Suffering is not a Mitzvah

Rabbi Reuven Mann

Many religious people believe that it is a good thing to deprive oneself of physical enjoyments. They base it on the fact that the Torah contains many restrictions in the areas of eating, sexual activity and the like. In some religious circles a person’s spiritual level is measured by the extent of his perceived capacity for self denial. The question arises: Is the popular viewpoint which extols the virtue of asceticism in accordance with the authentic teachings of Torah?

The Rambam discusses the issue of bodily and emotional indulgence in Hilchot Deot. He says that it is incumbent on a person to act in accordance with the principle of moderation. This means that we must avoid extremes: that of excessive indulgence as well as of extreme denial. With regard to those who seek to renounce all worldly pleasure as a service to Hashem, Rambam says, “If you should say that since desire, honor and the like are harmful and remove a person from the world I will totally separate from them and go completely to the opposite side and not eat meat, nor marry, nor live in a pleasant dwelling nor wear pleasant clothing but only sackcloth and harsh wool and the like as the idolatrous priests; this too is an evil path and it is prohibited to follow it. One who goes in this path is called a sinner, for it says about the nazir, “and he shall atone for having sinned against his soul”. The Rabbis said, “if the nazir who only abstained from wine requires an atonement, how much more so one who denies himself every pleasure...? Thus the Rabbis said, “is it not enough what the Torah prohibited, that you prohibit more things to yourself?”

It is clear from the Rambam that the ideal of asceticism as a religious service is connected to idolatry. Most religions are rooted in the idea that instinctual indulgence is inherently evil and that G-d desires us to be in a state of privation. This view is contrary to the way of Torah. For Hashem designed man to be a creature of body and soul. In order to fulfill his spiritual mission he must take care of his bodily needs. Deprivation of basic needs puts him in a state of pain and impedes his ability to serve G-d. It is therefore a mitzvah to keep one’s physical affairs in order and thus acquire the peace of mind necessary for the proper observance of Torah and mitzvot. It is extremely important to guard one’s health as illness and disease are the greatest obstacles to vibrant religious growth. Let us all resolve to pay more attention to proper nutrition and suitable exercise in order to increase our vitality and well being. The person who guards his health and satisfies his bodily and emotional needs in moderation with the intention of becoming thereby a better servant of Hashem is living on the highest level.

Shabbat Shalom