Rabbi Dr. Abraham J. Twerski
It is often said that today's generation is the most materialistic and hedonistic in the history of humankind.
It is not necessary to go back to ancient history to validate this assertion. I can recall what life was like when I was a child. Before the advent of antibiotics in the 1940's, the average life expectancy in the United States was forty. Although there were people who lived to a ripe, old age, the average was brought down by a high rate of infant mortality and by childhood diseases. On my way to school, I would pass houses that bore a Health Department sign: "Quarantined, Mumps, (or Chicken Pox, or Scarlet Fever, or Whooping Cough or Measles)." By the way, I had them all. Growing up in the 1930's was not that much fun. There was little immunization in those days.
When the weather was sweltering, we would sweat. Fans did not do much good, and air-conditioning did not exist. Air-conditioning first appeared in the 1940's, and it was available only in theaters. On a very hot day, you went to a movie (if you could afford it) and sat through two shows. No one had an air-conditioned car, and there were no power brakes, power steering or automatic transmission, either. Our neighbor started his car by cranking it!
Every major city in the United States had a tuberculosis sanitarium, and these were full. People died of tuberculosis in their prime. Many families were left fatherless and motherless by pneumonia, and many parents buried their children. There were no fax machines, jet planes, microwaves, portable phones, cell phones, videos, internet, or fast-foods. There were no tranquilizers.
Much work involved physical exertion. Electronic controls were unheard of. People worked hard, dawn to dusk, six days a week (or even seven). Laborers of the 1930's would consider today's workplaces as spas.
Looking back at these conditions that prevailed just a few decades ago, we can appreciate being the beneficiaries of the medical, scientific and technological miracles that have occurred in our lifetime. By the same token, life back then could not be very materialistic. The amount of distress and suffering experienced by people did not allow for a materialistic outlook on life. Given today's comforts and conveniences, many people have come to see the goal of life as being attainment of maximum pleasure.
The frum community, of course, has shared the modern pleasantness of life. In addition, it has had its own conveniences.
In my childhood days, being a shomer Shabbos called for great mesiras nefesh. There were very few jobs that could accommodate a shomer Shabbos. I knew many families that lived in deprivation because the husband/father could not find a Shabbos-free job.
Preparation of meals was a chore. You took the chicken to the shochet, then eviscerated it, soaked and salted it. This was a 90 minute ordeal. There was nothing that was ready-for-the-pot. There were no frozen foods. There was no kosher Chinese food, nor Italian, Korean, or Mid-Eastern. There was no kosher sushi. There were only two varieties of kosher wine: sweet concord and sugar-free. There were few kosher dairy products. On Pesach we had meat, borscht, potatoes and more potatoes. The only Pesachdig candy was marmalade. No seltzer, no soda.
Today's Pesach products include everything except bread. Kosher pizza, non-gebrokt ice-cream cones, a variety of canned vegetables and fruits, abundant ice-cream, chocolate, candies, and yes, Pesachdig marshmallows! One hundred and twenty four varieties and brands of wine were on the shelves this past Pesach.
Do not get me wrong. There is nothing wrong with enjoying the goods of the world. However, what has happened in the modern world is that pleasure has been equated with happiness and has become the goal in life. Anyone who feels that he/she has not gotten their fair share of pleasure feels cheated, and some people, especially youngsters, turn to drugs to find "happiness." We should not lose sight of the fact that the goal of life is spiritual rather than physical.
The Baal Shem Tov was asked, inasmuch as Shabbos and Yom Tov should be days of spiritual rather than physical delight, why do we have so many delicious foods? Would it not be more appropriate to eat simple foods and dedicate the entire day to spiritual pursuits? The Baal Shem Tov answered with a parable.
A prince once committed an offense for which he was banished from the royal palace and exiled to a distant village in the kingdom, where he lived a very austere life. After a lengthy period of time, he received a message from his father that he was pardoned and could return home. This news made him so happy that he could not contain him self from singing and dancing. However, if he were suddenly to sing and dance, the townsfolk would think he had gone mad. He, therefore, gathered some of the townsfolk together for a party, and gave them lavish food and drink. Well satiated with food and drink, they arose to sing and dance, and the prince joined them. The townsfolk were dancing because they were merry with food and drink, whereas the prince danced because he was returning to the royal palace.
"A person," the Baal Shem Tov said, "is a composite being, comprised of a physical body and a spiritual neshama. On Shabbos and Yom Tov, the neshama wishes to engage in prayer and Torah study to bring it in closer contact with G-d. However, the body does not appreciate this, and is a barrier to spirituality. We, therefore, provide the body with things it can enjoy, so that it, too, will be happy, and will not stand in the way of the neshama's quest for and celebration of spiritual delight."
Earthly goods enjoyed in this way give primacy to the spirit. Indulging in pleasure, even permissible and "kosher" pleasure as an end in itself, is a corruption of Yiddishkeit.
We need not deny ourselves permissible pleasures, but we must take great care that they do not become our primary motivation. It is important to study those Torah works that address spirituality, primarily the writings of mussar and chassidus, and take their teachings to heart. If we fail to do this, we may get caught up in the "hedonic treadmill" that is characteristic of the society in which we live, running from pleasure to pleasure, but never arriving at a goal.
The frum world is suffering its share of casualties from the influence of the prevailing hedonism in our environment. This is partially responsible for the unprecedented numbers of failed marriages, with either spouse (or both) feeling that the relationship is not providing the gratification they desire. While marriage should indeed be a source of mutual gratification, the basis and goal of marriage should be spiritual, as is indicated by the very first berachah after the couple is joined in wedlock, shehakol bara lichvodo, that all creation is to bring greater glory to Hashem, and that should be the primary goal of the marriage.
Young people mimic the adult population. The number of young people who seek the high of alcohol or drugs are seeking the pleasure in life to which they feel entitled. Both young and old are increasingly falling victim to compulsive gambling, seeking the thrill, but ending up with catastrophic debts and frank criminal acts to support their gambling. And both young and old fall into the trap of internet addiction, whether to constantly surfing the web, playing video games, or indulging in pornography.
I have defined spirituality in secular terms, seeing the human spirit as comprised of those traits that are unique to human beings and hence distinguish them from animals. In addition to greater intelligence, some of the more obvious uniquely human features are (1) the ability to learn from the history of past generations, (2) the ability to search for truth, (3) the ability to reflect on the purpose and goals of life, (4) the ability to have a self-awareness, (5) the ability to volitionally improve oneself, (6) the ability to have perspective, to contemplate the future and to think about future consequences of one's actions, (7) the ability to be considerate of others and to be sensitive to their needs, (8) the ability to sacrifice one's comfort and possessions for the welfare of others, (9) the ability to empathize, (10) the ability to make moral and ethical choices in defiance of strong bodily drives and urges, (11) the ability to forgive, (12) the ability to aspire, and (13) the ability to delay gratification.
Yiddishkeit gives a special flavor and perspective to spirituality. In addition to observance of the mitzvos, we must emphasize the middos of Torah living. If we wish to save ourselves and our children, we must get off the "hedonic treadmill" and make Torah spirituality the single most important component of our lives.