When you move from one home to another, how long does it take until you unpack the final box? Has that last box ever just remained packed, tape still in-tact, perhaps ready for the next move? What’s in there?!
A few weeks ago, much of our Rodeph Shalom staff moved to a different floor or to a different side of the hallway, into temporary office space, to allow for the next stages of renovation and construction. Although I am almost all unpacked, 3 boxes are still staring at me from the floor. I have to wonder: if I have survived for almost a month without their contents, how important could they be?
In an effort to teach simplicity and sustainability, Graham Hill, founder of LifeEdited, lives in an apartment, with over 1,000 square feet of functionality, in only 420 square feet. The bed folds into the wall, the coffee table becomes the dining room table, and a wall of drawers slides over to reveal guest beds folded into another wall… LifeEdited provides products, spaces and tips on how you can have more time, money and happiness with less stuff, less space and less waste. A simplistic, efficient approach to our things and to our space seems to be an obvious way to save time and money. But Graham Hill is also claiming that the simplicity of an edited life, can bring us more happiness.
How easy it is to become a slave to our space and to our belongings. Of course, there are many on our streets, and across our globe, who face poverty–a very different challenge. But I suspect that for many of us here, the challenge brought on by material things, has as much to do with abundance, as it does to do with lack.
Our sage Rabbi Hillel taught: “The more possessions, the more worries.” How will I organize my new belongings?–I need more shelving! How will I protect my belongings?–I need a security alarm! What if someone hacks my wireless system and discovers the code to my security alarm?–and so on.
It’s important to ensure that our basic needs are being met, and furthermore, there’s nothing wrong gleaning enjoyment from the material world; ours is not a tradition of self-denial. So when it comes to our relationship with our possessions, the question is one of balance. Does our involvement in things sometimes immerse us more deeply into the material, and less deeply into the spiritual? Does our tendency to complicate our lives, turn us away from a clearer perspective?
Mussar, Jewish tradition’s study of character development, teaches: if you anchor yourself in the ikar–in the essence–of the things or space you need– if you perceive that essence, then you know, what in your life really matters.*
The 18th century rabbi known as Vilna Gaon divides the practice of simplicity into 3 levels.
Level 1: Endeavor to feel satisfied with little, and do not chase unnecessary material things. Do not chase unnecessary material things? Just sit in the doctor’s office waiting room and glance at the fashion magazine, drive on 95 and see the billboards for the new cars, or walk down Walnut Street and peak into the Apple Store window. When you look up again from the magazine, the billboard, the store window, do you feel grateful for what you have?! or lacking for what the model has? We hardly need to chase anything. In a world bombarded with images of what we should want, the Vilna Gaon’s challenge is counter-cultural!
Simplicity practice level 2: Be happy with what you have. Certainly nurture your ambition; we need drive in order to create, and to do good in this world. The question is one of balance. The Talmud teaches: One who grabs too much, grabs nothing.
Simplicity practice level 3: Feel that you have everything. When it comes to possessions, you could not possibly want anything more. This most advanced level of simplicity practice guides us towards ultimate gratitude.
The Vilna Gaon’s practice of simplicity–Feel satisfied with what you have, be happy with what you have, and feel that you have everything–has the potential to help anchor you in the ikar–in the essence–of the things or space you need. If you perceive that essence, then you know, what in your life really matters.
Last week, a congregant who is mourning the death of his father, shared an insightful eulogy. With his permission, I share some of his words with you:
He says: “He was simple, my father. Work, Family, Food.”
After describing his father’s daily routine and work ethic, he adds: “I don’t know about the rest of you, but I constantly feel myself being trapped by the world of consumerism and status. What is my house worth? How good is my kid’s school? What kind of car do I drive? My father didn’t care about clothes, or cars, or fancy accommodations. His only goals in life were to love his wife without question, support his kids as best he could, and to get a hot meal every night.”
Our congregant shares the lessons his father taught by example: “Be thankful for what you have. Don’t worry about what the guy next to you has. Love your wife. Provide for your family. Work hard. Don’t waste time. Try your best.”
He goes on “He didn’t have a single reason to worry or complain. What a wonderful gift it must be to look at the world and be able to say, “You can keep all of that. I’m good with what I’ve got, right here. The old saying goes, “The grass is always greener.” But for my father, the grass under his feet was just fine with him.” End quote.
In his own way, our congregant’s father lived the Vilna Gaon’s practice of simplicity–Feel satisfied with what you have, be happy with what you have, and feel that you have everything. With such clarity about the essence of what he needed, he knew, what in his life really mattered.
Our Torah, rich with illustrations about the diverse character traits we might pursue, this week, offers us the model of Isaac. Notice, there is no Andrew Lloyd Weber musical about Isaac. And you should ask Cantor Frankel about this year’s youth theater production — also—not about Isaac. The dramas that surround Isaac’s life involve his relatives or rehash his father’s work. But, a simple man, Isaac himself has very little in the way of stand-out moments. He loves his wife. He provides for his family. He tries his best.
In these simple roles, Isaac discovers his ikar, his essence, in this week’s Torah portion, Toldot. Isaac’s wife Rebekah orchestrates the drama that will bring Jacob, the younger of their twin sons, to Isaac for the blessing. Isaac simply waits to receive his son.
Then, Isaac has his moment. He says, “Come close and kiss me my son.” And Isaac gives Jacob his innermost blessing. Innermost. This blessing, Isaac’s legacy which will continue his family’s covenant with God, is his innermost. Torah commentator Nachum Sarna teaches: “Isaac summons from the very depths of his soul all the vitality and energy at his command to invoke the blessing.” Perhaps, our most simple of patriarchs perceives his innermost, his essence, and he knows, what in his life really matters.
This Shabbat, may we reach inward to perceive a clearer understanding of our own, innermost.
May we endeavor to feel satisfied enough, happy enough, with what we have, that we reach a deep sense of gratitude.
And may we anchor ourselves in the ikar–in the essence–of what we need, that we might discover, what in our lives really matters.
*Source for this nugget and for Vilna Gaon citations: Everyday Holiness, Alan Morinis.