Peninei Halakha

07. The Joy of Ona

Under normal circumstances, each person must look out for himself, for if he does not take care of himself, who else will? This sad reality can be obscured by shallow friendships and frivolous entertainment, but in moments of clarity, when a person becomes aware of his loneliness, he feels terrible sorrow. This is the existential pain that accompanies a person through life, the pall of death that casts a shadow during life. In moments of acute sobriety, the pain is even greater. Loneliness leads to egotism, to caring only for oneself. One thus becomes morally empty and is left without meaning in life, which only makes the loneliness worse.

The solution to this can be found in the mitzva to “love your fellow as yourself.” When people understand that there is sacred value to their friendships, they become better and more moral. They truly connect to one another and assuage the pain of their loneliness. As we learned, the most complete fulfillment of “love your fellow as yourself” is in a spousal relationship, which can truly make a person complete. Through this true love, one can successfully break through egotistical boundaries, loving his spouse and looking out for her, in the same way that he loves and looks out for himself.

The most salient manifestation of this love is the mitzva of sexual relations, in which, thanks to their great love and pleasure, each spouse is able to transcend personal boundaries. The husband reaches out to his wife, and she reaches out to him, and in their union they are redeemed from their loneliness. Then they can experience true, incomparable joy. Life pulses within them, connecting them with all living things, and ascending upwards to the Source of life.

Accordingly, the mitzva is called simḥat ona, the joy of marital sexual relations (Pesaḥim 72b; Avoda Zara 5a). In this joy, the divine is revealed. Maharal explains:

Do not say that sexual union is a physical act, akin to that of all other animals. This is incorrect. It was God Who gave man and woman the ability to achieve union…for His name, Ya-h, takes part along with them (Sota 17a, cited above in 1:1). That is, God brings a couple together and makes them one, so His name is within them. (Be’er Ha-gola 5:4)

This mitzva is a foretaste of the World to Come. It is like a ray of light from higher, better realms to this dark world whose screens and barriers prevent light from reaching it. The Sages even commented that our world is like night (Ḥagiga 12b).

All mitzvot should gladden a person greatly, for through them one connects to the Source of life and takes part in adding life to this world. Unfortunately, because of the barriers and screens that conceal the divine light and life, we barely sense this. True, we feel the satisfaction of doing the right thing, but we do not experience palpable, bodily pleasure in the performance of the mitzva itself. Accordingly, the Sages state: “This world is like an antechamber of the next world. Prepare yourself in the antechamber so that you may enter the main hall” (Avot 4:16). The next world is where we receive the bulk of the reward for doing the right thing.

Only in the marvelous mitzva of ona can one experience the wonderful pleasure that we should sense when fulfilling any mitzva. It is in this sense that the mitzva of ona (like the mitzva of Shabbat) is a foretaste of the next world. It is a gateway through which a person gets a privileged glimpse of the next world even while still living in this one. By properly fulfilling this mitzva, one can even experience the pleasure that is a foretaste of the next world when fulfilling other mitzvot as well (Zohar II, 259a).

In contrast, those who sin sexually – who are promiscuous, commit incest and adultery, who do not observe the laws of nidda – misdirect their passions. Instead of breaking through the barriers of egotism, creating souls, and connecting to God, they breach (portzim), in their transgressions, the good and moral framework; they are therefore called licentious (prutzim). They lose their place in this world, for they do not have the privilege of experiencing true love. They also lose their place in the next world for they do not connect to eternal, true life; instead, they inherit the abyss.

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Translated By:
Series Editor: Rabbi Elli Fischer

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Editor: Nechama Unterman