There is a story about a fabulously wealthy orthodox philanthropist who died. He left behind a huge estate, half of which was given to charity and the other half to his children. He also left behind two mysterious letters- one was meant to be opened immediately and the other one had explicit instructions to remain sealed until 30 days after his death.
The first letter contained his will dividing the entire estate among the beneficiaries except for one item: a pair of the Philanthropist’s favorite socks. Stranger still, he emphatically demanded in the letter that his children bury him in these socks. Attempting to meet their father’s last wish, the children immediately brought the socks to the Chevra Kadisha (Jewish burial society), and requested that their father be buried in them.
The Chevra Kadisha refused emphatically, citing the Jewish law that a person cannot be buried in anything other than the traditional burial shroud. The children were aghast. They explained that besides the fact that their father had been a big supporter of the burial society in his lifetime, he also was also a very learned man and would never have made such a request if it could not be fulfilled. But the Chevra Kadisha remained firm in their decision. The family frantically turned to rabbis, dayanim (Jewish judges), anyone they could think of that could help them make room to fulfill their patriarch’s dying wish, but got nowhere. And so, with great sorrow, their father was buried without his socks. 30 days later, with shaking hands and a heavy heart, the eldest brother opened the 2nd letter. It read something like this:
“My precious children. By now you must have buried me without my socks and by now I hope you understand the message: No matter what a person’s material processions are in this world, no matter how many millions of dollars he has, he goes to his maker naked as the day he was born just like everybody else. Nothing comes with you to the next world except the deeds from your lifetime…..not even your favorite pair of socks.”
This simple story is a great place to start when trying to teach our children happiness. As we confront the endless pursuit of materialism characterized by the times in which we live, we must seek to undo the damage by sending a different message in our own homes and communities.
A couple cases in point: I just learned of a study of children growing up in low-income families and neighborhoods done in the 1990s where one of the amazing findings was that the children didn’t even realize they were poor! Because everyone around them was living similar lives with similar ‘things’ available to them, they didn’t realize they were missing out and were actually rather happy…only when they glimpsed the lives of the high-income neighborhood did they become unhappy. A friend recently sent me a similar story witnessed in her community about a teenage girl who tagged along while her mother shopped for a new sheitel (wig). The mother found one that she liked and told the seller that she wanted to purchase it. The sheitel seller, knowing that this woman had very little money, gently explained, ‘This one is quite expensive….why don’t I show you some beautiful ones that are more in your price range?” The woman replied, “I can’t afford a new sheitel to begin with, so what’s the difference? I may as well have the one that I like.” At this point, the daughter exclaimed, “Mommy, what are you saying? I didn’t realize we were poor!”
How could it be that this girl reached teenage-hood without noticing the poverty of her family? My guess is that she grew up in a household that didn’t put too much value on material things, and so she never noticed the lack. And while it’s very hard for children to remain sheltered from materialism while growing up in a society where so many people are putting values on material objects, we can at least start to show where we place our values in the home, and create a happy environment despite “the latest craze.” Children might still see the latest and greatest toy, game, collectible item (Pokemon cards are the new magic cards, magic cards replaced collecting baseball cards, chad gadya…) outside the home, but if they see they live in a family and home where people seem to be happy without constantly pursuing those items then hopefully they will realize that happiness exists from something other than objects and things.
There is a very powerful mishnah in Pirkei Avot 4:28 (Ethics of the Fathers)-where Rabbi Eliezer Hakapar said, “Jealousy, desire, and honor-seeking drive a person from this world.” ….why are these things that literally remove you from the world? They don’t kill you. A person does not literally die of jealousy, or wanting something, or seeking esteem. But I believe the answer is that these raw emotions and driving forces literally remove you from the world because of their tendency to be endless pursuits. The pursuit of things you don’t have takes away your enjoyment of life in the here and now. These tendencies can quickly overshadow your happiness because you are no longer looking within for joy and tranquility but are instead looking outside yourself. In other words the endless acquisition of things will ultimately be the end of you. This is a great mishnah to share and discuss with older children.
I am not advocating asceticism. Having toys, new clothes, and things that we enjoy are a natural part of life- The problem becomes when we enmesh too much of our happiness with thoughts of what we think we are missing, and this is the red flag we need to be on the watch for with our children. When we see they don’t seem to be happy with their current toys, clothes or objects only because they say they are “sick of them” or “need more”, and when we see this becoming a constant pattern, then that is the time to step in and try to help them learn to disentangle their happiness from their objects. I have a friend who constantly rotates the presence and availability of the existing toys in her house- meaning she only keeps a certain amount out and available to play with at a given time so that the ones that are hidden away will seem new again when she takes them out another week. The hidden ones literally become out of sight and out of mind and so they are exciting all over again when they are put back in the rotation and made available. I tried this myself and found that instead of the scaled-back selection of toys limiting my children’s creativity as I had previously posited (“won’t they be more creative and happy if they have so many options in front of them to pair together and play with?”) it actually helped them focus more attention and joy on what was in front of them, instead of constantly jumping from object to object and ultimately getting bored.
The bottom line is, no matter what the age or pursuit, we need to teach our children to find joy beyond the realm of “things”. Things can fill our rooms but they can never fill up our lives. We must gently explain to our children that everyone sometimes feels loneliness or emptiness but that emptiness cannot be filled up by the latest object- it’s a deeper longing for people, relationships and meaning to fill our lives. Those things can be found in moments, people, and ideas, not in any material item you can hold in your hands. It’s a lofty concept, and not always an easy one to grasp…but to change our mindsets we have to start somewhere…and we can certainly start with a little story about favorite socks…
- Originally published in Times for Israel