By Vicky O’Brien
MyLife Essay Contest 2017
Searching for the proper attitude toward acquisition, using lessons from leaving Egypt and Chassidus
Depending on the context, hoarding may be either a problem or a necessary resort. We live in a consumeristic society which encourages buying and collecting. Animals, humans included, have hoarding instincts to survive harsh times like winter or famine. But such acquisition can be the key to downfall, as well. For instance, monkeys can be trapped by food or shiny objects being placed in a narrow mouth trap. When they grab the food or shiny object and make a fist, they are trapped by their own instinctive greed. Learning to let go would free them. So too, humans can learn to let go to avoid being trapped by their possessions and excess baggage.
In this essay, I will use Torah and Chassidis to help determine the difference between beneficial excessive acquisition, hoarding and letting go of superfluous things. In the book of Shemot, for instance, we can see examples of positive storing practices. Yosef’s wisdom in storing seven years of grain saved both the Egyptians and the Israelites. Additionally, the Jews left Egypt with not only matzah, but the wealth of Egypt, which they were able to use in the building of the Mishkan. In Bereshit, we can see a contrast between Yaakov and his brother Esau. Yaakov returned for his vessels and said that he had everything. Yaakov was a positive Jewish role model for using everything he had in a positive and holy way. Conversely, Esau’s statement that he had “a lot” shows a negative attitudinal lesson towards things. Esau was not satisfied with what he had and wanted more. Yaakov was satisfied with what he had and everything he had was used for a purpose. He had an integrated, full life and was satisfied with his lot (sameach bhelko, pirkei avot).
Using Chassidic ideas of elevating sparks of holiness, we can develop a positive attitude toward how to possess objects. We can learn to use restraint from negative actions and objects(itkafia) and transformation into positive(ithapkcha), paralleling the struggle between the animal and G-dly soul. Repentance and bittul, humility, will also be examined. Finally, a series of personal questions have been developed to seek meaning in our acquisitions and restraint from excess.
Excess Baggage can be Physical, Intellectual, Spiritual, or Emotional.
The Jews had to leave Egypt to develop faith. Both matza and manna were basic foods that cultivated faith by discouraging waste. The manna in the desert could not be stored overnight. Matza was baked quickly and represents humility (bittul) since it did not rise. We, too, in this modern day, have to leave our personal Egypt, leave our personal limitations, by overcoming tendencies towards excessive accumulation.
The search for balance between letting go and holding on is a challenge and opportunity that can be clarified and enhanced by applying Chassidic ideas. The skill of simplifying can be developed through Torah and practical Chassidus ideas:
(1) Restraint – Itkafya
(2) Transformation– Ithopkcha
(3) Elevating or refining sparks- Bior Nitutzot
(4) Repairing the world- Tikun Olam
These concepts can be used to develop a Jewish framework for personal evaluation.
(5) The struggle between the animal and G-dly soul
(6) Humility or emptying the self – Bittul
(7) Regret over mistake and then changing in future – Teshuva
(8) Order – Seder
(9) Emptying vessels to receive blessings
can all be applied.
Perkei Avot says the wealthy man is “happy with his lot”. We learn in Bereshit that Yaakov had everything – kol – he needed. Everything that he had was important to him and had a purpose. From this one may deduce that he did not have extra unnecessary things in his possession. He crossed the Jordan River to retrieve “small vessels” that he had left behind. Conversely, Esau had “a lot”– rav, and he wanted more. What he had did not satisfy him. Yaakov’s both humble and celebratory attitude elevated the divine sparks in what he had by using objects in a holy lifestyle. Meam loez, midrash says that the vessels he retrieved were oil jars. Oil is used to spread light which is a symbol for Torah and goodness. In this way, Yaakov merited to have twelve righteous sons who became the Twelve tribes of Israel.
A story from Chabad Chassidis illustrates the transformation of the mundane into holiness. The Chabad Alter Rebbe received as a gift a silver snuff box, however, he did not use snuff. He transformed the box by using it’s shiny lid as a mirror to check his head tefillin. In doing so, he transformed an object of the animal soul, and transformed it into an object of holiness. Additionally, the mirror is a symbol of reflection. We learn from the Alter Rebbe, the author of the Tanya, that it is important to reflect on things as well as ideas.
There is a parable about diamonds and schmaltz (chicken fat). A poor man sails off to seek his fortune. He gets shipwrecked on a beach filled with diamonds. He joyfully fills his pockets with diamonds, but learns that diamonds are not valued on this island. The currency is schmaltz, chicken fat. He has to work hard for schmaltz and forgets that diamonds are valuable. When he has enough schmaltz he sails home, bringing some extra schmaltz for his family. He forgets to bring home diamonds. When he proudly shows his family the schmaltz, they are upset. Schmaltz is not valuable to his family. The schmaltz and distractions represent temporary physical pleasures. We become so distracted and caught up in other value systems, that we may forget about the Jewish diamonds and treasures. You can’t take physical wealth with you when you die. Kohelet, psalm 49 and basi lgani talk about these concepts. Collecting Jewish knowledge, mitzvoth and relationships is a privilege, an opportunity and a lasting treasure.
There is a story about Reb Zusia and a wealthy traveling chassid. The wealthy chassid was sent by his Rebbe to see Reb Zusia for advice about handling troubles. The wealthy chassid travels to visit Reb Zusia. He knocks at the door of a small shack and thinks he has made a mistake. A frail, elderly Chassid opens the door to his one room home. There was a table made of a board and two chairs with an old, worn siddur and tefillin on it. The wealthy chassid told Zusia that his Rebbe had sent him there to learn about how to handle trouble. Zusia invited him in and he offered to share his meager meal of bread and water. But Zusia said he couldn’t understand why the Rebbe had asked him to give advice on trouble as he “never experienced any problems”. The wealthy chassid learned very valuable lessons from Reb Zusia. Zusia made full and holy use of any possessions he had. He understood that Zusia was so grateful for what he had that he wasn’t even aware of his poor state of affairs. Zusia was collecting spiritual diamonds, not possessions. He was happy with what he had.
The struggle between disorder – entropy – and order is real and continuous. The principal of entropy is that objects tend to be in a state of disorder unless a counter force is applied. Order takes energy. Our Jewish tradition values order, or seder. The seder is the word for the ritual Pesach meal during which we tell the history of the Jewish nation coming out of enslavement. The Haggada tells the story in a specified order that is summarized at the beginning. We use the word b’seder colloquially as meaning “okay”. When everything is “in order” we are “okay”.
We can learn to elevate our possessions, rather than be trapped by them. Before we allow excess possessions into our homes, we can question the need for them. We can also question the objects already in our lives to see if we should continue to keep them.
I have developed a series of helpful questions to ask:
1) Why do I want this?
2) Is this useful to me?
3) Is there someone I can give this to who would benefit from it?
4) Does this bring me joy?
5) Does this reflect my values?
6) Does this improve my relationship with G-d?
7) Does this improve my relationship with my family?
8) Is this healthy for me?
9) Can this improve my life?
10) How can I elevate or transform this object?
11) How can this object elevate or transform me?
12) Will I miss this if I don’t have it?
When we question the objects in our lives, we can reflect on our values. We can pause and think. We can try to get out of the collecting and holding trap encouraged in our society by reflecting, restraining and letting go.
An important concept in receiving blessings is that of “empty vessels”. A vessel of any sort cannot be filled if it is already full. The prophet Elisha could only bless the bereft & impoverished widow when she bought him empty vessels. She brought him many empty vessels and he was able to fill them all with one small jar of oil. Similarly, the small jars that were so precious to Yaakov, were refilled by G-d when he used it to anoint the stones that would form the future Mizbeach. Both the widow and Yaakov were examples of bittul – humility. Both were able to receive the blessings of oil only when they had emptied their “vessels” – emptied themselves of pride.
Ego blocks blessings. If we empty ourselves of ego, we can receive knowledge and blessings. Our houses are compared to miniature temples and our tables to altars. If we clear and clean them, we are doing important physical and spiritual avoda. Teshuva, regret and change, can be applied to accumulation of sin and accumulation of stuff. When we purge and cleanse our lives of the harmful and unnecessary, we are doing important physical and spiritual work. We are more able to focus on the important things with less clutter. With a clearer space, we are better able to receive and appreciate our blessings.
Pesach is soon and I will work hard at restoring order in my cluttered life. My kitchen table, symbolizing my personal misbeach(altar), became so cluttered that there was barely room to eat. I am working on clearing it and will resume with more motivation after completing this essay. I can give many more examples, but will not clutter this paragraph with them. My kitchen table is an heirloom from my grandmother who had many seders at it. It is my avoda (service, work) to clear and clean it so it can become a holy place again. Similarly this essay is my avoda to try to inspire myself and others to clean for pesach and all year to clear the clutter.
Many of us have issues with too much clutter in our lives. With bittul & teshuva we find the clear path in the mess. Our ultimate goal should not be to acquire as much as we can, but to find ways to elevate the objects we have and transform them for holy purpose. This is a true Tikkun Olam. Clearing our vessels for blessings and focusing on what is important is a high level spiritual avoda. We can find happiness (simcha), and peace (shalom) by determining what is useful and meaningful. We can alleviate anxiety by clearing our houses, and eliminating the unnecessary. In this pursuit, we can try to find balance between holding on and letting go.