In my lectures about drug addiction, I often cite the com- ment of a fourteen-year-old girl who was interviewed about Nancy Reagan’s campaign of “Just Say ‘No!’ to Drugs.” The
young woman said, “Why? What else is there?”
I have watched our government spend billions of dollars on
drug prevention. I have seen them increase prison sentences and confiscate drugs. I see the sniffing dogs at the airport. Nothing has worked. Nothing has made a dent in the fatal drug epidem- ic. I believe that nothing will work until we have an answer to the young woman’s challenging question, “Why? What else is there?” — an answer that youngsters will accept.
At Gateway Rehabilitation Center, I meet with youngsters who do not see anything in life worthwhile and have recourse to deadly chemicals. They know that drugs can kill them, but death is not a deterrent when life is meaningless.
The shocking thing is that some frum youngsters who are stu- dents of Torah and observant of mitzvos are not immune. One
would think that these youngsters have a meaningful life. After all, they learn Torah and do mitzvos. They are taught that this is the purpose of life, that this is why they were created. Many have learned Mesilas Yesharim, whose first chapter is “The Duty of a Person in His World.” They behave as if they are duty bound to a higher principle. Why do they have recourse to deadly drugs?
In the 1960s, the popular mantra was “If it feels good, do it.” On this, Professor Albert Einstein correctly said, “This is a life ideal appropriate for a herd of swine.” Obviously, drugs “feel good,” but a goal in life of pursuit of pleasure is most degrading.
There is nothing wrong with enjoying the good things in this world. The berachah we recite in the spring when the fruit trees blossom is, “Blessed are You, Hashem, King of the universe, for nothing is lacking in His universe, and He created in it good creatures and good trees, to cause mankind pleasure with them.” It is also written that one of the questions we will be asked on our Judgment Day is “Did you enjoy My world?” But that is a far cry from the hedonistic viewpoint that considers the world to be a huge amusement park, with no goal in life other than “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die.”
One might think that Torah observance is the perfect anti- dote to a hedonistic lifestyle. Some eight hundred years ago, the Ramban coined the term, “naval birshus haTorah,” a person who is in technical compliance with all of Torah yet is a physi- cally indulgent scoundrel.
Some frum people seem to have adapted the hedonistic man- tra to “If it feels good, and it’s kosher, do it.” This attitude is con- ducive not only to drugs, but also to other harmful addictions.
Yet it is not easy to live a frugal life when technology has eliminated so many discomforts. My first car was a 1936 Plymouth, with no air-conditioning, power steering, or power
brakes. Should I not have availed myself of these conveniences when they became available? With all the kosher conveniences at our disposal, it is difficult to avoid becoming a naval birshus haTorah.
It is not much solace that there are many tens of thousands frum people who are not addicted. The desire to live comfort- ably is innate, and it is difficult to draw the lines. All frum young people are vulnerable and all should be considered “kids at risk.”
A closely related issue is that many youngsters do not see a bright future for themselves. This is a consequence of low self-esteem — unjustified and unwarranted feelings of inferiority and inade- quacy, a theme that I have addressed in a number of my books. With no aspirations to success and with a belief that the world is a huge playground meant to be fully enjoyed, the road to addic- tions is wide open.
Rav Shlomo Wolbe in Alei Shur points out that a feeling of chashivus (worthiness) is essential for Torah observance. Prior to giving the Torah, Hashem said to the Israelites, “You have seen what I did to Egypt. I carried you on the wings of eagles and brought you to Me. And now, if you will listen to My voice and observe My covenant, You will be a treasure unto Me from among all nations. You will be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Shemos 19:4–6). Rav Wolbe says that this uplifting feeling of chashivus was essential for them to receive the Torah. The Talmud says that “every person is obligated to say, ‘The world was created for me’” (Sanhedrin 37a).
The fact that some Torah observant and cognizant people gravitate to the use of drugs means that we have missed the boat and have failed to instill in them a sense of purpose in life and a sense of chashivus, both of which are essential to prevent their yielding to the lure of drugs.
Conveying the Message to Our Children
How can we convey to our children that life is intended to be more than a search for pleasure? The answer is provided by the sifrei mussar: demonstrate mesiras nefesh. It has been said, “If there is nothing worth dying for, there is nothing worth living for.” Mesiras nefesh does not mean only martyrdom. Mesiras nefesh means making a sacrifice for what you know is right.
There is a remarkable Midrash (Eichah Rabbah) that at the time of the Churban, the Patriarchs pleaded to Hashem for mercy. Avraham Avinu said, “Ribbono shel Olam! How I had longed for a child, and age one hundred, You graciously gave me a son. When you told me to bring him as an olah offering, I did not hesitate to do Your will. Do my children not deserve a better fate?” Yitzchak Avinu said, “I was thirty-seven years old. I could resist being brought as an olah, but I was ready to give up my life for You. Don’t my children deserve something bet- ter?” Yaakov Avinu and Moshe Rabbeinu made similar pleas, but Hashem did not acknowledge them.
Then Rachel Imeinu said, “Ribbono shel Olam! You know how much I loved Yaakov. I knew that my father was a scoundrel and could substitute my sister for me. I gave Yaakov a secret code whereby he could detect the ruse, but when I realized that if he used the code, he would expose the ruse and Leah would be publicly humiliated, I gave Leah the secret code. I was willing to surrender the man I loved to my sister in order to prevent a few minutes of humiliation. Don’t I deserve better than to see my children suffer?”
Hashem responded, “In your merit, Rachel, your children will one day be returned to their land.”
Think of it! The enormous sacrifices of Avraham and Yitzchak
were not adequate merits. Rachel did not yield her life, but her willingness to give up Yaakov for all her life in order to spare her sister a few moments of humiliation was a greater mesir- as nefesh than the martyrdom of Avraham and Yitzhak. One need not die in mesiras nefesh. If one has a strong desire for something and suppresses it because it is halachically wrong or ethically appropriate, that constitutes mesiras nefesh. Mesiras nefesh is thus the antithesis of “If it feels good, do it,” and of naval birshus haTorah.
We have abundant opportunities to perform mesiras nefesh. The chapter on zerizus in Mesilas Yesharim is an essay on mesiras nefesh. Ramchal points out that the Torah prohibition of lo sikom, to refrain from taking revenge, is something one can logically expect of the Heavenly angels, not of mere mortals. “Taking revenge is the sweetest feeling a person can have, yet the Torah forbids it.” This is mesiras nefesh at its best. Inasmuch as the urge to “get back at someone” occurs even in grade-school children, this is an excellent opportunity for parents to teach young children mesiras nefesh. But of course, parents must model it in their own lives.
If one has a juicy piece of gossip and would love to tell it to a friend, but refrains from doing so because that is lashon hara, that is mesiras nefesh. We may refuse to eat something a friend offers us because we are unsure of its kashrus, but have our children heard us say to someone, “I’d love to hear what you have to say, but I can’t listen to you because I think it may be lashon hara”?
It is very tempting to converse during the reading of the Torah or the repetition of the Amidah. To refrain from doing so is mesiras nefesh. To avoid telling a lie when telling the truth is a disadvantage is mesiras nefesh. To avoid an anger outburst
is mesiras nefesh. There are many opportunities in daily life to exercise mesiras nefesh. When we do so, we demonstrate to our children that we are willing to forgo pleasure for the sake of doing right, and this is a teaching our children can accept, not in the form of a lecture, but by actual life.
Children are able to have mesiras nefesh. In one shul, through an error in scheduling, two boys were to have their bar mitzvah on the same Shabbos, and both had invested much effort in learning the haftarah. The son of the more prominent member willingly yielded to the other boy. This was an opportunity to praise him for his mesiras nefesh.
Kibbud av va’eim, respecting one’s parents, is a great mitz- vah, and there are abundant opportunities to set aside one’s own desires in favor of kibbud av va’eim. You may be engaged in doing something when your father or mother asks you to do an errand. Although you are annoyed by this interruption, you do what your parent has requested. This is mesiras nefesh.
Learning from Our Gedolim
As always, our best sources for ideal Torah-true behavior are the lifestyles of our gedolim, whose lives were saturated with mesiras nefesh. I believe that at the Shabbos table, in addition to discussing the parashah of the week, episodes of the lives of the gedolim should be related.
A baal teshuvah asked Rav Chaim Kanievsky what he could do to instill yiras Shamayim in his young son. Rav Chaim sug- gested that he learn sifrei mussar with him.
“Is that what your father [the Steipler Gaon] did with you?” asked the baal teshuvah.
Rav Chaim said, “No, he told me sippurei tzaddikim.”
There were some gedolim who did not achieve much renown. One such talmid chacham was Reb Yudel Holzman of Jerusalem. One time, a collection was taken up to enable a person to have surgery, but Reb Yudel had exhausted his meager earnings and was already in debt to the gemach. He asked the gemach to ex- tend him a loan, which he would be able to pay in the following way. “In my budget, I have money for wine for Kiddush. I can recite the Kiddush on challah, and use the wine money to pay off the loan that I could use to contribute to the drive for the medical treatment.” That is mesiras nefesh.
There are opportunities for mesiras nefesh in doing business. The Talmud relates that Rav Safra had an item he wished to sell. While he was davening, a buyer offered him a price for the item, but Rav Safra did not interrupt his davening to respond. The buyer thought that Rav Safra’s failure to response was because the price he offered was too low, and he increased the offer. When again Rav Safra did not respond, the buyer again raised the offer. When Rav Safra finished davening, he told the buyer that he would sell it to him and the amount of the first offer, be- cause in his heart he had agreed to this. That is mesiras nefesh.
Rav Yisrael Salanter was once traveling to Vilna, and a young man on the train acted very disrespectfully toward him.
“Your cigar smoke bothers me,” the young man said.
Rav Yisrael could have pointed out to him that this was a smoking cabin, but he quietly extinguished his cigar.
A bit later, the young man said, “Why did you open the win- dow? The draft bothers me.”
Rav Yisrael said, “I did not open the window,” and proceeded to close it.
When they arrived in Vilna, a huge crowd greeted Rav Yisrael. The young man realized he had offended a gadol, and
apologized for his behavior. Rav Yisrael assured him that he was mochel him wholeheartedly, and asked the young man what brought him to Vilna. The latter said that he had come to be certified as a shochet. Rav Yisrael told him that he could help him, because his son-in-law was a rav in Vilna.
The son-in-law interviewed the young man and told Rav Yisrael that the young man was totally unprepared for certification. Rav Yisrael arranged for a senior shochet to tutor him, and when he achieved certification, Rav Yisrael arranged to get him a position.
Rav Yisrael was asked why he extended himself so much for this young man. Rav Yisrael said, “I told him that I forgave him wholeheartedly, bit I realized that I still harbored a resentment. I tried to help him in order to eliminate the resentment from my heart.” That is mesiras nefesh.
Let us recapitulate. The human being is a composite crea- ture, comprised of a physical body and a “something else.” This “something else” is the ability to be master over one’s animal- istic drives. No other living things can make choices between right and wrong, and act according to their innate drives. Professor Einstein considers a person who is totally motivated by one’s drive for physical gratification as no different than a swine. Anthropologists are a bit kinder, and consider man as homo sapiens, or “a baboon with intellect.” But neither homi- nids nor pigs, even if they have intelligence, are yet true human beings. The feature that defines man and sets him apart from other forms of life is what we may refer to as the “spirit.”
The Talmud says that reshaim are considered dead even when they are biologically alive (Berachos 18b). Reshaim are
people who are dominated by the yetzer hara, the drive for physical gratification. Although they are biologically active, their spirit, the component which defines one as a human being, is dead. Clearly, this person is lacking an essential component of humanity.
A person who is lacking a part of his physical makeup, wheth- er due to disease, genetic mishap, or trauma, is a human being with a defect. This person can compensate for his deficiency. A blind person or a deaf person is aware of his defect, and blind or deaf people can be full human beings. Not so the person who lacks the essential feature of the spirit who is unaware of his defect. He functions at a porcine or simian level, and it does not occur to him that he is in fact infra-human. Despite his intellect, he is fundamentally lacking in humanity. Yes, he is capable of having a porcine happiness, but not a true human happiness.
It has been said of those people who deny Divine creation, and describe man as the end product of billions of years of evo- lution, that had they seen Rav Yisrael Salanter, they would have realized that man is qualitatively different from other forms of life because man has a spirit.
Practicing mesiras nefesh enables a person to overcome the animalistic drives for self-gratification. If we can succeed in en- abling our children to overcome the hedonistic “If it feels good, do it,” we may be able to prevent their succumbing to the lure of drugs.