By Rabbi Noah Weinberg
Life is full of pleasures. But some are a quantum leap above the rest.
What pleasures does a parent want his children to enjoy? Good food, fun vacations, tennis, music. Wonderful!
But when they turn 25 and would still rather play tennis than work, you start thinking, “Get on with your life, already.” It’s nice to enjoy an occasional game of tennis, but life has got to offer more than just “fun.” You’d like your children to have a meaningful career, to get married, to have children.
If they turn 35 and they are playing tennis day and night, you’re screaming, “Help!”
Judaism says that God is our Father in Heaven, and we are His children. Just like any parent, God wants His children to enjoy life’s pleasures.
There are five different levels of pleasure – each a class unto itself.
The Pleasure Plane
The different classes of pleasure can be compared to seats on an airplane. The best way to travel is first class. The second best way? Second class. Of course nobody wants to think of themselves as traveling second class, so they call it Business Class, Executive Class, or Ambassador Class.
Third class? That’s Tourist, Coach, or Economy.
What’s fourth class? They put you down below with the animals in the baggage compartment.
Fifth class? They give you a rope and say, “Hang on!”
Everybody would rather travel first class. But some people never figure out how. They travel their whole life in fifth class, just barely hanging on. And, the sad thing is, sometimes it becomes too hard and they let go.
The Measure of Pleasure
Each of these five classes of pleasures is so unique that you cannot exchange 10 units of fifth class pleasure for even one unit of fourth class pleasure. If you were starving, would you trade a good meal for a sky view of Manhattan? Would you trade the love of your life for a beach front home on the Riviera?
One pleasure cannot be measured against another. So how do you assign a value to any given pleasure?
Imagine pleasure as horsepower. Pleasure gives you energy. If you have pleasure, you are raring to go with the confidence to tackle difficult jobs. You can put up with a lot of aggravation, because the power you get from pleasure propels you.
In trying to evaluate the worth of a given pleasure, ask yourself: When I eat ice cream, how much pleasure, how much energy, do I get from it? If I listen to music, how much energy do I get? If I love someone, how energized does that make me feel? Is that more, or less, than eating an ice cream cone? That’s a rational way of measuring it.
Sometimes, people believe they are getting real pleasure – but they get cheated. For example, sex is a real pleasure, but pornography is counterfeit. It only stimulates lust, and you end up depressed instead of energized. It may seem exciting at first, but excitement and energy are not the same and should not be confused.
The most widely sold counterfeit pleasure in the Western world is decadence. Here’s why it is counterfeit:
When asked what is the opposite of pain, most people will say pleasure. But the absence of pain doesn’t automatically equal pleasure!
The opposite of pain is not pleasure; the opposite of pain is comfort. Many people think the ultimate pleasure is a vacation in Hawaii – sacking out on a waterbed, a cool breeze wafting through the window, a tall drink, every muscle in your body relaxed. But don’t let yourself fall asleep – because then you’ll miss the whole thing!
Sleep and comfort is painless. But that is not the goal of living!
In reality, pain is the price you pay for pleasure. If you want to graduate college and get a good job, you have to study hard. If you want to become an Olympic gold-medal champion, you have to experience the pain of sore muscles. You are not going to get there on a beach in Hawaii.
Equating comfort with pleasure is counterfeit. Real pleasure comes only as a result of effort.
The Price of Pleasure
To succeed in the pursuit of pleasure, you have to focus on the pleasure and not on the effort.
Imagine a team of basketball players, running around the court, pushing themselves to the limit. Do they notice the pain they’re feeling? Barely. The pleasure of playing overwhelms any other feeling.
Now what if you asked them to conduct the following experiment:
“Play basketball normally – run, jump, shoot, and defend. But this time do it without the ball!”
How long do you think they could play for? Maybe five minutes? Without the ball, there is nothing to distract them from the effort. Every step now seems painful.
Give them back the ball, and they’ll play for another two hours!
In life, keep your eye on the ball. Focus on the goal – and turn every effort into a pleasure.
Learning to Enjoy Pleasure
We think that pleasure should come automatically. But it’s not so simple. Just like you can’t fully enjoy music without taking a course in music appreciation, so too you have to learn all about pleasures.
It’s like wine tasting. Wine is far more than a liquid that wets your mouth and gets you tipsy. If you want to be a connoisseur, first you have to examine the cork. Then you test the color of the wine. Then you swish it around the glass. (That’s called “checking the legs.”) Then you smell the bouquet. Only then do you taste the wine, savoring it slowly, letting the taste and texture permeate all the different taste zones of your mouth.
Our world is rich with bounty and treasures. Sights and smells. Relationships and energies. Potential and achievement. If we wouldn’t guzzle vintage wine, then shouldn’t we accord the same respect to life itself?
In summary, remember the three criteria that apply to all classes of pleasure:
- There is no exchange rate between the various levels of pleasure.
- Watch out for counterfeit pleasures.
- For every pleasure, the price tag is effort.
Fifth Class Pleasure
Fifth class pleasure is the most basic and available. It’s physical and material pleasure. Good food, nice clothes, comfortable home, pleasant music, beautiful scenery. This includes anything that involves the “five senses.”
God made the physical world for us to enjoy. The Talmud says that if a person has the opportunity to taste a new fruit and refuses to do so, he will have to account for that in the next world.
What’s so special about fruits? God could have created bland mush with all the vitamins and minerals necessary for our survival. But fruits are the dessert the Almighty made for us. It’s a labor of love. Can you imagine making a scrumptious dinner for a loved one and then he refuses to try it?! But there is a difference between tasting fruits and gorging fruits. And this is the counterfeit of fifth class pleasure – too much of a good thing. When you partake of fifth class pleasure without savoring this gift, you end up not being able to enjoy it. Wine is wonderful in moderation; guzzling a whole bottle will make you throw up. Stuffing your face with food leaves you feeling lowered by the experience, not energized.
The key is awareness. When you are aware, you won’t lose control and allow your appetites to rule over you.
This does not mean to suggest ascetism or celibacy. Physical pleasures are from God and are meant to be enjoyed. Sex is considered one of the holiest acts we can perform. In fact, the Hebrew word for the marriage ceremony – kiddushin – comes from the word kadosh, meaning “holy.” That’s why on Shabbat, the holiest day of the week, the Talmud specifically enjoins couples to have marital relations.
Enjoy all the physical aspects of this world. That’s the fifth class pleasure which God, Our Father, created for His children to enjoy.
Fourth class pleasure
As we said earlier, there is no exchange rate. No amount of fifth class pleasure can buy you even one morsel of fourth class pleasure.
What is worth more than all the money in the world?
Imagine Mr. Schwartz, an investment banker in a major Wall Street financial firm. He spends most of his days trying to reach his lifelong goal of earning $10 million. He and his wife have three kids.
One day, a wealthy philanthropist named Cohen decides to make Schwartz a very generous offer. Cohen says, “You’re spending your whole life trying to make $10 million dollars. So I’ll give you the biggest shortcut of your financial career. I’ll give you $10 million dollars right now for the right to adopt one of your children. Your child will have the best of everything. The only condition is that you will have to break off all contact – you will not be able to see or hear from your child again.”
What does Schwartz say? His financial dream in an instant! But to give up a child? Impossible. “No deal. Get out of my office.”
Ten million dollars. A mind-boggling amount of fifth class pleasure won’t induce him to sell one child. Love is not worth trading for any amount of money.
But how much time does Schwartz spend with his children? If they are so precious, why does he forgo this pleasure of loving his kids?
After his encounter with Cohen, Schwartz has a flash of inspiration: “I have to spend more time with my treasures!” He buzzes his secretary and announces he’s taking a two week vacation to spend with his kids.
Schwartz rushes home. After struggling for an hour to get the stroller open, he finally makes it to the park. He and the kids are having a grand time. But then comes dinner, bath and story time. After enduring food fights, floods in the bathtub and endless readings of “Babar Goes to the Circus,” Schwartz flops down on the couch, turns to his wife and says, “Perhaps I was a bit hasty taking that two week vacation…”
Learning to Love
Schwartz knows that his children are more valuable than $10 million. But he doesn’t know how to enjoy this pleasure.
The first step is to get a definition of “love.”
The Talmud defines love as the emotional pleasure we get when focusing on the virtues of another. If you do that, then even if the kids are throwing meatballs across the room, you can still love them (and discipline them at the same time).
Without a clear understanding of what love is, all you’ll be able to focus on is the effort and pain involved in raising kids, and you’ll come to conclude that it’s just too taxing.
What is the average parent’s greatest “pleasure?” Their children.
What is the average parent’s greatest “pain?” Also their children.
It’s not an accident that a parent’s greatest pleasure is also the source of his or her greatest pain. Because the greater the pleasure, the greater the effort required.
Therefore, if you want to succeed in life, the key is not to eliminate pain entirely – that is impossible. Rather, focus on the pleasure which you receive as a reward for all that effort.
Love vs. Infatuation
The counterfeit of love is the notion that it is effort-free – something that just happens to you. Love is a stroke of fate with no rhyme or reason. You don’t work on loving people. It either happens or it doesn’t. Therefore just as easily as you “fall in love,” you can “fall out of love.”
Bob and Sue are alone in the park, walking beneath the full moon. Cupid flies by and shoots an arrow. Presto – Bob and Sue are madly in love!
They get married, have kids, a big house, a heavy mortgage. Bob works hard to pay the bills, staying overtime at the office. While Bob is working late one night with his secretary Carol, Cupid sneaks up and shoots another arrow. Boing! Now Bob’s in love with Carol.
Bob returns home to Susie and proclaims, “I fell in love with the secretary. But what can I do, honey, the bum shot me!”
Out goes Susie, in comes Carol.
The problem? Bob did not delve into an exploration of character and then fall in love after coming to a deep understanding of who she is. Bob’s love is not based on commitment and effort to reveal virtues.
The Bible says that “Adam knew his wife Eve.” Love is built on knowledge. The more intimate the knowledge, the more you can love.
But the Western world thinks that love is not something you choose, love is something you are a “victim of.” So if you want to stay married, all you can do is hope that you don’t get shot by Cupid again! Is it any surprise that there is a 50 percent rate of divorce?
Infatuation is not love, it’s just physical attraction, the counterfeit. Real love is forever.
We see this in the relationship between parents and children. No parent ever gets up in the morning and decides: “I’ve decided I like the neighbors’ kids better. They don’t cough at night, and they get better math scores. You kids get out. The neighbors are moving in.”
Crazy, right? We don’t fall out of love with our kids, because we’re committed to loving them.
How do you know if you are in love or infatuated? If you hear yourself saying, “He’s perfect,” or “She’s perfect!” then beware! That’s not reality. That’s a sure sign of infatuation.
Real love takes work. You have to be willing to make the effort.
Third Class Pleasure
What in the world could compel someone to give up what they love most dearly?
A cause. The drive to do make a difference in the world. The desire for greater meaning in life. The need to do the right thing.
Imagine that terrorists have taken a plane hostage and they turn to you: “Kill all the other passengers, or we will kill you and your children.”
You still cannot do it. You cannot kill innocent people even if it means saving your own family. You’d rather die.
In Judaism we say: If you don’t know what you are willing to die for, then you haven’t begun to live. Otherwise you are merely playing a game. If you don’t have meaning in your life, then all the physical enjoyments, the beautiful vacations and even the wonderful spouse and children, can make you feel that something is missing.
Learning to Appreciate Goodness
It takes great effort to be a genuinely good person. But most people never reach this goal. They end up being “not bad” – that is, they don’t murder, steal, or commit adultery. But being good is much more than just “being not bad.”
So why don’t we try? Because the responsibility involved seems like a burden instead of a pleasure.
You are on vacation in New York City, sightseeing in one of those excursion boat rides around Manhattan Island. As you are admiring the Statue of Liberty, one of the other sightseers falls off the boat. He can’t swim – he’s drowning. So you jump into the East River – filthy with garbage, dead fish – but you don’t care, you are trying to save a life. You grab him, he struggles – you go under the murky water – finally he stops struggling, but now he is heavy as lead – you pull him with all your might – you are gasping, the water stinks.
Finally, after what seems like eternity, you drag him to the shore. People are there to lend a hand, and an ambulance takes the drowning victim to the hospital. Thank God, he’s alive, coughing and spitting a little murky water, but he’s gonna be okay. You go back to your hotel and take a dozen showers to wash off the muck and smell of rotting fish. You say, “I’m never coming back here for the rest of my life!”
Now 30 years and 100 vacations later, what is your most memorable vacation? It was the time the guy fell off the boat and you saved a life!
It’s great to take pleasure in doing a good thing in retrospect. But why not proactively look for the opportunity to do good? And even more – focus on the good you while you are doing it! Wouldn’t that be some pleasure high?
Looking Good vs. Being Good
Sometimes people will perform acts of courage that are really stupid. Kids play “Russian Roulette” or “Chicken” and they get killed. They get confused and think they are doing the noble thing. This is one counterfeit of third class pleasure.
Western society has another version of counterfeit third class pleasure: financial success. You can be a good husband, a good friend, a loyal human being, a thinker, and an intellectual – but if you haven’t made a lot of money, you are a failure.
A few years ago, a Brink’s delivery truck lost several bags of money. The back door flew open and millions of dollars tumbled into the street, scattering the money in the wind. Everybody grabbed what they could. But there was one fellow who walked into the bank and returned $50,000.
The press interviewed his father, who said: “My son is a wimp!” And they interviewed one of his fellow workers, who said, “God gave him a gift, and the idiot gave it back.”
The counterfeit of “being good” is “looking good.” Too many people expend enormous effort trying to win the admiration of others. That’s why people so readily identify themselves by profession or career. “I’m a stockbroker, a vice president of marketing, a Harvard graduate.” If others are impressed, it reassures us that we’re important.
Don’t fall for “looking” good. True goodness comes from doing the right thing.
What made Alfred Nobel, the wealthy Swedish businessman, establish the Nobel Prize?
Nobel was the inventor of dynamite and one of the world’s largest producers of explosives. When his brother died, the local newspaper made a mistake and printed Alfred’s obituary instead of his brother’s. When Alfred Nobel read it and saw that his life amounted to so much destruction and killing, he was devastated. “This is my life?! I’ve got to do something good.” It was then that he decided to establish the Nobel Prize for those who do good in the world.
Second class Pleasure
Second class pleasure can be best identified by its counterfeit. For what goal will people sacrifice innocent lives? To obtain power.
Stalin, Idi Amin, Hitler – a long list of tyrants were willing to kill millions to get power. To create a Communist state. To create a world dominated by the pure Aryan race. But that kind of power is counterfeit. That power only destroys.
True second class pleasure is the power of creativity. For example, the artist has control over his eye, his arm, and the paint, in order to translate his ideas into reality. He takes inert matter and turns into something productive, useful, beautiful.
But people sometimes make the mistake of going for forced control. The dictator is manipulating the pieces, but in the process is destroying lives and society. It’s only an illusion of creativity.
The way to tell if you are creating or controlling is by the result. Creativity gives other people pleasure. Control leads to destruction.
Which would you rather be: a worker or the boss? Even though a company cannot function without workers, there is greater satisfaction in being the boss. Rather than simply following orders, you have the power to create, to direct, to plan and to conceive. You tap into the source of creative power – wisdom and understanding.
Similarly, one of the greatest forms of second class pleasure is creating a family: giving birth to children, then inculcating them with values, and molding them into healthy, productive, caring individuals.
Why is creativity such a thrill? Because it touches the essence of God. The ultimate expression of creativity was God’s creation of the world. He made something from absolutely nothing. Only an Infinite Being can do that. Expressing our own creativity is a taste of that power.
First Class pleasure
Imagine someone who has mastered the four classes of pleasure. She enjoys enormous wealth and material pleasures, a beautiful loving family, meaning in life, power used to create good in the world. Yet there’s still something missing.
An encounter with God.
No human being is totally satisfied unless she’s in touch with the transcendent dimension. When all is said and done, what we each seek is to reach out of this finite world and connect with the infinite. To become one with God.
What if I said to you, “I have a room where you can sit down and speak to God Almighty Himself for an hour.” Wouldn’t you jump at the chance? Wouldn’t that be the ultimate experience?
It would be awesome.
We’ve all had moments when we’ve been struck by the awesomeness of life – the birth of a baby, seeing the stars above us, watching a lightning storm. It takes our breath away.
Awe is the experience of merging our small, relatively insignificant selves with something much greater. We break beyond our own limitations and connect to the unity of God.
First class pleasure is incomparable to any other experience. Nothing finite, nothing bound up in this world, can compare to the infinite.
For the greatest pleasure, we have to pay the greatest price. Gratitude.
In order to connect with God, you have to learn to appreciate all the good He has done for you. That means giving up the illusion that you alone are responsible for your achievements. It’s all a gift from God. Just as every stroke of Picasso’s brush has his signature on it, everything in this world has God’s signature on it. We have to learn to appreciate it.
If you make the effort to appreciate the gifts God has bestowed upon you, then you’ll have such a keen awareness of God’s presence that everything you do is accompanied by a sense of His love and guidance. You’ll be overwhelmed above and beyond any other pleasure possible.
In fact, this is the ultimate goal for which man was created. We were put on earth in order to overcome the illusions and use our free will to build a relationship with God. He could have made robots, but God doesn’t want that. He wants a real relationship – which means we have to choose it.
Why is gratitude such a difficult awareness to sustain? Because a human being’s ego always craves recognition and independence. We balk at the concept of indebtedness. We prefer to believe we’ve done it ourselves!
Another counterfeit of first class pleasure is thinking that someone or something else is providing for our needs. If you think your career or your lover is the bottom line that will fulfill your needs, then you are mistaken. Because all those things can disappear. Only God has absolute power and only God is Eternal!
Reaching for the Stars
Imagine the launch of a rocket ship. When the fifth stage ignites there is lift-off. In the fourth stage of ignition, the rocket pierces the atmosphere at 100 miles per second. The third stage propels the rocket into orbit. The second stage puts the rocket on a path to a specific destination. And finally, the first stage lands you on the moon.
So too with the five levels of pleasure. Fifth stage is physical pleasure, giving you energy for lift-off. But if you don’t get to fourth stage – marriage, children, love – plop. But what really puts you into orbit is self-respect, meaning, and doing good in the world. Once you’re in orbit, you still need the propulsion of second stage – power – to hurl you toward your destination. And finally, the first stage is living with God.
In Judaism, Shabbat represents our opportunity to enjoy all the classes of pleasure in one day. First you have a table set with a beautiful white tablecloth, the best china and silverware, flowers, a brightly lit candelabra, delicious food and wine. That’s fifth class pleasure, lift-off. Then, you give your children a blessing and some hugs and kisses, and as you all sit down around the table together, the warmth of family shines. You have love, fourth class pleasure, and you are traveling a mile a minute. If you sing some inspirational songs and speak words of Torah, then you understand the meaning and depth of the day, and you’re now in orbit. If you know what your goals in life are, that’s the power of second class pleasure. And then you reach the purpose of the day – connection with God.
Know what you’re living for. The Almighty created us to have pleasure. It’s hard work to be an Olympic runner, and it’s even harder work to become a champion human being. But you weren’t born for comfort. You were born to have pleasure. So make a decision. Travel first class.