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A Jewish View on Wealth and Poverty – Part Two

“In the middle of the 17th century, the Vaad Arba Aratzot, the Council of Four Lands, an all-powerful body of rabbis and lay leaders, governing the Jewish communities of Europe made a decree that the more guests one invited to a festive occasion, the more one had to pay to the community tax collector – two gold coins for 15 guests, four coins for 20 guests, and six coins for 25 guests. In 1728, the Jewish community of Furth prohibited serving coffee or tea as they were very expensive. In 2001, Agudath Israel published guidelines for Jewish weddings which included the elimination of the engagement party, limitations on the smorgasbord, elimination of the bar and Viennese table, a ceiling of 400 invited guests, and a recommendation of a one-piece band and a maximum of four musicians. (Dr. Heshy H. Friedman, The Simple Life, JLaw.com)

None of these went over very well, but they were all very well-intentioned. The rationale being that even if people can afford the expense, the pressure and shame it caused others was something these takkanot/ decrees were trying to curb.

These types of institutions go back to the time of the Talmud. The Gemara in Moed Kattan states the following: Our Rabbis taught: Formerly, they would provide drinks to the house of mourners in the following manner: to the rich, in white glass [which was very expensive] and to the poor in colored glass. And the poor people were ashamed. The sages therefore instituted that all should be provided with drinks in colored glass out of deference to the poor.
Formerly, they would uncover the face of the rich [corpse] and cover the face of the poor because their face became blackened by famine. And the poor people were ashamed. The sages therefore instituted that all faces should be covered out of deference to the poor.
Formerly, they would carry out the rich [corpse] in a state bed and the poor on a common bier. And the poor people were ashamed. The sages therefore instituted that all should be carried out on a common bier out of deference to the poor…”” (Again, credit goes to Dr. Heshy H. Friedman, The Case Against Ostentation in Judaism, JLaw.com)

This is, by the way, why it is ideal to be buried in a plain wooden casket.

Although being wealthy is nothing to be ashamed of, on the contrary, it’s something, as we discussed yesterday, to aspire to, but being ostentatious, showing off one’s wealth – that is a real problem. We are responsible not only for how we treat others, but according to our tradition, we are responsible for the attitudes we inspire in others. And if me showing off my Rolex and Mercedes will make people jealous of me, that’s my problem, not just theirs. Even worse, what often happens is that others feel compelled to keep up with the Jone’s or the Klein’s, causing those who cannot afford it, not only shame, not only jealousy, but serious debt. And that is a real problem.

Now to create objective standards is rather difficult. To pinpoint what is ostentatious and what is not as it’s highly subjective. The standard of living shifts dramatically. In less than 50 years, the average house size in America has grown by 1000 feet. The smallest of houses in America are still tremendous when compared to a home in Israel. We also have to take into account that certain items are important to people for a whole host of reasons that are very difficult for us on the outside to appreciate. Some may feel like they need to go on awesome vacations based on their work-life, others feel the need for fancy clothes, others for food, and others for the latest phone. It’s hard to create standards and it’s completely unfair for us to judge.

But that doesn’t prevent us, as individuals, as a personal value, to hold back just a little, to think twice and question how others perceive our wealth, real or imaginary, before making a purchase. That’s a sensitivity we can all afford.

I should add, that our community, Ner Tamid, I believe is a beacon of light and a breath of fresh air in this regard. The culture of our shul is one of simplicity, of wealth being unimportant, of people not being judged by their clothing or belongings, and it’s not something to take for granted. We should take pride, a healthy pride, in that value, and not lose sight of it.

But it is hard to maintain. We’re surrounded by a culture of consumerism which is managed by a rather sophisticated set of algorithms. Google, Amazon, Facebook, they’re watching our every click, and setting up the perfect advertisement to pop up at just the right time. You have the latest psychological research going into every ad and every product, making sure that you feel you need to buy it. And it’s hard to overcome it. It’s hard to not feel like we do need more and more.

And this brings me to a final thought on wealth, a rather famous teaching of Ben Zoma in Pirkei Avos, Eizehu ashiri, who is wealthy, hasameiach b’chelko, one who is happy with what they have, which is of course, easier said than done. Where does this happiness come from? How do we become satisfied with our belongings? Our families? Our life?

The Sages in the Talmud suggest a rather insightful idea and that is that we have two internal systems that work in opposite directions; taavah, desire, and seviah, satisfaction. Feed one and it weakens the other.

Ein adam meis v’chatzi taavosov b’yado, a person dies without having satisfied even half of his or her desires. And that’s because the more we feed desire, the hungrier he becomes, the less satisfied we are.

And the same is true in the opposite direction. The more we slow down, the more we appreciate what we have, the less we want and the less we desire. The faculty of satisfaction grows every time we look at the beautiful trees we walk by every day and admire their beauty. Our sense of satisfaction every time we savor the flavors of the foods we eat. Satisfaction is enhanced every time you look at your children and admire them, a spouse and you focus on his or her qualities. Every time we take stock of the good in our lives, the more we enjoy it, and the more we’re satisfied with what we have.

There is an old Yiddish poem about an orange that was brought to a small, poor shtetel somewhere in Eastern Europe. The town-folk had never tasted, let alone seen an orange in their lives. And so when the orange was brought to town, everyone left work early that day. They gathered at the market place, and each and every person had a chance to hold and smell the orange. They admired its radiant color, they took in its powerful citrusy-sweet smell, and allowed their fingers to caress the smooth grooves of the fruit before passing it on to their friend.

The next day, they gathered again as the orange was peeled. They crowded together so they could catch the burst of juice as the peel was punctured for the very first time. Some of the peel was grated and a lucky few were able to go home with some orange zest. The remaining peels were chopped and then distributed among the community members so they could each make a tiny little batch of marmalade.

The next day, they gathered again. This was the grand finale. They all stood in silence as one woman delicately peeled apart each segment of the orange. The people admired the ingenuity and uniqueness of a fruit that needs no chopping or dividing, a fruit that’s readily available for sharing. They oohed and aahd as the sections were separated and a chosen few were given an orange piece of their own to eat, to savor and to enjoy.

 

Now let me tell you how I eat an orange. I absentmindedly peel it while talking to all of my children at the same time. The only thing I’m focusing on is to not get what I consider orange guck stuck in my fingernails. I toss the peels into the trash, and finish the orange before you could say, Tropicana. That’s it. What a lost opportunity for growing in my satisfaction.

I love Sukkos, I really do. First and foremost, it’s the great equalizer. There is no Sukkah-Ferrari; they’re all more or less all created equal. We all have the same wimpy pieces of wood that threaten to blow away every time a car drives by. Ostentatiousness is left at the door. Moreover, it’s a time to appreciate the simple things. On a rainy Sukkos like this one, it’s an opportunity to appreciate the fact that it’s not raining in our house. We have a house. Chances are our living room is more spacious than our Sukkah, isn’t that amazing! And it’s an opportunity to just look around the table and to see the people there who we care for, and who care for us; how fortunate we are!

May we grow in our sensitivity to those around us who may not have what we have and live our lives accordingly. And may we grow in our sensitivity to the many things that we, rich or poor, do have, and may G-d grant us all true wealth; parnassah, a good, steady, comfortable livelihood, and seviah, the ability to be satisfied with whatever it is we have.

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