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Supersize Me! Ethics of the Fathers 2:8

Supersize Me! Ethics of the Fathers 2:8

Simple logic dictates that we cannot have it all and should not want it all. But since when did that stop us from trying? (Part 1)

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[Hillel] used to say: "The more flesh the more worms, the more possessions the more worry, the more wives the more witchcraft, the more maidservants the more lewdness, the more slaves the more thievery. The more Torah the more life, the more study the more wisdom, the more advice the more understanding, the more charity the more peace. One who acquires a good name acquires it for himself; one who acquires words of Torah has acquired himself a share in the World to Come."

Less is more. Bigger is better.
Simplify. Go for it.
Downsize. Supersize.

Commercial cliches such as these have become an inescapable part of our cultural lexicon, leaving the thoughtful consumer to wonder how Madison Avenue ever managed to convince so many of us that we can simultaneously have more and be satisfied with less.

Simple logic dictates that we cannot have it all and should not want it all, that modest tastes and moderate habits produce a happy, healthy life. Simple logic, however, holds little sway over base desire and the urge for immediate gratification. Our mishna, therefore, spells out for us the dangers of overindulgence, bringing into sharp relief the consequences of excess.

Jewish tradition teaches that the human being comprises three distinct aspects: nefesh, ruach, and neshama. The nefesh, or "animal soul," is the part of man seeking survival and physical pleasure. The desires to seek food, shelter, safety, warmth, and reproduction are all functions of the nefesh.

The ruach, or "spirit," is that part of man that seeks to reach beyond himself, to change the world, to influence the community, to leave his mark upon society. Aesthetic pleasures such as art and music are functions of the ruach, as is the capacity to suspend short term benefits to achieve long term, intangible goals. And although the ruach may resemble altruism by driving one to compose a symphony, build a monument, or search for a cure for cancer, the ruach is ultimately self-serving, merely seeking a more refined level of gratification than the nefesh.

The third component of the human being is the neshama, the supernal soul, the piece of the Divine placed inside every person by the Creator, the part of us that clings to holiness and strives to attach itself to the Almighty. Without the intervention of the neshama, the nefesh and the ruach would be locked in eternal battle, each seeking its own form of self-gratification at the expense of the other. Only through the influence of the neshama can the power of the nefesh and the ruach be channeled into cooperation toward the the fulfillment of a higher purpose.

Both the nefesh and the ruach must be accommodated. The fulfillment of physical, psychological, and emotional needs is prerequisite to spiritual development. The key to psychological and spiritual success, therefore, is to strike the perfect balance between the nefesh and the ruach by harnessing and harmonizing them through the influence of the neshama. The dangers of spiritual imbalance are the subject addressed by Hillel in our mishna.

The more flesh the more worms

The most persistent and elemental desire of the nefesh is food. Without sustenance, the body would wither, leaving the aspirations of the mind and the spirit unattainable. We must eat to live, and so we must indulge the insistent nefesh with a steady supply of nourishment.

One who lives to eat, however, elevating eating from a means of sustaining the body to a vocation or pseudo-religious ritual, investing excessive time, effort, and money in the preparation of delectable meals or the purchase of exotic cuisine, degrades himself to the level of an animal, whose existence is defined solely by the continual search for food.

When a person approaches the end of his life and looks back upon what he has done, he will be able to take pride and satisfaction from his accomplishments only if he has made some contribution to the world, has left behind some legacy testifying that his life was worth living. Similarly will he be able to look forward to a life of eternal reward, where he enjoys the fruits of his labors and the benefits of the good deeds he has done.

But if a person has lived only to eat, what will he see when he looks back across the years as he faces the end of his days? Will he still find pleasure from the delicacies with which he indulged himself? Will all the pleasures of his youth compensate him for the emptiness of his old age? Will he have anything to show for all his excesses except more flesh weighing him down? And will he have anything to hope for except the knowledge that his body will lie beneath the earth, consumed by the worms that ultimately consume all flesh?

And so Hillel warns us: do not live to eat; eat to live!

the more possessions the more worry

The Talmud tells us that, human nature being what it is, the moment a person acquires a 100 he immediately sets his goal upon acquiring 200. Such is the attraction of possessions, that instead of satisfying us they drive us to desire even more. A softer bed, a nicer house, a fancier vacation, a more expensive car, a more diverse stock portfolio. And then, as we hear of so often in our society, a more powerful job, a younger wife, a prettier mistress, a nastier divorce, a more scandalous embezzlement indictment. The more we have, the more protective we become of what we have; the less satisfied we are with what we have, the more obsessed we become with acquiring more.

In the Book of Deuteronomy, the Almighty promises us that if we keep His Commandments He will reward us with grain, wine, and oil. Hardly an inspiring incentive, compared with the eternal spiritual joy of the World to Come that ultimately awaits us. This promise, however, guarantees that if we stay true to the ideals of our spiritual purpose and our spiritual destiny, the Almighty will provide us with all our material needs -- not unbounded luxuries, but basic necessities and reasonable comfort -- precisely what we need for continued commitment to the fulfillment of spiritual goals.

Why not give us luxuries as well? Statistics show that a large majority of lottery winners report their lives becoming worse after their windfalls, in many cases tragically so. As much as we may fantasize about limitless wealth, reality proves that we will likely be much happier if we live lives of undistracted moderation.

the more slaves the more thievery

The Talmud teaches that all property of a servant belongs to his master. The Jewish concept of slavery is radically different from our images of slavery in the antebellum south: by Torah law a slave may not be neglected, mistreated, or overworked, and slavery offered a practical option for the destitute, who could sell themselves into circumstances that would provide material well-being.

Nevertheless, to fill one's house with more slaves than required to perform the tasks at hand is to allow one's servants to become idle, to dwell upon their lack of independence and their lack of material possessions, to grow bitter and resentful of all that their master has. The inevitable result will be descent into thievery.

A human being cannot exist without indulging the physical needs and desires of his nefesh and the emotional and psychological impulses of his ruach. The danger lies in failing to find the point of balance where attention to the physical does not thwart the influence of the spiritual. Hillel warns us not to attempt to deny the physical aspect of ourselves, but to appease it in moderation by remaining alert to the consequences of overindulgence.

Hillel's strategy for strengthening the influence of the spiritual, addressed in the second half of our mishna, will be the subject of our next article.

Published: May 7, 2005


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