There are two dimensions of the sin of masturbation. On the surface, it is less severe than adultery and the other sins for which the Torah prescribes punishment, because, in practice, the damage caused thereby is not as grave. However, from the interior perspective, this sin reflects the root of all evil, the ultimate self-centeredness, which most profoundly impairs a person’s faith in God and his love for other people. As we have seen, detachment is at the root of all ruin in this world (1:5-6). It begins with the distancing between the Creator and His creations, and continues with detachment among His creatures. This is why the mitzva to “love your fellow as yourself” (Vayikra 19:18) is a “major principle of the Torah” (Sifra ad loc.), for it repairs the whole world. It is only in the spousal relationship that love and unity reach their complete fulfillment, and its essence is when they unite in the mitzva of ona (above, 1:1). This is the meaning of the life-giving impulse that exists between husband and wife, through which the couple breaks the walls of egotism and connects with one another with true love. The Shekhina dwells with them, and through them, life and blessing extend forth from Source of life to all future generations.
In contrast, when a man uses this life-giving impulse for his personal gratification, he corrupts the foundation of his life. Instead of drawing upon it to increase the love between him and his wife, he destroys it and wastes it on egotistical desires. This is why, from the interior perspective, this sin is so grave. It expresses man’s selfishness, arrogance, and lust. It detaches him from his great mission, which is to connect to God with faith, and to increase love, blessing, and life in the world.
Therefore, one who commits this sin harms himself in this world and the next. In this world, he impairs his ability to love his wife and be truly and completely happy with her, since he spent some of his strength for something empty, strength that will be lessened when he couples with his wife. Even if he makes great efforts, a thin membrane of selfishness will separate them and impair their union. He also harms himself in the next world, because his soul cannot ascend and enjoy the radiance of the Shekhina as it should. Although in terms of punishment, his sin is mild relative to other sins, in terms of the loss of his potential to come close to God, his punishment is severe, because the damaged part of his soul detaches itself from life and cannot receive its eternal reward. It cannot be fixed until the Resurrection of the Dead.
Moreover, standard repentance, normally effective in atoning for all sins, is not effective in bringing his soul to its proper level, because selfish lust distances a person from true life. Just as he cannot unite fully with his wife, so too he cannot properly enjoy the radiance of the Shekhina. This is meant not to cause despair, but to emphasize the need to repair this transgression through greater repentance than usual – so that he will make every effort to love God, cling to His Torah and mitzvot, increase his true love for his wife, and reclaim the life-giving impulse that he destroyed. Since God’s hand is extended to accept penitents, whoever makes a great effort to repent fully will merit much satisfaction and joy (see Orot Ha-teshuva 7:1:6 and 15:8).
However, it is notoriously difficult to overcome this drive. According to the Sages, this is what led to Adam’s sin, as a result of which humans became mortal and the evil inclination was internalized, to the extent that there is no righteous man on earth who always does good and never commits the sin of masturbation, or at least experiences nocturnal emissions. This drive is particularly strong among teenagers. If there ever was a man who successfully saved all his desire for his wife, he would merit revealing a spark of divine unity in his life. He will have completely repaired Adam’s sin and would therefore never die. However, God made it extremely difficult for us to repair this flaw, to the extent that even righteous people fail at it. They too must become penitents, which gives them the opportunity to be involved in repairing the whole world, with all its lusts and inclinations. In our current pre-messianic times, this sin becomes rampant, because the life-giving impulse increases in anticipation of the redemption, as does the difficulty of preserving its sanctity. The righteous must overcome all obstacles, pick themselves up when they fall, and keep going, as it says: “Seven times the righteous man falls and gets up” (Mishlei 24:16). Through this, we will become worthy of redemption from the evil inclination and from the death it entails. Life will be revealed in full force until the world is repaired with the Resurrection of the Dead (Tzidkat Ha-tzadik §§109, 111).