Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Who is rich?

Between Pesah and Shavuot it's customary to read selections from "Pirke Avot" - Ethics of the Fathers - a collection of adages from the early rabbinic period (basically from about the 2d century BCE to the redaction of the Mishna in 220 CE). There are a couple of selections that I've always found very appropos for a simplicity perspective, and I'm going to share a couple of them over the next few days.

The one I'll share now is absolutely my favorite, from chapter 4:1: "Who is rich? The one who is happy with their portion."

I've sometimes heard criticisms of this line because it can be taken to suggest that mistreatment should be abided, but I don't see it that way. I see it as a corrective to the American treadmill of "achievement" and aquiring. You see, nothing that you can buy will make you happy if you're not already essentially satisfied with your life and your situation. This is not to say that one shouldn't try to improve oneself and one's lot, but there's a difference between wanting to improve and needing to improve, as if from a compulsion. And anyway, the core truth of simplicity, it seems to me, is that everything we need and want, we already have available to us.

The text continues: "It is thus written: 'When you eat of the effort of your hands, it will be well with you' in the World to Come." Now, I'm not overly focused on reward in the hereafter, but I know that we can choose - by our attitude - to make life here on earth a heaven or a hell. And I take this line to mean that if we can do the best we can with what we have, the life we live today will be that much closer to heaven.

The Me'am Lo'ez, a commentary written in Ladino (Judeo-Spanish) in the early 18th century, adds:

The master further said, "Who is the wealthy person who can boast of riches? The one who has a good heart, and rejoices in the lot that God has given, wanting nothing more than he has." Such a person lives happily all his life, and is able to serve God properly.
I can't think of a better guideline for the frugal life. The text goes on to point out that avarice weakens the spirit, by "tearing the soul asunder" when one sees someone with more than they have.

The sages teach, "There is noone in this world who dies with even half their desires fulfilled. If one succeeds in amassing one hundred gold coins, she wants two hundred." Since a person always wants twice as much as she has, it is impossible for her to achieve her goal. She may have much money, but there is no one poorer than she.

This kind of envy detracts from the ability to do what is useful and productive; to Me'am Loez this is serving God, but we can also see this as doing those things that make life worthwhile, whether raising one's children, doing charitable work, or even "following our bliss" as the man said. It is these things that cause one to be blessed.

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