Materialism Addiction

I was asked the following question, and I was happy with how the reply came out. I just received permission to post the exchange, minus identifying information.


I learn in yeshiva kollel in Yerushalayim,  and I was bothered by something that I don’t find anyone speaks about or I can ask to help.

Every Rosh haShana we want to do teshuva and every motzei Yom kipper we go back. Why?  Why can’t we change?  What holds us back?! I realized it’s my guf,  pleasure and comfort that stops me. If I just Stop it, and persevere then I can do what Im supposed to!  But sadly that’s what stops me. I realized I just can’t say no!  Can’t say no to my comforts. So sad!

If I can’t say no to something then Im addicted. Im a comfort, guf, materialistic addict!  I need my hit,  and if I don’t get it go into withdrawal and relapse.

My question for you r micha is, How do I overcome this addiction?  This should be a basic mussar cheshbon hanefesh exercise. I have looked a lot of places for this and couldn’t find answers. They all say just say no and go past it. Please, there must be a mehalach from the baalei mussar?

It’s kind of ironic that you asked an overweight man this question.

I think you need to re-frame the issue. But as I just said, if I really knew how to deal with self-control on physical taavos, my opinion would be worth more. I could forward your email (with or without your name) to people who teach Mussar who don’t share your particular problem or perhaps did succeed in overcoming it.

Anyway, here is what I am thinking…

R’ Yitzchaq Sher, the Alter of Slabodka’s successor when the Alter went to establish Chevron, writes in an introduction to Sefer Cheshbon haNefesh that our nefesh habehamis is just that — a beheimah. And you train it the way you would train an elephant or a bird, even taking lessons on how to do so from animal trainers. So we deal with that aspect of ourselves by erasing old habits and establishing new ones. Very action oriented; making up to do something new and doing it repeatedly until thought follows. Training, not educating. Also, animals live for the moment. Which is why dieting or giving up on another physical taavah is so difficult — the part of us that has the taavah isn’t the part of us designed to plan ahead and work at long-term goals.

That part of ourselves that can plan for the future is what’s makes us truly human, even what makes us betzelem E-lokim. Because that’s what powers our becoming who we wish to become. That is the side that can do conscious thinking, where actual education would be of value.

Avraham rides a chamor to the Aqeidah. Mashiach will arrive riding a chamor. Our role models ride donkeys because a chamor represents chomer, physicality. (In contrast, Bil’am rides an ason.) This is arguably the appropriate relationship to chomer; we should try to harness it and use it. That was why HQBH gave us bodies to begin with, wasn’t it? Like the parable Rebbe gives Antoninus (Sanhedrin 91a-b):

A flesh-and-blood king owned a beautiful orchard, which grew amazing figs. He appointed two guardians for it, one blind, the other lame.

The lame man said to the blind one, “I see beautiful figs in the orchard. Come and let me ride you, and I will bring them to eat.” So the lame man rode the blind blind man, brought and ate them.

Days later, the owner of the orchard said to them, “Where are the beautiful figs?”

The lame man replied, “Do O have any feet to walk with? ” The blind man replied, “Do I have any eyes to see with?”

What did he do? He placed the lame upon the blind and judged them together.

So will the Holy One, blessed be He, bring the soul, [re]place it in the body, and judge them together…

The lame man, who can see and plan, rides the blind man, so that together they can accomplish their goal. The same way the soul rides the body. Mashiach will ride his chamor.

In general, we find that physical accomplishments are in the moment, while spiritual ones are in the process. For example, a person who lands a large contract could end up rich. If he had put in the same effort and through no fault of his own the deal fell through ends up with nothing. Someone else who wins the lottery could end up just as rich. The size of their bank accounts is the same regardless of the path it took to get there. What differs is the size of their middos. (I suggested in a shiur recently that this may be why the berakhah in Shemoneh Esrei for wealth isn’t directly about wealth. It begins “Bareikh aleinu es hashnah hazos — bless upon us this year” and closes (and the closing is the iqar of the berakhah) “mevareikh hashanim — who blesses the years, and only in between says “and all its kinds of crops for good, and give a berakhah on the face of the earth. May we be satisfied with its good…” The berakhah focuses more on the process to make the money than on the money itself. Torah isn’t like that, “lefum tza’ara agra — according to the effort is the reward.” We are judged by how hard we worked on the peshat, not whether or not we ever got it. Or how much self-sacrifice it took to perform some mitzvah. It’s all process.

And we are not judged by our self-control, but on how hard we tried to improve it.

This is an important aspect of teshuvah. We are not judged by where we are, but by where we are headed, and how quickly we try to get there. And so the goal of Aseres Yemei Teshuvah isn’t to get from where I am spiritually today to my ideal state in a mere 10 — or with Elul, 40 — days later. Quick change tends to be temporary. Rather, the goal of teshuvah is to change the direction we’re headed.

Qedushah isn’t a place to reach, it’s our level of commitment to reaching it. I know you probably learned that qedushah is separation, but it’s more being set aside for a purpose, separation from things that don’t contribute to our commitment. This is why the preposition that comes after qedushah is “le- — to”. As the groom says under the chuppahHarei at mequdeshes li… — You are hereby committed to me..” The kohein hagadol‘s tzitz reads “Qodesh Lashem — Committed to G-d”.

Because ruchnius is in the process, just as gashmius is in the moment.

So why does the Sifra define “qedoshim tihyu — you shall be holy” as “perushim tihyu — you shall be separate”? As Rav Shimon Shkop points out, it cannot be the definition of holiness. As the same pasuq continues, “ki Qadosh Ani — because I am Holy.” What temptations does Hashem have to separate Himself from? Rather, it’s a necessary precondition. Hashem doesn’t need to separate to become holy but people? People are not capable of withstanding every temptation and distraction. So, those things we aren’t yet capable of coping with we practice perishus; and those things we can, we utilize. And ideally, the holy person is utilizing as much of the world around him as possible for the mission for which he was created. That is true qedushah.

As the Ramchal writes (ch. 26, “Qedushah”, tr. R’ Shraga Simmons):

Note the distinction between one who is Pure and one who is Holy. The earthy actions of the first are necessary ones, and he is motivated by necessity alone, so that his actions escape the evil in earthiness and remain pure. But they do not approach Holiness, for it were better if one could get along without them. One who is Holy, however, and clings constantly to his God, his soul traveling in channels of truth, amidst the love and fear of his Creator -such a person is as one walking before God in the Land of the Living, here in this world. Such a person is himself considered a tabernacle, a sanctuary, an altar… There is no question that what was brought up upon the altar was greatly elevated because of its being sacrificed before the Divine Presence, elevated to such an extent that its entire species throughout the world was blessed, as our Sages of blessed memory indicate in the Midrash (Tanchumah Tetzaveh). In the same way, the food and drink of the Holy man is elevated and is considered as if it had actually been sacrificed upon the altar.

Returning to Rav Shimon (tr. mine):

As understood, all holiness is being set apart for an honorable purpose which is that a person straightens his path and strives constantly to make his lifestyle dedicated to the community. Then, anything he does even for himself, for the health of his body and soul he also associates to the mitzvah of being holy, for through this he can also do good for the masses. Through the good he does for himself he can do good for the many who rely on him. But if he derives benefit from some kind of permissible thing that isn’t needed for the health of his body and soul, that benefit is in opposition to holiness. For in this he is benefiting himself (for that moment as it seems to him), but to no one else does it have any value.

As as we saw, of course the abuse of the physical only seems to us “for that moment”, because our desire to abuse it comes from a place of living for the moment.

So, all in all, what am I saying?

The goal of teshuvah is to improve the direction we’re in, rather than expect to be new people in a matter of days or weeks. Even months are only a meaningful measure for smaller changes. Instead, commit to taking the next step in the direction you want.

This means two things: training the yeitzer hara with a new habit, and teaching the yeitzer hatov.

You could appoint of window of time each day in which you won’t engage in your current habit, a period that is small enough to be doable, if you work at it. Then you can move the window to a more challenging time (not snacking in the late afternoon?), enlarge it, etc…

Or rather than focusing on time, one can look at one subset of the temptation to work on first. If the problem is food, as mine is, perhaps start with committing to leaving something on your plate whenever you eat. (I heard R’ Lessen zt”l would do this. When asked by a talmid about bal tashchis, he explained that improving oneself was a worthwhile use for the food — it’s not waste.)

Meanwhile, you have to be aware of the real and the ideal, and your path to get there. The cognitive work what will strengthen the yeitzer hatov. Knowing about the real — that’s what a cheshbon hanefesh is for. It helps you review your decisions of the day and bring a conscious element to it. Eventually you watch yourself making similar decisions as they’re happening. The ideal? That’s what studying mussar is for. Internalizing it may require hispa’alus, but I think we have enough to work on without getting that far.

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  1. Gavriel says:

    ” This should be a basic mussar cheshbon hanefesh exercise. I have looked a lot of places for this and couldn’t find answers. They all say just say no and go past it.”

    I didn’t quite understand what he meant by this. Was he saying that he has done cheshbon hanefesh and it hasn’t produced results?

    I don’t mean to ignore the wonderful idea’s you responded with but isn’t the beginning of all this work cheshbon hanefesh? That’s the whole point of sefer Cheshbon Hanefesh. That’s how you ‘train’ the nefesh beheimis.
    The beginning of the Mesillas Yesharim (Zehiurs) is all about that. You can debate the point but if we are to take the Mesillas Yesharim as our guide, the Ramchal very explicitly says that you cannot succeed or develop without doing a cheshbon both at set times and during the course of the day. [The chachamim (neviim) in the gan hamevucha teach “bo-u cheshbon” etc.]

    Simply put- how is someone supposed to “just do it” without knowing how they work and why they fail or succeed? Even the most beautiful idea’s and mussar shmoozen will just be forgotten.

    [We would still have to discuss what cheshbon hanefesh is, how to do it and what the goal is, but that’s a separate point.]

    • yitzi turner says:

      There is knowing yourself, the pros and cons, and how you act with them. There’s also understanding how one works, which is a chochma and art that most don’t know or understand.

      Take a computer. I can know how to work it, even know some shortcuts and tips. But I might necessarily know how to fix or program it.

      Training the body and working with both the neshama and guf is not simply cheshbon hanefesh. It’s fixing and reprogramming it!!! So we need a spiritual technician to guide us through it. To really understand how they work and interrelate.

  2. micha says:

    I return to cheshbon hanefesh lightly in the last paragraph. But really, I didn’t see the point of emphasizing an exercise the person writing to me said he is having a hard time succeeding with.

    In general principle, we agree, thought.

    I also gained from doing the opposite — not only keeping a cheshbon of where one is, but also have in writing where one wants to be. From a mission statement down to subgoals, and sub-subgoals… to whatever level of detail you need so that you can relate the path you’re trying to follow to the day’s decisions as they come up. See this post.

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