Remember this bumper sticker?
In contradistinction, the Parents’ Mantra is: “You can’t have everything. Where would you put it?” (I met a woman who told her husband this; apparently it is not for parents alone.) The mantra rarely helps, because people go out into the world and see all there is, and especially what their peers possess, and the dybbuk of desire pounces on them.
It’s no revelation that materialism sometimes gets the better of us and so, from time to time, it’s important to stop and consider the meaning we attach to “stuff” and how we might rethink our relationship with material possessions. “The Life Twist Study” suggested that we are doing just that. Conducted in 2013 in the aftermath of recession, global conflict, and in an era of technological change at an unprecedented pace, the study revealed that Americans rate wealth #20 out of a given 22 factors contributing to a successful life. Far above wealth come: health (85%), having a good marriage/relationship (81%), working a job you love (79%), time to pursue passions (69%), and making a difference in people’s lives (62%). Only one in three Americans considered wealth to be a key element of success. Twice that number rated being physically fit as a key contributor to a successful life. The numbers are encouraging.
More and more people talk about their “bucket lists.” Have experiences replaced possessions as something people “acquire”? And is this a modern phenomenon? Probably not. Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev wrote about the natural human desire to possess—be it objects or experiences—and offers another alternative. But first, let’s take a look at the parashah.
Parshat Tetzaveh describes the vestments of the kohanim (priests). It seems to be all about “stuff,” especially the elaborate garb of the High Priest, Aaron: robe, fringed tunic, sash, headdress, breast piece, and ephod. Linen and fine dyed yarns woven and twisted, precious and semi-precious stones encrusting the breastpiece, gold and more are used to make the vestments. Consider how much stuff (underscored below) is involved in making the priestly vestments, and how invested Torah is in it all:
וְזֶה הַדָּבָר אֲשֶׁר-תַּעֲשֶׂה לָהֶם, לְקַדֵּשׁ אֹתָם--לְכַהֵן לִי: לְקַח פַּר אֶחָד בֶּן-בָּקָר, וְאֵילִם שְׁנַיִם--תְּמִימִם. וְלֶחֶם מַצּוֹת, וְחַלֹּת מַצֹּת בְּלוּלֹת בַּשֶּׁמֶן, וּרְקִיקֵי מַצּוֹת, מְשֻׁחִים בַּשָּׁמֶן; סֹלֶת חִטִּים, תַּעֲשֶׂה אֹתָם. וְנָתַתָּ אוֹתָם עַל-סַל אֶחָד, וְהִקְרַבְתָּ אֹתָם בַּסָּל; וְאֶת-הַפָּר--וְאֵת, שְׁנֵי הָאֵילִם. וְאֶת-אַהֲרֹן וְאֶת-בָּנָיו תַּקְרִיב, אֶל-פֶּתַח אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד; וְרָחַצְתָּ אֹתָם, בַּמָּיִם. וְלָקַחְתָּ אֶת-הַבְּגָדִים, וְהִלְבַּשְׁתָּ אֶת-אַהֲרֹן אֶת-הַכֻּתֹּנֶת, וְאֵת מְעִיל הָאֵפֹד, וְאֶת-הָאֵפֹד וְאֶת-הַחֹשֶׁן; וְאָפַדְתָּ לוֹ, בְּחֵשֶׁב הָאֵפֹד. וְשַׂמְתָּ הַמִּצְנֶפֶת, עַל-רֹאשׁוֹ; וְנָתַתָּ אֶת-נֵזֶר הַקֹּדֶשׁ, עַל-הַמִּצְנָפֶת. וְלָקַחְתָּ אֶת-שֶׁמֶן הַמִּשְׁחָה, וְיָצַקְתָּ עַל-רֹאשׁוֹ; וּמָשַׁחְתָּ, אֹתוֹ. וְאֶת-בָּנָיו, תַּקְרִיב; וְהִלְבַּשְׁתָּם, כֻּתֳּנֹת. וְחָגַרְתָּ אֹתָם אַבְנֵט אַהֲרֹן וּבָנָיו, וְחָבַשְׁתָּ לָהֶם מִגְבָּעֹת, וְהָיְתָה לָהֶם כְּהֻנָּה, לְחֻקַּת עוֹלָם; וּמִלֵּאתָ יַד-אַהֲרֹן, וְיַד-בָּנָיו.
This is what you shall do to them in consecrating them to serve Me as priests: Take a young bull of the herd and two rams without blemish; also unleavened bread, unleavened cakes with oil mixed in, and unleavened wafers spread with oil—make these of choice wheat flour. Place these in one basket and present them in the basket, along with the bull and the two rams. Lead Aaron and his sons up to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, and wash them with water. Then take the vestments, and clothe Aaron with the tunic, the robe of the ephod, and the breast piece, and gird him with the decorated band of the ephod. Put the headdress on his head, and place the holy diadem upon the headdress. Take the anointing oil and pour it on his head and anoint him. Then bring his sons forward; clothe them with tunics and wind turbans upon them. And gird both Aaron and his sons with sashes. And so they shall have priesthood as their right for all time. You shall then ordain Aaron and his sons. (Exodus 29:1-9)
At the end of this description, Torah finally announces that once Moses has gathered unleavened wafers, oil, and the requisite animals for sacrifice, and has clothed Aaron and his sons in their priestly vestments, Moses is to ordain them as priests. The term for ordination, milu’im, comes from the root מלא, meaning “fill.” We might then understand the last verse as “You shall fill up Aaron and his sons.” Certainly, Aaron and his sons are filled with objects (the vestments) and experiences (the ordination and the sacrifices). But the hasidic master, Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev understands Exodus 29:9 to mean, “You shall fill up Aaron and his sons.” He explains:
There is no completeness in matters of this world. We always lack for something in the realm of physical pleasures. If you have everything else, you may still want for the pleasure derived from respect. Or you may want because of sexual desire. We always lack for something. In the religious life, however, the one who serves is whole in every way. Those who seek Adonai lack for no good (Psalm 34:11). Thus the pleasure of serving God is greater than any other. Hold fast to the life-force of serving the Infinite One, that which is whole in every way. Then you, too, will naturally be whole and lack for naught. This is the meaning of You shall fill the hand of Aaron and the hand of his sons. God told Moses to see that he bring Aaron and his sons to that level where they would cleave to holiness. When they came to feel the pleasure of that sublime joy, their hands would be filled with all good and they would lack for nothing. That is why this period [i.e., the dedication of the Mishkan] is called “the eight days of milu’im, meaning “fulfillment.” This was when the Shekhinah came to dwell among them, and they were filled with joy because of that holiness. (Kedushat Levi on Exodus 29:9)
R. Levi Yitzhak reminds us that giving is even more fulfilling than getting. Similarly, psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, who survived the Nazi death camps but lost his entire family, wrote in Man’s Search for Meaning (1946) that finding meaning in life was essential to survival in the camps. He wrote of two suicidal inmates whom he helped to find something to live for: for one, it was his young son, sheltered in a foreign country; for the other, a scientist, it was the books he wished to finish writing. Note that both sources of meaning are also means of giving.
In a famous experiment conducted in 2008, people were given $5 or $20 and either instructed to spend it on themselves, or on someone else. Which made them happier? While the participants in the study expected that their happiness would be boosted more by spending the cash on themselves, it turned out that those who spent money on others (often called “Pro-social spending”) were happier than those who spent it on themselves.
The Sages shared this same wisdom in the Talmud in a wonderful and broader way:
Ben Zoma would say:
Who is wise? The one who learns from everyone, as it is written: from all my teachers have I gained understanding (Psalm 119:99)
Who is mighty? The one who conquers their evil impulse, as it is written: One who is slow to anger is better than the mighty, and one who rules over his spirit, than one who conquers a city (Proverbs 16:32).
Who is rich? The one who rejoices in his portion, as it is written: When you eat the labor of your hands, happy will you be and all will be well with you (Psalm 128:2). “Happy will you be” refers to this world; “all will be well with you” refers to the world-to-come.
(Pirke Avot 4:1)
It’s so easy to lose sight of that wisdom, but so precious to reclaim it.
© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman