The Glory of Utter Simplicity

Last week, there appeared in these pages a powerful article titled “In Galus to Madison Avenue,” by Rabbi Aaron Twerski.

I know I write on behalf of a great many in our community in expressing our deepest gratitude to Rabbi Twerski for writing this extraordinary and courageous piece — an act which is only the latest exhibition of his selfless dedication to both individuals and our community at large — as well as to Hamodia for publishing it.

One can only hope that this trailblazing op-ed will begin an earnest discussion within our community about this most vital subject.

There are many aspects to contemplate and many messages to internalize within this wide-ranging topic. Clearly, chief among them is the chinuch messages we are sending our children in a world gone mad with brash materialism.

As a child and as a bachur, I had the great privilege to visit, on numerous occasions, the great posek, Hagaon Harav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, zt”l. Every visit was a most illuminating and inspiring experience. To read about this great Gadol’s legendary humility and great warmth is one thing, but to see it firsthand was something else entirely.

Each time I walked into his home in Shaarei Chessed, I was struck once again by the stark simplicity of his residence. From the worn wooden chair he sat on (it wasn’t even an armchair), to his table, his sefarim shrank, the ancient looking walls — the scene was one bereft of any physical comfort, let alone luxury.

Later, when I had the zechus to visit other Gedolei Yisrael in Bnei Brak and Yerushalayim, I was struck by the same image: a physical dwelling that was bare and simple from a material perspective, but brimming over with gadlus and holiness.

During a conversation with a prominent Rav in Eretz Yisrael who is originally from America, he told me that he has noticed that the bnei yeshivah in Eretz Yisrael find it easier than those in the United States to learn Torah while enduring great poverty.

“This is because of the way the Gedolim here in Eretz Yisrael choose to live,” the Rav said. “The Gedolim they view as their ultimate role models live in run-down, tiny apartments and make do with minimal necessities. Therefore, this is the type of life they seek to emulate!”

Throughout the generations, many of our greatest Gedolim endured abject poverty.

As we are surrounded by a secular culture that falsely glorifies financial success as the pathway to happiness, it is vital that we focus on real role models and recognize — and help our children realize — that the road to happiness is solely through cleaving to Hashem.

There is much reading material readily available, both for children and adults, that describes with great detail the lives of Gedolim who became great while enduring the test of extreme poverty.

It is extremely worthwhile for all of us, regardless of our financial situation, to read, think and talk about the lives led by these Gedolim. To our children, we should express our awe and admiration for the simplicity of their lifestyle, and declare, “This is how they attained such gadlus.”

This in itself will serve as a great antidote to the Jewish Madison Avenue influence.

There is another angle to consider.

As a young boy, I would frequently visit a relative, an elderly widow who lived nearby. Each visit was a treat for me; I was mesmerized by the tales she told of World War I and World War II. On one occasion she turned to me and asked, “Do you know what the most precious object I own is?”

I was taken aback by her question, and even more so by her answer.

Her most precious possession was not the house she and her husband had purchased relatively late in life, nor was it the wedding ring she managed to keep with her as she fled the Nazis. The most precious object she owned was a rather plain-looking tea set.

I was only too glad to hear its story.

She had attended a luncheon at the home of one of the wealthiest families in the neighborhood. The large house was exquisitely furnished, but what caught her attention was a magnificent, sterling silver tea set.

When she came home that evening, she couldn’t help telling her husband about the luxurious tea set — an item that her family, which at the time was struggling to make ends meet, couldn’t possibly afford.

“Wouldn’t it be wonderful to serve guests using a tea set?” she asked dreamily.

Her then 12-year-old daughter overheard the conversation and decided that she would somehow find a way to fulfill her mother’s desire. She knew that a silver set wasn’t something she could possibly afford, so she looked for a silver-plated one instead.

The price was $25.00, quite a large amount at that time for a young girl with no savings. She began actively looking for babysitting and other jobs that wouldn’t conflict with schoolwork, and put away every cent she earned. Additionally, since she did most of the household shopping, her father would frequently allow her to keep a penny of the change, which she put aside as well.

The pennies — along with nickels and quarters she received from side jobs — added up over time and eventually reached the amount she needed.

When she brought home the tea set, her mother, well aware of the enormous sacrifice the gift represented, was deeply touched. It became my relative’s most precious possession, for it was a testament of her child’s enduring love and dedication.

In an era where the newest model, brand names and high price tags are so accentuated, it is ever more important to stress the sentimental and nostalgic. It is vital that we impress on our children the value of the seemingly small things we own, and the stories behind them. When a child is raised with a genuine appreciation for Bubby’s Tehillim, the small becher Tatty received from his zeide at his bar mitzvah, and even the small bronze menorah that was a wedding gift from a favorite relative, he will realize that it isn’t what glitters that really counts, but the emotions that a tangible item represents.

More than anything else, let us stress at every opportunity the magnificent beauty of utter simplicity.