For the week ending 26 November 2011 / 28 Heshvan 5772

Passing Through

by Rabbi Yirmiyahu Ullman -
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From: Jordan

Dear Rabbi,

What is Judaism’s view of how much a person may “indulge” in things of this worldly a nature? I’m not really asking about pursuing physical pleasures, but rather obtaining material possessions. Is there anything wrong with acquiring material possessions just for the sake of having belongings if that makes one feel good?

Dear Jordan,

In general, Judaism’s view about things of a material nature is to be minimalist. This our Sages expressed in teachings such as, “Learn to be satisfied with little” or “Who is truly wealthy, one who [accepts, and is therefore] happy with his portion”.

The basic reason for this is that Judaism stresses that a person endeavor to be engaged with things of a spiritual nature, i.e. Torah study, performance of the mitzvot, prayer, and character refinement – all things that are viewed as elevating one’s spiritual essence which ultimately acquire for one a place and things of real value in the World to Come.

However, since one’s basic needs must be fulfilled to sustain life in order to be able to engage in these things, and what’s more, according to Judaism, it is precisely through one’s use of the physical world that one acquires the spiritual, for this reason securing material benefit is unavoidable, and even desirable. Thus our Sages also taught, “If there’s no flour there’s no Torah”.

This dichotomy of stressing the spiritual yet encouraging the physical results in a balanced approach of endeavoring to acquire materially only what’s needed in order to procure one’s spiritual well-being, while ensuring that one’s use of the physical is not one of material indulgence but rather directing it towards a higher purpose.

That being said, people are on different levels and at different places in their spiritual journey. Therefore, different people “need” varying degrees of material possessions. Some need more based on position, others based on society, and yet others based on age or personality. If these factors extend need beyond the basic essentials, the main thing is to be careful not to go too far, and to try one’s best to honestly direct the “excess” toward one’s service of G-d as well. So, for example, even one who just feels better and happier to have certain belongings (within reason) could excusably do so, if that contentment actually enhances his ability to be observant.

Another example of such excusable excess is recorded in the Talmud regarding Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi, who is described as being fabulously wealthy, and who always had even out-of-season delicacies on his table. This was acceptable since his being the Exilarch representing the Jewish community to the non-Jewish authorities required him to receive world leaders on matters of great import, and it was necessary for the benefit the Jewish people for him to maintain an appropriate display of wealth and honor.

However, the Talmud also relates that upon his death, Rebbi (as he is referred to) raised his hands and declared that he had no enjoyment from the world with any of his ten fingers. One explanation of this seeming contradiction to his lifestyle is that he derived no personal benefit from his wealth — rather it was enjoyed only by those he was obligated to entertain. Another explanation is that, even if he did eat out-of-season strawberries (or benefit from any other of the trappings of wealth) while receiving visiting dignitaries and emissaries, he did not indulge in the pleasure for himself, but rather intended that his deriving benefit from these things was only for the service of G-d and the benefit of the Jewish People.

Just as Rebbi’s degree of wealth was unique, so was his ability to avoid indulging in it. Most people, however, for all intents and purposes, are rather encouraged to take a minimalist, albeit individualized, approach to amassing wealth and material possessions. And this is exemplified by a story regarding the great Chafetz Chiam:

Once a certain wealthy man en route visited the rabbi’s house while traveling through town. He was astounded by the stark simplicity of his home and furnishings (or lack thereof). When he commented as such, the Chafetz Chaim remarked to his visitor that, given the size of his suitcase, his guest also lacked belongings. The man exclaimed, “What’s the comparison, I’m on a temporary journey and only take only what’s necessary for my trip. But I’m heading home to a mansion replete with a multitude of rooms and furnishings!” To this the rabbi replied, “I too am only passing through and fear being weighed down by too much baggage. But I also look forward to such a homecoming as you describe!”

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