Mesilat Yesharim- Perishut: Controlling Your Desires

21 02 2011

Based on a shiur by Rabbi Yitzchak Cohen

The Chovet Halevovot writes in Shaar Haprishut that there is a nishmat chaim, a living breath, within each of us that is a chelek Elokai mi’maal, a part of Hashem from above. Because we are spiritual beings, Hashem wants our minds to prevail over our selfish desires. The mishna in Avot states, “Who is mighty? One who conquers his evil inclination.” Sin starts with taavah (desire). It is not an intellectual decision. Sin begins when a person’s desires control his intellect. Instinct entices us to indulge in the pursuit of materialism. Therefore, a person should attempt to refrain from material pleasures and concentrate on his soul and how to come closer to Hashem. Dovid Hamelech explains that although a person may abstain from physical enjoyment, if in his heart of hearts, he still desires these indulgences, his thoughts may set him on the wrong path.

In Chelkei Haperishut, the Mesilat Yesharim delineates three areas in which a person can practice prishut: hana’ah, dinim, and minhagim.  To abstain from hana’ah means enjoying the minimum pleasures of this world.  If material pursuits such as clothing, food, listening to music, or exercise help a person in his avodat Hashem, then these activities are productive and bring him closer to G-d.

The Gemara in Shabbat describes how Dovid Hamelech would wake up at night and play the harp. The music would elevate his soul until he reached such lofty levels that he would receive Divine inspiration. The Gemara cites this as a classic example of simcha shel mitzva. Any material enjoyment that leads to a higher level of self-development is good and is achieving its destined purpose.

When one is unsure how to proceed, a person should ask himself, “What will be the result of this action? Will it lead me to perform more mitzvot or will it lead me astray?” 

Prishut b’dinim means being stringent even if halacha does not demand it. This needs to be carefully considered. Sometimes the observance of a chumra may lead to a kulah. In addition, only those at a certain level of kedusha can take upon themselves such extra stringencies.

Prishut minhagim is separating from people who may lead one to sin. This refers to common folk and day-to-day talk which can lead to lashon hara and levity. The Mesilat Yesharim does not advocate hiding from people. On the contrary, Torah is compared to fire. It must be studied in a group. A single match extinguishes itself. Two candles have the potential to burst into flame. Studying Torah together with others is powerful and has lasting influence.

What are ways to acquire perishut? The Mesilat Yesharim notes that one should look at the downside of physical desires. One should realize that pleasures can lead to the destruction of man. The proof is Chava and the sin of the eitz hadaat. The Ramchal first notes that one should not follow after one’s eyes. External appearances might be appealing, but internally there is nothing really there. The eitz hadaat was appealing and prompted her to succumb to sin.

Every sin has a yetzer tov that tells the person of the reward he will receive if he controls himself. The yetzer hara tells him to enjoy life at the moment. A person should accustom himself to think that this world is only an antechamber to the next world. Going to a house of mourning helps one acknowledge the transience of life. Spending time in a place of Torah leads to contemplation of our purpose on this earth. It is so easy to sink into the mores of our times which advocate making life as easy and enjoyable as possible. In reality, this leads a person away from true sheleimut. Taavot of olam hazeh don’t have lasting permanence. The elevation and spiritual growth one attains through perishut is eternal.