Parshas Ki Savo - The Pleasure Principle

By Rabbi Zvi Teichman

Posted on 09/03/20

Parshas HaShavua Divrei Torah sponsored by
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...Man was created solely, להתענג על ד', to delight in G-d and to derive pleasure in the radiance of the Shechina (divine presence). For this is the true delight and the greatest pleasure that can possibly exist. 

These famous words, in the introduction to Mesilas Yeshorim, encapsulate the sum of our purpose to existing — to attain the most exquisite pleasure in the world. 

Maimonides, too, when discussing the command to Love G-d, describes it as a journey of discovery of a relationship, where we will experience — תכלית התענוג — the ultimate pleasure

This remarkable word used for this exquisite pleasure — ענג — is rarely used throughout Tanach, and only appears thrice in Chumash, ironically, all in the context of the frightening Tochacha, Admonition, that foretells of unimaginable suffering that will befall the Jewish nation for their failure to perform mitzvos with joy. 

And during the siege and the desperation which your enemies will bring upon you, you will eat the fruit of your womb, the flesh of your sons and daughters...  

האיש הרך בך והענג מאד  — The most tender and delicate man among you, will begrudge his own brother and the wife of his embrace and the rest of his children... of giving any one of them of the flesh of his children that he is eating... 

הרכה בך והענגה — The most tender and delicate woman among you, who would not venture to set her foot upon the ground, because of delicateness and tenderness, will begrudge the husband of her embrace and her own son and daughter, and the infants ... and her own children whom she will bear, for she will eat them in secret, in destitution, in... desperation... (דברים כח, נד נו) 

Rav Moshe Dovid Valli, a disciple of the Ramchal, asserts that the Torah here is contrasting how our former greatness and majesty of character that was once so inherent within us, has become corrupted due to our sins, transforming us into depraved and selfish beasts. The preposterousness of this drastic change is evidence of a divine manipulation, that only it could have wrought. 

Rabbi Ephraim Oshry, states in his multi-volume Holocaust responsa work, Out of the Depths, that in theory although there could be a case for eating the flesh of a corpse for survival, he had never heard of Jewish cannibalism despite the hunger, privation and suffering of the concentration camps. 

He observed, “The Jewish people never descended from their level of sanctity; they never ate human flesh.” 

So, the reference to being refinedly ‘delicate’, reflects on a former dignity, that was so far removed from any possibility of cruelty as depicted in the verse — the antithesis of the behavior exhibited in their desperation, that has been lost. 

The verse mentions a second previous attribute that was also sullied, that of, רך/רכה, tender

Rashi in his first interpretation claims this is merely synonymous with ענג/ענגה, delicate, referring to their state of refinement. In an alternate explanation he says it alludes to, הרחמני ורך הלבב — the merciful and tenderhearted. It was not just their gravitas that could never permit them to naturally descend to such degraded behavior, but equally their remarkable sensitivity and merciful devotion to others, and most certainly their own kin, that was so adverse, to any notion of selfish interests, even in the face of sacrificing one’s own life.  

Rav Yosef Yona Weisblum, the Shedlitzer Rav, a grandson of the late great Posek, Rav Shmuel Wosner, author of Shevet Levi, relates a touching story that he heard from a local rabbi in Vienna, Rabbi Rottenberg, who once accompanied his illustrious grandfather, when he made his sole visit after the war, to his birthplace,Vienna, Austria. 

The rabbi retold how, although the rav did not request to see the magnificent palaces that dotted the historical landscape, nevertheless, on their way to one of their destinations, when they passed by some of the beautiful and majestic buildings in the famed Innere Stadt district — glorious remnants from  the Habsberg kingdom that ruled there for centuries — he opened the window of the vehicle and marveled longingly over the beauty of Vienna.  

Rav Wosner then turned to his companion and began to reflect, “More than many other exiles in Europe, Vienna was good to the People of the Book. There was a sense of nobility that permeated the air in those days when the House of Habsurg still ruled. That atmosphere impacted the Jews as well, as there was a ‘sense of royalty’ that inspired the way we acted.” He told Rav Rottenberg that he was pleased to see that Torah is still thriving there. 

Rav Wosner then continued to share a poignant memory from his youth. His Rebbe once gave a parable about a generous and noble king who went to visit one of the far regions of his land. Traveling with an large entourage appropriate for the king, when they approached a little nondescript village, busy with the goings on of every day simple life, it caused a major disruption of their serene existence. One annoyed farmer, not being familiar with the identity of the visitor, angrily hurled a bundle of vegetables toward the king. 

His soldiers immediately grabbed hold of the peasant and were ready to kill him on the spot. The king, however, instructed them to free him. He explained that the simpleton had no notion of royalty. Instead he directed them to transport him to the capitol of the kingdom for a week, indulge him with the finer things in life, showing him the palace in all its magnificence and splendor. Only then will he first fathom the depths of his actions. 

“The cheder rebbe taught us that when we sin, we do not even realize how badly we have behaved, because we do not fathom our relationship with G-d. If, though, we will experience the glory, the joy, the inspired life in His realm, only then will we first understand how we must act.” 

Rav Wosner concluded, “There were two paths the Jews of Europe faced. Those in Poland dealt with poverty and struggle. That reality kept them free from temptation, igniting an inner passion and determination, ‘a bren fuhn mesiras nefesh’, to find happiness in the warmth of a blatt gemara, in celebrating each mitzvah they were able to do, with happiness, and to regale with whatever meager offerings they had during Shabbos and Yom Tov. 

“On the other hand, there were those who were fortunate to live in places like London and Vienna, where a ‘sense of royalty and dignity’ was pervasive. The Jews, too, were inspired in that atmosphere to act with a nobility of spirit in elevating their spiritual lives as well, with greater fervor and joy.”  

His grandson suggests that the two explanations in Rashi, describing the glory days before our descent, allude to these two approaches.  

The עָנֻג, the self-esteem inculcated within us, as בני מלכים, princes and princesses, who act accordingly in living an inspired and dignified existence, able to partake from the material world and sophisticating it by enthralling in the relationship we have with G-d that prods us to be grateful for his blessings, utilizing them as tools to serve him with joy. 

The  רך לבב, the merciful and passionate heart that discovers our deepest connection to G-d in the face of challenge, realizing that even without material bounty and success we can access joy in the relationship itself, rising to exhilarated greatness.(זבח יוסף כי תבא)  

Rav Hutner popularized an idea the great Mashgiach of Chevron Yeshiva, Reb Leib Chasman expounded on in his Shmuessen

We are known by two seemingly contradictory appellations.  

On the second day of Rosh Hashana we will read from the Haftorah where the Prophet Yirmiyahu, says in the name of G-d, that we have found favor in His eyes as the, עם שרידי חרב — the people that survived the sword.  

We are also described every Friday night as the, עם מְדֹֻשְנֵי עֹנֶג— a people saturated with delight.  

Are we seasoned survivors or saturated thrivers? 

Do we need challenge and deprivation in order to discover and hone our inner joy, or may we wear the armor of nobility to inspire us to utilize G-d’s resources in directing them towards a greater and enthused acknowledgement of the Creator, warding off mere physical pleasure? 

The answer is clear. When we can face the sword, cleaving joyously to our mission, only then can we master the privilege of our royal creed to properly dignify our engagement in a material world. 

We must always, in pain or in comfort, focus on the source of our joy. 

The Holy Zohar reveals that the word that describes pure pleasure — ע-נ-ג — stands for, עדן — Eden, נהר — River, גן — Garden, for the river issues forth from Eden to water the garden.

 Real and lasting joy can only stem from the original source of life. Only if we place any joy we experience in that context, can we be assured a genuine taste of the divine. 


צבי יהודה טייכמאן