On a trip to the Touro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island, one can read the names of the founding fathers, along with their job titles. One Shul member had been financier to George Washington. The others had equally fancy titles. They obviously were not negligent in their Judaism, these Shul founders. After all, they banded together to form this glorious Shul. Yet, most of their children are gone from the ranks of the Jewish people, swallowed up in the great American melting pot. Looking back, you can easily see Jacob the Financier would have been better off being Yankel the Shoemaker in Kiev. At least then, his pride of being Jewish would have been of paramount importance…and he would have stood a chance of having Jewish children and grandchildren.
In the greater picture of life, things we find important are so irrelevant. While in Yerushalayim, I went to look at the ruins of some Churban-era homes. Most were the same. There was one, however, which had the most stunning mosaic-tiled floor and a built-in stone table. The tile floor, imported from heaven- only-knows-where, with the built-in stone table were in ruins with the other ruins. The inhabitants of this home, like all other homes, probably had been killed or been taken captive. What use was their tiled floor?
Before WWII there were Jews who prided themselves on their mansions, their estates, their Swiss bank accounts, and their art collections. After years in concentration camps, no survivor felt any different than the other survivors. Tragedy is a great equalizer. Time shaves down all immaterial differences. Will your grandchildren give one iota of care about what car you drove when you were their age? Think of what you know about your great-grandparents. The stories about their personalities are what remains.
At the end of our lives, no-one will eulogize us (hopefully) with descriptions of our clothing, hair and waist size. Why? Because, quite frankly, it is meaningless, irrelevant to who we are as people. Therefore, one must wonder why so much time and effort is poured into materialism.
Rabbi Mutty Berger tells a story about a little boy who went with his mother to an exhibit about Jewish life in Europe. The lad looked at a picture of some enlightened European Jews who lived in high fashion one hundred years ago. You know the look — cutaway coat, top hat, spotless gloves, shiny shoes… “Mommy, look how funny their clothing are,” he exclaimed with a giggle. His mother looked over, smiled and said, “That’s what old fashioned clothing looked like.” The boy moved on, looking at more pictures. Soon he called to his mother again, “Look at their clothing,” and pointed to a picture of a frum Polish Jew, complete with beard, hat, payos. The mother glanced over and said, “That’s the way Hasidim dress.” If you would have told the enlightened Jew his clothing would be called old-fashioned whereas the “backwards” frum Jew would always look the same, he would not get it.
Did you ever take out your parents’ albums? Look well at the pictures. They thought they were dressing in high style. And we kids snicker at their looks. Your kids will snicker, too. Styles change. Values don’t. Why trade in a timeless piece for a fleeting in-style two seconds? Do you think in any other time, other than our generation, those fashions will becalled pretty. (Admit it, most are quite ugly, even in our own times!)
Frau Sara Schneirer was a simple seamstress who had great dreams for our people. When she went collecting money for her school, a great many of the people she visited thought her “backwards,” “uncultured” “so out of style”. Yet, do you know the names of any of the “in” people of that generation. Even those of the biggest mansions, their name is not remembered by our generation. Sara Schneirer is the one whose name became important to later generations because her deeds affected history. Only actions last.
There was a German man named Schindler who used money to buy the lives of Jewish people. He saved many from being killed by the Nazis. However, after the war was over, Schindler cracked up a bit, walking about throwing money around. He was devastated at the sight of his money, wishing he had spent it to save more lives. Will we be doing something similar toward the end of our lives, disgusted at what we could have accomplished, saddened we had traded in those opportunities for worthless material comforts?
Yosef dreamed of stars and moon. Paroh dreamed of cows. His ministers, of food they dealt with. You can see the difference in people in what they dream. Do you dream of great heights, or of getting a bigger house, nicer outfit, snazzier car? Nevuchadnezzer in his dream has a vision of a humongous statue of all precious metals, of the worship of material things. Shlomo HaMelech, on the other hand, in his dream requests a good, understanding heart. He wants to be a good person in his dreams…which dreams translate into reality.
I saw a great saying, “Even if you win the rat race, you’re still a rat!” Another car. Another vacation. The most in-style clothing. But who are you? What have you done? Where have you left your mark on the world?
Rabeinu Hakadosh was the spiritual leader of the Jews during the times when the Oral Torah was written. He was a very wealthy man. Yet, at the end of his life, he was able to raise his ten fingers heavenward and make this declaration, “Even my smallest finger did not take pleasure from this world.” Hogwash, we might think, considering that we’re told of the lavish meals Rabeinu Hakadosh was able to prepare. Yet, think again. Pleasure from this world means sucking out the physical pleasures without any spirituality. That, Rabeinu HaKadosh never, ever did. Every bit of physicality was used as a tool for spirituality. We can have the good things in life, just as tools to get to more spirituality.
You have a car? Use it to ferry folks to places they need to get to and your car has just been transformed into a tool. A nice home? Throw open its doors to the poor. Think of all the material things as an extra bonus method of gaining greater heights in spiritual growth. Donna Gracia, one of the wealthiest women in the times of the Spanish Inquisition, was able to, with her wealth, force governments into helping Jews. I’ve read up much about her, and still have not found any minute details about her palatial home. I’m sure she had one. Yet, what is recorded for eternal history is her hospitality, that she would easily have seventy people per meal sitting around her table. She must have had one spacious home to accommodate them all. Her wealth made a major difference in the world, becoming a spiritual force, rather than empty, frivolous physicality.
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