Few aspects of parenting are more intractable than teaching our children to deal with disparities in lifestyle. Yet we must deal with this challenge, for such gaps, like the poor, will always be with us.
A society without wide disparities in income and lifestyle would be in many ways a more pleasant place to live. But that does not necessarily make it the ideal. Those societies with the widest income gaps also tend to be the greatest wealth producing societies for all. They unleash the power of human ambition, and not just towards wealth.
A rav in a good-sized community, without very many rich Jews, once expressed to me his doubts as to whether his community would ever produce any great talmidei chachamim. Members of the community lacked ambition, he said.
Ideally, differences in lifestyles between members of a community should be no problem. If we were successful in exemplifying the qualities of being sameach b’chelko (content with one’s portion) and conveying this precious middah to our children, income differences would be a matter of little concern.
But we are not. In an interview in these pages, Rabbi Yehudah Silman, one of the leading dayanim in Eretz Yisrael, said that jealousy is at least as great a problem within the Torah community as in the secular community, as a consequence of the tremendous financial stresses under which so many labor. That jealousy, he pointed out, is poisonous for our children: “When a child hears his parents talking enviously . . . about the neighbor whose construction they want to prevent, it destroys his soul. Such a child grows up with jealousy towards others, and it is a vicious cycle that keeps repeating itself.”
The quality of being sameach b’chelko is so highly honored by Chazal precisely because it is so hard to attain. Yet even as parents try to instill it in their children, they must also take note of human nature . I remember a poor mechanech describing to me what it was like to move from Eretz Yisrael to a very affluent North American community. In the latter, all the kids brought fruit juices to school as a matter of course – except, of course, for his, since providing a fruit juice every day for every child was beyond his means. In one instance, the pain of being the one without even brought one of his children to steal.
Recently, a Bais Yaakov school in Jerusalem separated all the girls from English-speaking homes into a separate class. I was appalled at the blatant discrimination when I first heard of it. (The matter has now been brought to Rav Elyashiv, and it appears the decision will be reversed.)
I wanted to understand what could have provoked such a decision in the first place, and I called a talmid chacham who has lived in Israel for many years. He explained that the principal is a wonderful person and educator, and that she had no choice: if she had not made the separation, all the native Israeli families would have fled the school for others nearby.
Why the horror at the English-speakers? Because many of the latter live at a much higher lifestyle than their Israeli counterparts. Israeli kollel families do not want their daughters exposed to a lifestyle far beyond their means out of fear that such exposure would cause their daughters to desire a standard of living far beyond what they can aspire to as kollel wives. Exposure to a higher standard of living constitutes for these parents a spiritual threat to their daughters.
Nor can the parents’ fears be easily dismissed. A wealthy man once came to visit Rav Chaim Kanievsky, He knocked on Reb Chaim’s door, and received a call to enter. When he did, he was shocked to see Reb Chaim learning at his shtender, in the middle of a circle of sleeping children. He immediately proposed to buy Reb Chaim a larger apartment.
Reb Chaim and his wife turned down the offer. But the man persisted. He went to visit Reb Chaim’s mother, the widow of the Steipoler Gaon, to seek her intervention. He was shocked when instead of being grateful, she told him that what he proposed was an act of cruelty. “There are thousands of avreichim in Bnei Brak who content themselves with their living situations because they know that Rav Chaim Kanievsky does not live any better than they do. If that were no longer true, they would lose that crucial menuchas hanefesh,” she explained.
From this story, we learn that there are responsibilities incumbent on those on the upper side of the income gap, and not just those below, who must content themselves with their portion. First and foremost, that means fulfilling one’s tzedakah obligations. Rav Shneur Kotler once commented as he entered a hall, in which many wealthy frum Jews were gathered, “If all those present just gave ma’aser, the monetary needs of our institutions would be met.” And he was talking about those whose giving dwarfs anything known in the secular world.
But those responsibilities also include – especially today when so many are in great financial distress – living in a way that does not incite jealousy or push people to spend money they do not have. We have added previously unknown simchas at the expense of both our time and money: the fancy vort in place of the traditional l’chaim at home for close family and friends; the extravagant bar mitzvah, at which the young man spends most of his time looking forlorn and sitting alone, while his father talks to his friends. A seudas mitzvah for his classmates, filled with singing, or for those family members and adults with a longstanding connection to the bar mitzvah bochur would mean much more.
Those who think that they are impressing others with over-the-top weddings should remember the Rebbe’s answer to the chazzan who told him that he struggled with feelings of pride knowing how his davening was bringing the whole shul to tears. The Rebbe gave him a cure: Turn around and see how they are laughing at you. Do we really want our vulgar excess to be the subject of scorn, at a time Torah institutions are going begging?
If those of means won’t cut back for themselves, let them do so for others. During a recent ad hoc conference of Agudath Israel of America activists to develop communal responses for dealing with the impact of the current financial crisis, one speaker mentioned that many Jews will do for their friend what they wouldn’t do for themselves. And today that means living with far less ostentation.
Only then can we break the escalating cycle of rising standards for simchos that have pushed so many families to the brink of financial ruin and beyond. True, no one should spend money they do not have. But those who do have should do everything possible not to tempt them or to increase their feelings of deprivation.
On both sides of the income gap, we all have a lot of work to do.
This article appeared in the Mishpacha on 19 November, 2008