The founder of Aish HaTorah, Rabbi Noach Weinberg had an incredible understanding of the human condition. I’ve listened to his lectures, learned from his students, and studied at his yeshiva in Jerusalem (for a limited amount of time.) And probably the most fundamental and profound concept he taught was the 5 Levels of Pleasure.
Sourced from ideas in the 13th century work known as Sefer Hachinuch, Rabbi Weinberg taught the 5 Levels of Pleasure to audiences all over the world. The basis for the idea is that every human being in existence has one sole motivation: pleasure. And no matter what one does, it is in pursuit of pleasure. But there is an understanding that there are distinct types (or levels) one can work to achieve.
Level 5: The material.
You don’t need to be a religious believer to know that money doesn’t buy happiness. Well, it actually does. But it’s not lasting. How happy does a delicious steak really make you? You get the sensation for 10 – 20 minutes while eating it. And the memory I guess. But who cheers them self up by remembering how great a steak tastes?
There’s no doubt that having money frees you from troubles and allows you to experience exquisite things in life. It is a real pleasure. But for every pleasure there is a counterfeit pleasure. And once the appreciation of the material becomes a sole focus, it becomes counterfeit. How many of us know someone who has to get the next cutting edge gadget? Even though they just got one 3 months ago. They obviously have lost the ability to truly appreciate what they have. No one is surprised that many celebrities and billionaire that are clearly not happy. As the Beatles song goes…
Level 4: Love and Relationships
A sign that you’ve moved into the next level of pleasure is that a lower level of pleasure cannot be traded for a higher level of pleasure. “Money can’t buy me love.” Sure, money and the material can help attract people to you, and some of those may become friendships. But a vast majority of those people are going to be “fake friends.” Counterfeit.
Fulfilling relationships are the highest level of pleasure many of us will be lucky enough to experience. The message of “love conquers all” and “all you need is love” permeates virtually all television and film. And there’s nothing wrong with that, except the understanding that there is more to life. Or at least, their can be.
Level 3: Meaning/Good
I have profound respect for people who have chosen a righteous cause as their line of work. Doctors, cancer researchers, abuse counselors, teachers. Luckily, most of those people do not have to sacrifice their relationships for their cause. But around the world we see people sacrificing everything, even their lives for one.
Imagine that you and your spouse had a healthy loving relationship. Now imagine (God forbid) that the Nazis suddenly came back into power. And your spouse said “You know, those Nazis are making a lot of sense. Let’s join the Nazi party.” There’s a pretty good chance you and you spouse would be divorced soon. Because above love is the desire to accomplish good in this world. Even if we’re rationalizing. If fact the need to believe we’re good is why we rationalize in the first place.
So what’s the counterfeit? Honor. With all the trappings, glitz and glamor that could come along with accomplishing for a cause, honor focuses on the banquet dinner at the expense of that cause.
Level 2: Creating Good
If being a teacher is Level 3, then building schools is Level 2. Level 2 is about the ability to bring good into the world. Ideas, art, starting a foundation. Not just taking up the mantle to do good, but to create it yourself.
Naturally to be able to do that requires resources and power. And that’s the counterfeit to this one; power. For every Abraham Lincoln and George Washington there is a tyrannical dictator willing to slaughter anyone who opposes him. All killing someone at that level amounts to, is saying “I have the power over life and death.” But the truth of the matter is that they only have the power over death. And they will continue to use that to acquire or secure their power even though the intention may be to do good.
Level 1: Relationship with the Infinite.
Of course the highest level was going to be God. You’re reading a religious blog. But even I can’t help but be skeptical when I hear the answer is just “God.”
(1) Is sitting in God’s glory really a better experience than a night of amazing sex or saving someone’s life?
(2) Sure, it’s probably a journey to have a real relationship with God. But does anyone actually get there? Like those who have said they reached Nirvana. Good for them, but you’re not actually going to.
And in my own experiences, I’ll come to the understanding of the following… When you truly believe, having emunah and bitchon, there is a sense of order and oneness I have tapped into which was remarkably fulfilling and serene. It’s rare, but I have done it. I once, point blank asked one of my closest Rabbi’s “Do people really walk around with that all the time?” And he said ” Rarely do you see it all the time outside of Israel. But I do know people. ” Then I asked him how often he feels that way. And he said, “Maybe twice a week.”
But the real trick is that once one has strived to reach the first level of pleasure, they will come to realize that the other 4 pleasure levels can be achieved through level one. At that point, food, sex, love, all of it is elevated up to level one. And that’s the goal. Click below if you want to hear it from the man himself.