by. There is only one source of security for man and that is G-d. If man wants to attain any sense of security so that he need not worry about his needs, then he must recognize his ‘real dependence’, namely that ultimately everything in the world comes from G-d and if one looks for sustenance he must look to G-d. When the Jews left Egypt they were on a low level; the Egyptian culture was based on idolatry and false notions about G-d and man’s relationship to G-d. In the desert, G-d had to teach the Jews the correct view, which includes how man must view himself as a dependent being, looking to G-d for all his needs, despite the fact that man’s emotional nature is to deny this and look for independence. This, then, was the lesson of the affliction of the ‘mon’ in the desert.


With this, we have a better understanding of what the Torah view of Innui is. Innui is not an idea of asceticism where man must pain himself and be removed from the physical world to reach higher levels; rather, innui is an affliction on the instinctual, psychological part of man, where he undergoes some psychological pain to move closer to G-d and truth. By the ‘mon’ the affliction was in their having to give up the instinctual desire for independence so that they could properly view their dependency on G-d.


Now we can explain the concept behind Innui on Yom Kippur. The main theme of Yom Kippur is Teshuvah, the process of repentance in which a person recognizes the evil of sin and abandons his sinful ways. In order to recognize the evil of sin, though, a person must see what is the good, for evil is defined as that which is not good. The Torah teaches us that the good is that which brings us closer to G-d, namely the study of His Torah, gaining knowledge of Him and following his commandments. Sin is where a person leaves this path because he values something else, namely that which brings him instinctual satisfaction. If man would work purely based on truth, he would see the good in G-d’s Ways and Wisdom and not be interested in sin; it is the ‘yetzer hora’, the evil inclination in man, that is his instinctual part, which overpowers him and influences him to sin. Teshuva, then, necessitates that one pull back from instinctual satisfaction and gain control over his desires in order to move closer to G-d. However, in order to do this, one must be able to undergo a certain amount of psychological pain so that he can withdraw his attraction to the instinct and channel this energy towards his service to G-d.


This then is the concept of Innui on Yom Kippur. The affliction that man undergoes by abstaining from these physical pleasures is essentially tied to the theme of Teshuva. True repentance, that is leaving the instinctual desires for the higher good of pursuing G-d, demands that one be ‘afflicted’ not for the pain itself but rather so that he may pull away from his involvement and attraction to the physical pleasure and channel that energy towards the real good. Part of abandoning sin is the removal of energy from that desire for satisfaction. By its very nature, this process demands a certain amount of pain since that part of him will then be left unsatisfied. However, after this stage of Innui, man can use that energy and sublimate it towards the true good, that of pursuing G-d through the Torah, and then live the most pleasurable life possible for man.