Happiness (Avos 3:13)
Rabbi Israel Chait
Excerpt from the Pirkei Avos Lectures (1986)
In human maturation, somehow, man’s infantile enjoyments cease to offer satisfaction. A person then chooses replacements that somehow reflect the original, but they are [still] substitutes. That new substitute becomes glorified in man’s eyes and he is convinced that the substitute will offer him the identical satisfaction as his original objects of desire offered [during infancy]. A mirage is a good example, as here, one’s desire is so great that he fantasizes that this is the object of his desire. Neuroses is the same phenomenon where one believes something to be real, when it is nonexistent.
Man’s energies require an outlet. Therefore, he can select or imagine something that will offer him the satisfaction he craves. Man becomes convinced that the substitute is the object that he needs. Therefore, he attaches his desire and even his mind [to that object of his desire] and then applies all his energies to obtain that object. But, as this object is a substitute, he never achieves full satisfaction. His disappointment compels him to search for another replacement. [Man continues in this cycle his entire life, never achieving happiness, as the objects of his desire are in fact, not what he truly desires…they are impostors.]
Why does man have such a nature? Because without it, he would never be capable of a life of wisdom. In the pursuit of wisdom, one must remove oneself from the attachment to the physical and entertain [focus on the world of] the abstract. Man would not be able to entertain the abstract and pursue knowledge, had he the capacity to gain real [complete] satisfaction from physical pleasures. [Complete satisfaction in the physical world would deter man from seeking satisfaction elsewhere.] Therefore, God structured man in such a way that he undergoes a process [a maturity] where certain energies are freed from their attachments to the physical. This energy can now be redirected toward wisdom. Man differs from animals in this ability to direct his energies toward wisdom so that he can enjoy pondering wisdom. This psychological phenomenon that might appear as a curse—as man does not obtain complete satisfaction from physical desires—turns out to be man’s greatest blessing, for this enables man to enjoy the world of wisdom, which is the greatest pleasure. This is man’s purpose and design: to engage in the tremendous pleasure of wisdom. [This explains God’s gift of Torah, with Torah study—not mitzvos—as the primary involvement and source of happiness.] This happiness is the result of man’s ability to fully satisfy his energies seeking satisfaction. Those energies now frustrated by dissatisfying physical pleasures, find 100 percent satisfaction in the pursuit of wisdom.
One finds happiness when he pleasurably consumes [all] his energies seeking satisfaction. In the physical world, this is impossible, since man’s objects of satisfaction are only substitutes, and his search ends in dissatisfaction, a relentless [unhappy] search. But in the pursuit of wisdom, man finds complete satisfaction for his frustrated energies. This was God’s purpose: to create a creature who can utilize those energies that were deflected from pursuing physical satisfaction, and direct them to the enjoyment of wisdom. This explains why we find people like Rav Moshe Feinstein of blessed memory who engage the world of wisdom and gain great satisfaction from it.
This also explains why abstinence [removal from physical pleasures] is the highest level. It might sound like an austere matter, but it is in fact a very happy situation. The person who attains that level is in a blissful state because he is capable of using so much energy in wisdom that he doesn’t want to waste it on anything inferior. This is what Rabbeinu Yona means about one being in line with his nature.
One could ask why God didn’t design man naturally attached to wisdom [from youth], instead of going through this [maturation] process of redirecting his energies from the physical. But there are creatures like that—they are called angels. We have no right to ask why God created man that way. King Solomon expressed it as follows:
For what is man who comes after the King, after He already made him? (Koheles 2:12)
Man can investigate only those matters subsequent to creation. Why man was created a certain way is God’s knowledge alone.
If it were possible for man to experience his original infantile physical enjoyments, he would not be happy because his energy level is too great to be satisfied with physical enjoyments. Man can only find complete satisfaction in the world of wisdom. [Wisdom is the only pursuit that enables man to consume 100 percent of his energies, which is the meaning of “satisfaction.”] That is why as long as man does not pursue wisdom he will fail to achieve satisfaction. [The physical world is limited, and therefore man’s immense energies are not consumed in the pursuit of the physical, thereby yielding frustration.] Most psychological problems are due to man’s abundant energies. People fall ill because of neuroses, and certain adolescents have a high likelihood of experiencing mental illness because of their levels of dissatisfied energies. Before adolescence, there are insufficient energies to cause problems. But with the onset of adolescence, when there is a new influx of large quantities of energies, one’s emotions become dammed-up as one’s psychological mechanism is incapable of enjoying so much, creating a lot of pressure. This also explains why intellectual people—despite this damage—do not fall ill, as they are capable of directing their great amounts of energy toward thought. This spares them from mental illness. This is a psychological fact.
To combat one’s instincts, one must be totally honest with oneself and examine his inner workings and his mind. Only then can a person detect the fantasies lurking behind his desires. When a person sees that fantasy, he can remove his energies from it. But as long as one is fooled by the substitute object of desire, he will not be able to remove himself as the emotion is too powerful.
Pirkei Avos strives to make a person a general over his soul. Abstinence is the end of the process where man is closest to his nature.