You Know that We Are Living in a Material World
My two and a half year-old son has just recently made an important discovery: he has just realized that some stores have a toy aisle. So now, whenever we go to any store, whether it’s the drugstore or the grocery store, he says, “Can we go see the toys?” or, when he’s feeling particularly bold, “Can we go see the toys so I can get a new one?” Two and a half, and my son is already entering the wonderful world of materialism, of always wanting more stuff. At least he has good timing.
We just celebrated Thanksgiving, where many people celebrate by going around the table and sharing one thing they were grateful for. My guess is that for most of us, our answers were things like, “my family,” “my health,” “a roof over my head.” We probably did not say, “I’m grateful for my designer purse” or “my new iphone.” Thanksgiving reminds us that our most precious possessions are not possessions at all.
And then, the very next day, we celebrate the anti-Thanksgiving, also known as Black Friday. It’s as if American culture says, “OK, enough gratitude - let’s go shopping!” And so many people endure the long lines, the crowds, the rude and aggressive fellow shoppers just so we can get a great deal on that new appliance or gadget or toy. And the frenzy doesn’t end with one day - Black Friday leads to Cyber Monday and kicks off the shopping season that lasts a whole month. At least Chanukah comes early this year!
So what, you might ask. What’s so wrong with wanting to buy new things? I say, there is nothing wrong with wanting to buy new things, as long as that wanting doesn’t take over our lives. The problem is that the desire for more is insatiable. And this is a very old problem. “Those who love money never have their fill of money” says the Book of Ecclesiastes (5:9). The Book of Proverbs says, “The eyes of a person cannot be satisfied” (Proverbs 27:20). We always want more, and we think that getting more will make our lives better. But psychological studies and our own experience demonstrate that always wanting more isn’t good for us: it actually leads to higher degrees of depression and anxiety and more selfish attitudes and behaviors. Materialism makes us less happy and more self-centered. Materialism isn’t just bad for us psychologically, it’s also bad morally and spiritually. When we become preoccupied with acquisition, when a desire for wealth or possessions is what drives our actions and guides our decisions, we become idolaters, worshiping things instead of God. That idolatry can easily lead to immoral behavior. As several medieval commentators notice, the 10 Commandments ends with “you shall not covet” because coveting can lead to breaking all the other commandments. And if all that were not bad enough, overconsumption is also destroying the planet, as Mallory will explain at her Bat Mitzvah tomorrow.
Fortunately, Jewish tradition has some excellent advice about how to limit our craving for material things. Here are just a few tips:
Cultivate gratitude. There is a reason that the Talmud says we should recite 100 blessings every day (Men. 43b). Traditional blessings cover nearly every aspect of daily life, from being grateful for waking up in the morning, to being able to get out of bed, to washing our hands, putting on clothes, eating meals, and so on. We can say a blessing for every beautiful tree we see or impressive person we meet. If we focus our energy on noticing and giving thanks for what we do have, we will be too busy to think about all the things we lack. This ancient practice is actually backed up by modern psychological studies. A recent paper in the Journal of Positive Psychology notes that in two studies, “[C]hildren and adolescents with a grateful disposition were less materialistic… [and] experimental evidence showed that an intervention designed to increase gratitude (i.e. keeping a gratitude journal) significantly reduced materialism among adolescents.
Give tzedakah. That same paper I just mentioned also demonstrated that the teens who kept a gratitude journal gave 60% more of their earnings to charity than the control group. In other words, gratitude leads to generosity. But maybe the reverse is also true, and generosity will lead to gratitude and contentment. After all, the best way to avoid getting too attached to our wealth is to give it away. Judaism has never been a religion of asceticism - we don’t take vows of poverty and in general, we don’t see being rich as a moral deficiency. But Judaism does teach us that everything we have is on loan from God, and our obligation is to use our resources to help the rest of God’s creation. So enjoy the giving and receiving of gifts, but don’t forget to spend at least as much on tzedakah as you do on gifts.
Observe Shabbat. Shabbat is a potent antidote for materialism. As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel put it, “There is a realm of time where the goal is not to have but to be, not to own but to give, not to control but to share, not to subdue but to be in accord. Life goes wrong when the control of space, the acquisition of things of space, becomes our sole concern” (The Sabbath, pg. 3). Shabbat is our weekly opportunity to practice self-discipline when it comes to acquiring and consuming. If we can successfully refrain from those activities one day every week, we may find that our desire for material possessions is diminished the rest of the week as well.
Channel our materialism for good. There is a principle in Jewish law called “hiddur mitzvah,” “beautification a mitzvah.” This is the principle behind finding the most fragrant and attractive etrog to use on Sukkot, or investing in the most beautiful candlesticks or chanukiyah or mezuzah you can afford. We show our honor for these sacred obligations by making them as beautiful as possible. So if we love buying beautiful things, we should make them vessels for mitzvot, whether literally or figuratively. In addition to making or buying beautiful ritual objects, we can make our other purchases a hiddur mitzvah, a way of enhancing our ability to do good in the world. We can make our homes beautiful so that we will want to be hospitable, and so our guests will feel welcome and comfortable. We can be conscious consumers, purchasing fair trade products, shopping at local businesses, and helping individuals and communities in need to support themselves. And of course, we can make room for a special new purchase by giving away other possessions.
It may be human nature to always crave more stuff, but it is Jewish nature to control and channel that craving. As the famous saying from Pirkei Avot reminds us, “Who is rich? The one who is happy with his portion” (Avot 4:1).
May we all find joy and fulfillment in this season of giving and receiving.
 See Rabeinu Bachya and Sforno, e.g.