The battle against self-indulgence and the pursuit of pleasure in religious Jewish life is over, with those who still preach the message of restraint in full rout. They continue to give mussar, speaking to audiences of religious Jews who seem deeply moved by what they hear and determined to heed the plea that Torah living requires moderation and hatznea leches. Then for most - there are some who practice what has been preached - it is back to the old stand, back to gratuitous materialism and hedonism. There are the must-do expensive trips to ever-more exotic places, the redoing of homes that already reek with affluence, the show-off SUVs and the determination to nestle in the lap of luxury.
The battle that is over was never fought. The white flag was raised at the outset, for most of us are too weak spiritually to resist the imperative to buy and spend, to show off. For too many on this gravy train, tzedakah obligations are scarcely on the itinerary. Interestingly, the superrich whom I have known recognize that they have nothing to prove and generally fulfill their tzedakah responsibilities. It's the ordinary affluent - and their ranks are growing - and those who aspire to affluence who are most bit by the bug of self-indulgence.
We hear that American values and behavior are to blame. Are they? We live in a society where goods and services, experiences and fantasies are deliberately packaged and marketed to entice us. Can we escape the alluring message that this or that pleasure or extravagance is something that is easily within reach and something that we must have? The difficulty arising from the baneful influence of those among whom we live is pinpointed by Rambam in a notable section in Hilchos Deos (The Laws of Moral Conduct). "It is human nature," he writes, "that man is influenced in his thoughts and actions by his friends and associations and behaves in accordance with the way people behave where he lives." In a society embedded in instant gratification, we are ensnared and cannot escape.
It is convenient in this matter and others to attribute our bad behavior and errant values to the wrongful ways of non-Jews amongst whom we dwell. We obviously are affected by outside influences, yet somehow we manage to escape the behavioral attributes that we want to escape and remain a people who dwell apart. We do not escape the clutches of materialism and self-indulging because we do not want to escape them. We want to have, in the main, our religious cake and eat it too, but we also want to have some wiggle room to enjoy society's goodies. If we would only look in the mirror, we would see that the root problem - our spiritual decay - arises from within.
When Rambam speaks of a community's harmful influence, he does not have in mind a community of Gentiles. He has in mind a community of Jews, indeed a community of observant Jews. Elsewhere, he rules that a religious Jew must live in a community that has the full attributes and institutions of our religious life. Our vulnerability to the pursuit of pleasure and materialism results from internal defects, from intentions and values that we refer to as the Yetzer Ho-rah, which is nothing other than powerful destructive inclinations that are part of our make-up.
In the discussion in Tractate Yevamos regarding prospective converts, we learn that they are cautioned immediately prior to conversion not to expect "an abundance of wealth" after they join the Jewish people. The avoidance of wealth is essential to their spiritual growth after conversion. In the words of ArtScroll that are based on Rashi, "if the Jews were to enjoy an abundance of material resources, a condition that invariably invokes arrogance and vanity, they would be more susceptible to sin than other nations in similar circumstances."
Our greater susceptibility to sin is attributed in Tractate Sukkos to the Yetzer Ho-rah abandoning other nations - which means that he leaves them alone - and then concentrating the full force of his evil-doing on the Jewish people. We are more vulnerable than others and the degree of our vulnerability expands as we enter the path of self-indulgence. When we abandon restraint, our shield of kedusha is pierced and we are endangered spiritually. The more religious we are, the more endangered we may become, in line with the Talmudic maxim, "Kol hagadol me'chavero, yitzro gadol hemenu." (Whoever is greater than his fellow man, his evil inclination is greater than his fellow man's.)
Our spiritual grandeur dialectically puts us at greater risk and when we invite into our lives, even ever so slightly, values that are incompatible with our spiritual grandeur, there is great prospect that much worse will follow. This is the lesson learned from the tragic story of the daughter of Nakdimon Ben-Gurion in the period immediately after the destruction of the Second Temple, as recounted in Tractate Kesuvos.
The process of being enveloped and conquered by a spirit of self-indulgence that is antithetical to kedusha is the reverse of the process described by Rav Moshe Chaim Luzzatto in Mesilas Yesharim for the acquisition of kedusha. That process begins with a determined effort to attain a measure of kedusha that results in the reward of sanctity as a gift from G-D. When those of us who want to live sanctified lives put out a small welcoming-mat to self-indulgence, base inclinations that are dormant within us are aroused and they seize the opportunity to lead us away from kedusha.
We have traveled too far on a questionable path and even those who have not the means or the desire to transgress are ensnared. Neither the example of our parents who lived lives of modesty and restraint and were thankful for the little that they had or the words of Torah leaders whom we respect are sufficient barriers against excess. In a few days, a contingent of thousands of religious Jews will be off to a distant place to commemorate Rosh Hashanah, not in Israel but in Uman in the Ukraine, a land that is still soaked with the blood of hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of Jews who were slaughtered over the centuries. This exercise in vanity is enveloped in claims of piety. Truly, there is no one who the Yetzer Ho-rah likes more than a religious Jewish fool.
Nearly everywhere in our community we see the insatiable appetite for luxury and pleasure. If only our impulse to give tzedakah would keep pace. Rav Moshe Feinstein, ztl, was careful not to criticize Orthodox Jews, yet he was critical of our failure to fulfill the maaser obligation. A generation ago, he wrote in a tshuva that most Orthodox Jews do not give sufficiently. The situation has gotten worse.
We are not commanded to be hermits. It is not a mitzvah to be poor. Our religion is one of engagement with the world and this includes the world of commerce. It is good to succeed in business and investments. It is not sinful to be affluent. The sin is in the misuse of affluence. The greatest tragedy arising from our self-indulgence is the wrongful lesson being taught to our children and grandchildren. They are being taught to want and even to demand. They are being taught to worship the false god of magia li - it is coming to me. Because self-indulgence is a dynamic force, the level of want and demand and indulgence rises steadily. Why would we want to harm our children?
Reversing the process of self-indulgence may be beyond our present reach. There are no reasons for optimism. What we can do is to take a small step on the path of self-denial and that may be a building block to greater acts of restraint. Our journey on the path of self-indulgence began with a small step that made us vulnerable. If we start to say "no," we may come to recognize that our lives are enriched as a consequence.