Keep it Simple

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The World-to-Come is an upside down world (Bava Basra 10b): Those who were on top in this world on account of their wealth (Rashi ad loc.) are on the bottom, and those who were on the bottom in this world are elevated there.

Sometimes we can catch a glimpse of that upside down world in the here and now. Those of us who have made aliyah have witnessed something of the sort. Many who were in high prestige professions, like law, in America cannot work at anything near their previous level because of language barriers. On the other hand, many who were not in the sort of professions that were the traditional dream of every Jewish mother – e.g., plumbers, electricians, those who have worked in construction – find themselves with of plenty of well-paying work. I know at least one PhD. nuclear physicist who found he could do much better in Israel repairing washing machines and dryers.

And we are witnessing something of the same thing today. Many people who were pulling down large salaries in the financial industry now find themselves without a job, and possessing very specialized skills for which there is no current market. In the meantime, the plumbers and electricians still have plenty of work.

In short, we have no way of guaranteeing for ourselves, and certainly not for our children, any particular level of lifestyle. If we have learned one thing in recent months, it is that Hashem can take away all a person’s wealth in a flash.

But there is one thing that we can do help prepare our children for the vagaries of life: Teach them to live simply without feeling deprived. That is easier said than done in today’s consumer society, and after decades of constantly raising our children’s expectations.

The hard part is not so much the cutting back, but doing so without creating feelings of deprivation. Success depends on raising our level of ruchnios so that our children really feel that happiness does not come from possessions. Just because it is true doesn’t mean that it will be easy convincing our children. (One young mother recently described to me her children’s horrified look when they found that their supper meat balls were now filled with turkey.) And if we do not believe it ourselves, our chances of success are nil.

Once even secular Israelis understood that possessions do not bring happiness. Eli Livni, older brother of our Foreign Minister, told me last week: “In those days, we had one-tenth of what we have today, and we were ten times as happy.” In his autobiography, former Chief of Staff Gen. Moshe “Boogie” Ya’alon, describes his childhood in Kiryat Chaim. “We bought black bread, not white, because white cost a pruta more. At one point, we ate squash salad, “liver” made from squash, and jelly from squash because squash was the cheapest vegetable. Shoes were expected to last several years; we started wearing them when they were too big and wore them until we had long outgrown them. Nothing was wasted. My mother sewed clothes out of the sacks in which the sugar came.” Yet, he writes, “I didn’t know we were lacking anything.”

Today, even some chareidi families have forgotten this lesson. Our children assume that whatever is the “norm” will be theirs. A father bemoaned to me recently that his son expected, as a matter of course, that he would provide two buses for bochurim coming to his wedding. As far as the son was concerned, the discussion was closed with the observation “everybody does it,” regardless of his father’s financial capacity.

In a recent discussion with the directors of Mesilla, an organization devoted to helping thousands of Torah families learn to live within their budget, HaGaon Rav Aharon Leib Steinman stressed the necessity of getting away from this “everybody does it,” mentality. Just because everyone does it, Rav Steinman said, is no reason that we have to do it, and certainly no excuse to go into debt.

He pointed out, for example, that there is no halachic requirement to make shevah berachos every night in the week following a wedding, and certainly not fancy ones requiring large outlays on the hosts’ part. Ditto large aufrufs to which both extended families are invited and that just add another level of pressure on already overstressed families.

Does anyone who has seen the utter simplicity in which Rav Elyashiv, or Rav Steinman, or Rav Chaim Kanievsky lives imagine that their children were less happy as a consequence? If we look around our own neighborhoods, we will see that the happiest families are those of bnei Torah who live simply.

Many years ago, I remember hearing Rabbi Yechiel Jacobson describe a family that lives with the barest minimum of furniture in the house. One day the father, a big talmid chacham, comes home and announces a celebration, for which he has bought a special treat – a fresh baked loaf of bread. What was the cause of the celebration? The father found a teretz (solution) to a difficult Rambam. The family washes to eat the bread, the father says over his solution to the Rambam, and then he and all his sons start dancing with joy around the table.

That story brings out one of the crucial reasons why we must teach our children to be content with less, especially if they choose a life of long-term Torah learning. Without the ability to live within a limited budget, few will be able to learn Torah for a long time. The seven years of plenty appear to be over – at least for the time being. Those whose plans of learning indefinitely also go along with expectations of an apartment and a worry-free existence may be in for a big surprise.

In Israel, only those who are capable of making do with little and living away from the center of the country, where apartments are still affordable, can be confident of being able to learn long-term. That is one reason why maintaining kollelim on the periphery for those willing to give up creature comforts for learning is a high priority.

Enjoying learning – even being a top learner – will not be enough. Only those who cannot conceive of doing anything else and who are prepared to sacrifice in order to do so will succeed. And the ability to be able to make those sacrifices does not magically appear at 22 or 23. It has to be developed. The sooner we start the better.

This article appeared in the Mishpacha on 12 November, 2008

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5 Responses

  1. LOberstein says:

    I am blessed with a son in Kollel and a daugher in law who appreciates everything we do for them. She never ceases to thank me for whatever we do and she makes do with what she has and still opens their home to many guests. As far as I am concerned they are supporting me . It is a zechus to have a child whose delight is in learning day and night and whose home is a font of chesed. I would cut expenses on many things before I would deny them what they need.

  2. tzippi says:

    I’ve been saying this a lot lately, but here goes again: and there are many people who HAVE been living thriftily, who don’t bother keeping up with the Coheneses, and yet they’re sinking too. Then again, this is not the first time I’ve read an article by Rabbi Rosenblum along these lines, so I guess there are many people who can still cut down who need to hear the message.

  3. Garnel Ironheart says:

    May I also point out that much of the depression that plagues our society today comes from the sense of entitlement that comes with living amidst affluence.

    I know people living on social assistance who cannot afford their dailiy medications unless the government covers them, but have no trouble finding the money for cable TV, high speed internet, and cigarettes!

    How many children turn their noses up at food that 90% of the world’s population would snarf down eagerly if given half the chance?

    If we treat everything we have as a gift sent to us by the Kodosh Boruch Hu and realize that having too many gifts in this world deprive us of many in the Next, then maybe we will develop a better appreciation of what we have.

  4. Chaim Fisher says:

    This article should be published in every English forum in the Haredi world, and translated word-for-word into Hebrew and done likewise there.

    Perfectly written and perfectly explained, this is a point that we miss at our peril. Thank you Jonathan Rosenblum!

  5. smeddumnik says:

    Learning to be satisfied with less is good, but one must also learn how to earn a living–and to be satisfied with a life of work, even if it isn’t a high-status job. Thrift is good, thrift plus industry plus valuing things of REAL importance is better.