Spiritual Materialism

The winners of the sectioned-plate giveaway are announced at the bottom of the post, so if that’s all you’re here for, scroll on down!

It’s really amazing what you can get used to living without.  Like the time our oven door was broken and I had to cook everything on the stovetop until it was fixed.  I discovered the deliciousness of chicken prepared in a pot, which I may not have ever tried if I hadn’t been forced to do so.

Or like how we don’t have a microwave.  For a couple years there was simply no space in my kitchen for one, so I dealt with it.  Then, once we had space, the microwave only worked for a couple months before breaking.  Of course.

Since I’d become used to warming things up in the oven or on the stovetop, we just never replaced it.  The only time I long for a microwave is when my coffee has become cold (which, really, is quite often now that I think about it, but not enough of a reason to get another microwave).

Something which I’ve done without for about four-and-a-half years is a dishwasher.  Well, a machine dishwasher.  Obviously, I have been the dishwasher myself.  With my hands.

see how that's done?

See how I did that?  And ftr, that is an old picture.  I am not currently expecting (that’s how rumors get started, people!).

When we bought the house, there was a dishwasher, but it was not kosher.  When we asked our Rav, he recommended replacing the whole thing.  So it became a very large drying rack for a time.  (There are some opinions that you can make a dishwasher kosher by replacing the racks.  It depends on the dishwasher, I think.  Certainly ask your Local Orthodox Rabbi before acting). 

I’d been washing my dishes by hand for long enough that I didn’t mind waiting a little longer for a dishwasher.  There certainly were enough other things going on with the house to warrant waiting.  Yes, there are (almost) always dirty dishes on my counter, and the washing takes up a good amount of my time, and I certainly excelled at procrastinating doing them.  But all in all, I wasn’t resentful about it.  It wasn’t crushing me under the burden of housework.  It just was what it was.  You can get used to an awful lot of things.

The end of an era

Last week, a dishwasher came, was installed and used.

It’s incredible.

yes, that good.

yes, that good.

Interestingly, I found I had developed a certain kind of pride about my ability to “rough it.”  Yes, I know that I was in no way actually roughing anything, but I felt proud about the fact that I could do without a microwave, or even a dishwasher.  That I could live simply.

There’s a mishnah in Pirkei Avos which extols living in simplicity.  It states “the more possessions, the more worry (2:8).”  And boy, have I found that to be true.  I experienced that worry with my first sheitel, with new pairs of shoes (that first scuff is just so disheartening), with anything new, really.

While Judaism praises simplicity, it doesn’t require us to go live in a shack in the woods and pump our own water (thankfully).  What it does mean, I think, is to take the materialism that we have and to use it for a purpose.  So, not materialism for materialism’s sake.  More like materialism for mitzvos‘ sake.

Now, I suspect the definition of healthy materialism is wildly subjective.  Different people need different levels of physical comfort.  There’s a famous story about the Chofetz Chaim, when a rich donor from another town came to the great rabbi’s house.  While there, he noticed the extremely spare furnishings.  The ensuing conversation went something like this:

Donor: “Where’s your furniture?”

Chofetz Chaim: “Where’s yours?”

Donor:  “What do you mean?  I’m just passing through here.”

Chofetz Chaim:  “I’m just passing through as well.”

The lesson of the story, as I’ve been taught, is to acknowledge that we are merely passing through this world, and all the material possessions we acquire aren’t coming with us.  It’s a perspective thing.

The Chofetz Chaim was perhaps the holiest man of his generation (it was a pretty amazing generation, really), so he could totally do the whole living with nothing thing.  He was genuinely and wholly plugged into the spiritual reality of the world, and that’s amazing.  We absolutely need people like that in the world, and I hope that I can continue to strive to be more connected spiritually.

So I should sell all my furniture?

Don’t do that.  It’s not necessarily a bad thing to still want nice living room furniture.  I think the important thing is keeping it in perspective and finding the authentic balance of eschewing and embracing materialism.  But I hadn’t quite internalized that until very recently.

For the first time since college, pretty much, home decorating is actually something which could apply to me.  Most of our furniture has been either been a hand-me-down, something I got in college, or something quick from Target (though I really do like some of their furniture).  With a house, I found myself being thrust into a world of dining room sets, living room furniture and lawn care.

There are magazines, websites, stores.  Basically, it’s a whole other world of marketing and consumerism that I hadn’t even realized existed.  Kind of exciting and kind of scary.  My initial reaction was “Stay away!  Stay away!  You must resist getting sucked into the black hole that is home decorating!!!!”

La la la la I CAN'T HEAR YOU

La la la la I CAN’T HEAR YOU

This was the point when I realized that I had been feeling proud, or even a little superior at the fact that I was still using a couch which was handed down to me from my parents after it was handed down to them by my father’s first cousin (thanks, Diane!).

Yikes.

Shortly after that realization, I was fortunate to have a conversation with a friend about the role of decorating in a Jewish home.  It became clear that I hadn’t really thought about what level would be authentic for me.  I grew up in a very nicely decorated house, simple but warm and inviting.  My parents have a healthy attitude toward materialism, fortunately.

But I also deeply respect the families I’ve known who truly live simply and have likely never purchased a copy of Country Living.  And while I am impressed at their ability to use their possessions solely for mitzvos, I realized that my own home will have to be what works for me and my family, and it may not look exactly like their home, and that’s totally okay.

And now for the winners!

This was such a fun giveaway and I so enjoyed reading everyone’s anecdotes!  Here are the winners.  I’ve already emailed you, so please respond within 48 hours with your address so I can get the plates out to you!  Once I get all the addresses I will send out the plates.

  • Rebecca who said:  I was Vaearay surprised last week when my 2 in a week year old ate pickled brisket and LOVED it! But then again, he also liked plain salt. Lol.
  • Penina who said:  My oldest, who’s pretty picky, surprised us by asking for “green” (pesto) on her pasta. I had given her plain, as usual. We mixed some “green” in and she finished the whole plate, and even asked for seconds! My second LOVES spicy foods, even ones that border on too hot for me.
  • Malky who said:  My 2 year old actually likes snap peas? she likes to take the little green pieces out and eat then.
  • Jennifer who said:  My son ate salmon with dill rice the other day and had quite a big portion and i was KVELLING!
  • Estee who said:  My kids LOVE chicken and steak. We love using sectioned plates for dinner!
  • Dina who said:  Today, my little guy asked for a green bean that I was trimming and proceeded to eat it raw. I thought he would just throw it on the ground and walk away.
  • Elisheva who said:  One of my discriminating palates who subsists mostly on peanut butter, pretzels and grapes ate schnitzel on Shabbos!
  • Tali who said:  My 10-month-old eats just about anything (poo poo poo). Today I discovered his love for green olives!
  • Chana Esther who said:  My kids all love sushi.

May the dinnertime fun commence!  And may the odds be ever in your favor!

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37 thoughts on “Spiritual Materialism

  1. Okay I’m going to really work on my midos today, and strengthen my character trait of being okay with the fact that I did not win the sectioned plates. I mean it’s really fine you know. I can totally do without them. Right? I have to learn to make do with less fancy stuff in my life. Regular plates may be less convenient but hey I’m trying to stretch my spirituality muscles! Thanks so much for making me not win!! :)

  2. “Sameach b’helko,” happy with his portion. That’s what I try to remember when I see something that I just have to have. We need to be role models for our children and help them to distinguish between wants & needs.

    Also, I love the phrase “materialism for mitzvot”.

  3. Interesting thoughts! I think materialism is a good thing if you really enjoy it. ;-) I don’t mean constantly buying lots of stuff that you throw away two weeks later, I mean making your home nice so that you love being in it. Or having clothes that you enjoy, or getting in a wonderful mood when you look at the 30 beautiful pairs of shoes you own (that you never wear, except for one pair of grungy sneakers that you wear every day of the year). I’m sure joy in life and in earthly things is something G’d likes (and I know what G’d likes, remember? :-D)

    • You’re right that we’re supposed to take pleasure in the beautiful things of this world (hello, the Alps!), but not let ourselves get carried away with it. I guess the most beautiful things of all are the things we do in the service of G-d, you know? But there’s definitely a concept of using beautiful objects to do mitzvos. I’ve seen some gorgeous menorahs. Just gorgeous.

      • Yeah, you should enjoy beautiful things, knowing that this is not the meaning of life, that’s what I have figured out so far. (I’m not so sure about the beautiful shoes, though…) I know a few stories about very religious great-grandparents who found it sinful to go to the theatre, especially on Sundays, because you might have fun there, and fun = sin. And things like that. I think it wouldn’t make sense that we live in the world if we didn’t enjoy “worldly” things. Without forgetting to serve G’d, of course.

        • We are certainly in a different generation, absolutely. And there are lots of amazing things to enjoy, but I think the older generation was more finely attuned to worldly things which may have had a negative spiritual component. We’re a bit desensitized at this point.

          And I hear you on the shoes. :)

  4. I love everything about this post! As you know, I am having to learn how to live with less, albeit in a different way. But living with fewer things is always best. I’m glad you are reconsidering your attitude toward decorating. A room should bring you joy, like all things. We get confused when we think joy has to put us on the poorhouse!

  5. Do you want to be impressed…my husband and I don’t own smart phones…hows that for living without? (anyone else out there?). I refuse to be connected 24/7 and my husband is really anti technology anyway. He only recently started texting.

    • Kol hakavod! I have several friends who do not own smartphones, and my husband does not have one either (I have never texted him. And our relationship has not suffered for it, haha). I succumbed about a year ago, I think. Our CD player broke, I wanted something with iTunes and after viewing some options, decided to just get the phone. While it certainly has many conveniences, the always-connected part is a formidable challenge.

      • Me too! Me too! No smartphone, no microwave. (I had one, but didn’t replace it when it broke – I found it scary, somehow.) And today I went to work and forgot to take my cellphone, for the first time. And I survived! Even my kid (who I couldn’t call and ask if everything was OK) survived! I still can’t believe it. (I’ll go and look at all my shoes so I can settle down.)

  6. Materialism for mitzvos really hit home for me when we bought a minivan (eek!! But with twins, we really didn’t have a choice bc when my family comes to visit, we need to all fit in one vehicle) and I saw my new license plate: 613-KRM All I could think of was “Here’s my mitzvahmobile!! May Hashem let me use this car to do many mitzvos!!”

  7. Just to set the record straight….Your father and I are first cousins! Our fathers were brothers. Now ,this shiksa is a bit confused about the Kosherness of the dishwasher. Can’t you just run the sanitizing cycle and bingo, it’s a brand new entity?

    • Oh, you’re right! Amanda and I are the second cousins. Duh. I have corrected the mistake.

      As for the dishwasher, I’m not an expert, but I know things get complicated when you have really hot water in contact with non-kosher food and materials like the rubber coating of the dishwasher racks, or plastic. Since this exact area of Jewish law is beyond the knowledge of my husband and I, we asked our Rabbi, who is far more well-versed in these topics.

  8. This is a great post. I’ve found that the more I stay away from stores, the less I want. And the less I want, the more I want to clear out my house and strip it down to bare bones. And the more I get rid of, the happier I am with what I have. Which prevents me from getting to full-on bare bones – once I’m happy with what I have, I stop throwing things out.

    There are a few things I know I have excess of, and my husband thinks I’m crazy. Like enough dishes and glasses to feed 20 (I’d really love service for 24, but I was pushing it to get 20). The thing is, we regularly run out of clean plates and glasses (the problem with dishwashers is forgetting to run them). We host our family most years for Thanksgiving and/or Christmas (I’m not Jewish but I think you’re cool anyway) and usually have more than 20 people during those times. We could just as easily wash more often or use paper plates when family comes, but the real dishes are nice and I’ve proven that they’re worth having.

    However, I shudder at the thought of not having a microwave. I have two and both get used on a daily basis! We got one as a wedding gift and our house has one built in. Twice, I’ve lent my extra to my brother when he was without anything to cook with. I missed that second microwave so much while he had it! Which proves your last point – that my home has to work for my family and yours for yours.

  9. I love this, and having been thinking about the same things a lot. My challenge is that I LOVE decorating (I’m into artsy/creative/aesthetic things) and I have to work on myself not to get too wrapped up in it. I try to remind myself that I’m decorating my home NOT to “wow people” but to have a comfortable and happy environment for my family to spend time with. And the more I think about it from that perspective, the more I’m happy with what I have and not frustrated with what I can’t afford just yet.

    And you will love the dishwasher–we were so thankful that ours had stainless steel racks and could be kashered!

    • I was at Target the other day and saw a piece of furniture which was even more perfect than the one I had in my kitchen already (and is, oh, four months old?). experienced regret (regret!) for buying the piece in my kitchen. I then realized that it’s going to be a pretty constant test to be happy with what I have. There’s always something nicer/more perfect out there!

      And thanks for the vote of confidence. I appreciate that.

  10. Was definitely a big issue for me over time. I am now happy with how I am and have decided that I can be more productive if I have certain physical things in place- food, shower- and more psychologically productive if I have things like-clean house, nice clothes, etc. This is my viewpoint and I’m glad I came to it, because those years of wrestling with the issue were NOT productive, let me tell you! (Well, they were productive in that I eventually came to a decision…)

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