Iskafya: Ploughing the inner soil
Rabbi Yehoishophot Oliver
(For earlier articles on this topic, see here, here, here, and here.)
(In this recent article, we discussed how tremendous effort is required to go from love for the physical to love for Hashem. This article develops that theme.)
What is Iskafya? Iskafya means that when your heart craves a material pleasure, you tell yourself “no.” You restrain yourself, and you don’t do it.
G–d forbid, there is no emotionally unhealthy, masochistic desire here to bring oneself to suffer for the sake of suffering. (If there is, such a person shouldn’t be engaging in Iskafya.) On the contrary, a Jew should serve Hashem with joy, and Chassidus rejects the approach of bringing afflictions (“siggufim”) upon oneself as an atonement for one’s sins.
Rather, true Iskafya stems from a profound desire to bond with G–dliness, and the knowledge that in order to reach this goal, one must give up worldly pleasures to a significant degree.
The Torah instructs us, “All your actions should be for the sake of Heaven.” This means that when a Jew engages in the material world, he shouldn’t do so in order to satisfy his physical desires, or even to provide for his basic needs and survive (although it is indeed necessary). Rather, he should do so for the sake of serving Hashem—e.g., he eats and drinks in order to have strength to study Torah and davven; he pursues a livelihood in order to provide his children with a pure Torah education, give charity to the poor, support Torah study, and so on.
Now, when one craves something physical, that means that he wants it for himself, for his own egotistical enjoyment and pleasure, and not for the sake of Hashem. And so giving into this desire will strengthen his ego, and make him that much less receptive to G–dliness. Conversely, by engaging in Iskafya and restraining oneself from indulgence, the Jew makes himself that much more receptive to G–dliness.
We can understand this from an analogy. In order for plants to grow, a farmer must plough the soil. This softens it so that the seeds deposited on the soil can germinate and grow into a plant. In contrast, a seed sown on hard soil cannot grow. The more the soil is ploughed, the softer it becomes, and the more easily the seed can take root, thrive, and produce fruit.
So, too, hidden in the heart of every Jew lies a priceless treasure: The ahavah mesuteres, a natural love for Hashem that stems from the Neshamah, which is “literally a part of Hashem above.” But in most of us, it is deeply hidden by the negative spiritual forces of Kelipah, of concealment of the divine, and to be more specific, by the coarseness of the Bestial Soul within the person, which stems from Kelipah.
How do we break through this coarseness, this spiritual blockage, and enable the Neshamah to emerge? By working on the avodah of Iskafya. Each time we practice Iskafya, we weaken the Bestial Soul. Just as ploughing loosens the soil and enables the seeds to grow, so does Iskafya weaken the Bestial Soul so that the ahavah mesuteres can come to the fore. (On the topic of eliminating coarseness and removing spiritual blockages, see here. As for the way to approach Iskafya in practice, and which areas it is preferable to focus on, see here.)
However, Iskafya itself does not reveal the ahavah mesuteres. Rather, it humbles the person and prepares one’s heart so that during Tefillah, the heart will be truly receptive to the various steps in the process of Tefillah (see here), until one reaches love of Hashem.
To be sure, the Jew who engages in Iskafya probably already feels love for Hashem to a significant extent, for it was this desire to connect to G–dliness that motivated him to engage in Iskafya in the first place. However, by engaging in Iskafya and actually davvening with that extra sensitivity, with Hashem’s help, he will reach a far more sublime level of love for Hashem.
Adapted from Likkutei Torah, Masei 96d.
 Tanya, Igeres HaTeshuvah ch. 1. Cf. Hayom Yom 28 Shevat.
 Avos 2:12.
 Tanya ch. 2, beg.
Dedicated in the merit of a speedy release for the captives Yonasan ben Malka (Jonathan Pollard), Sholom Mordechai Halevi ben Rivka (Sholom Rubashkin), and Zeva Rochel bas Chaya (Wendy Weiner Runge).
Dedicated by avi mori, Reb Kasriel Oliver and family, as a merit for imi morosi, Chana Feigeh bas Reizel (aka "Zippi"), on the occasion of her 60th birthday, tzu langeh, gezunteh, zisseh yorn, filled with material and spiritual success and prosperity.
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