In the latest episode of my podcast Wrestling and Dreaming, I discussed a rather unusual interpretation of the traditional concept of Yetzer Hatov and Yetzer Hara, the Good Inclination and the Bad Inclination. In that discussion, I quoted a text from Midrash Rabbah in which Rabbi Nachman implies that the so called “Bad Inclination” should really reflect the self-centered or self-preservation inclination which enables us to do important things in our own interest. My point was that these only become “bad” when they are not controlled and prevent us from doing good in the world. You can hear the entire discussion on the podcast.
I want to take this idea in a different direction here and in doing so, I want to refer to one of the most beautiful Talmudic statements which is not actually found in Jewish tradition. By that I mean that many people, including this writer, have cited this line as appearing in the Talmud but it doesn’t. There is, as you will see, a statement similar to it but the exact statement does not appear.
The text that is often mistakenly cited is that one of the questions a person is asked at the time of final judgment after death is: “Did you take advantage of the permitted pleasures in the world?” While there is a text which lists questions we will be asked such as: Did you set a time to study Torah, were honest in our business dealings, this question does not appear in that list.
But, even if it doesn’t appear in so many words, the sentiment is found in a text from the Jerusalem Talmud: “A person will have to answer for everything that the eye beheld but a person did not consume”.
And, the idea also surfaces in comments by many of the rabbis about the necessity for one who has taken a vow to be a Nazarite abstaining from wine and other pleasures to bring a “sin offering” when the period of Nazariteship is completed. Those rabbis say that it is a sin to not partake of something pleasurable which is permitted.
Others take opposite positions of course but, in general, I think it is fair to say that Jewish tradition urges us to enjoy this world within the boundaries of the tradition and proper behavior.
I started thinking about this a few months ago as we found our enjoyment of this world restricted by the need to protect ourselves and others from the coronavirus. We have missed so much.
Let me make two points clear before I continue. First, there is no comparison between the physical pain, emotional suffering and financial burden that so many have gone through as they themselves or those close to them have suffered with the virus with what those who are healthy and safe have missed in their lives. Those who have not contacted the virus are so fortunate and lamenting over things that they have missed in their lives pales in comparison to the tragedy of those who have suffered directly or indirectly from Covid19.
Secondly, many have discovered pleasures that they had neglected before, whether it is the comfort of home, new experiences of closeness with family or a new hobby or interest they have developed in their “spare time”.
But, even taking these two facts into account, I think Jewish tradition would give us permission to be sad about the things we have missed. It is not trivial to have missed graduations, either as the graduate or the proud family. It is not insignificant to think about summer plans for vacation or travel being cancelled. It is not petty to complain about not being able to see friends face to face.
We need to keep these things in perspective in a world with such serious issues and in the face of real suffering. But, we are not being honest with ourselves if we say those personal pleasures that we missed don’t matter. They do matter. And, denying they do will just add another level of stress and discomfort to the situation we face.
When the moments in life we planned for and eagerly anticipated or the experiences we depend upon to brighten our days are taken from us, we should be disappointed and it is appropriate to express that disappointment. It is not selfish or petty. It is what it means to be human.
So, as we continue to protect ourselves and others by wearing masks, being careful to practice social distancing, washing our hands and caring for those around us as best we can, we also shouldn’t be ashamed to show frustration or disappointment at those things that we have missed and to eagerly anticipate the day when we can return to them in safety and in good health. Those pleasures mean so much to us in our lives.