It’s awfully easy to fall into lazy thinking. In fact, it’s awfully easy to fall into lazy anything…but that’s another story. There are words that evoke clichés so instantaneously that you fall into lazy thinking before you know what is happening.
One such word is poverty. As soon as I hear the- word, jump to assumptions that take me into the socio-economic never-never-land of inner- city reality. Conversely, when I hear the word simplicity, I envision a sort the empirical cleanliness that you find in Japanese gardens. I spent this past Shabbos with my Bnos Avigail girls in Bnei Brak, not a place for lazy thinking.
We stayed in Batei Avot, the dormitory that I stayed in when I was in seminary. Hardly anything changed. I found my old room easily. Today a wall divides the room in half, so the girls have more privacy. In my time there were seven of us in the room. Other than that, nothing was substantially different. It was still simple, clean, and utterly at odds with anything more than that.
We davened in both branches of the Ponivitzh Yeshiva; kabbalas Shabbos in one, and maariv in the other. The grand Aron Kodesh was the opposite of simple by anyone’s definition. Ornate, bigger than life, and echoing the centuries that past since it was built, it somehow still was without complication; it fit its purpose, which is giving honor to the Torah. In the purest sense of the word, it was indeed simple. Perhaps because I saw the picture of Rav Shach zatzal standing in front of the ark giving shiur so many times, the perfect wholeness of the image popped up automatically.
The other branch is in a hall called the Heichal Kedoshim, built to give aliya and honor to the six million. The energy of the tefillah, also was simple in the best sense of the word.
After the seudah we went out to stroll. Bnei Brak lives at night. The streets are full, the aura of Shabbos is everywhere. We visited the home of Rav Yehuda Michal Lefkowitz zatzal, where Rebbitzen Mann, spoke to us about the lives of her grandparents. The two-room apartment was simple by any definition. Because so many people came to ask the Rav for advice or brachos a problem emerged. There was no place for them to wait. Having wait outside was out the question to the Rav and Rebbitzen; human dignity demanded more. They enclosed their porch and installed air-conditioning. Just there-not in the rest of the house. For themselves, they didn’t need to renegotiate the torrid Bnei Brak weather. One of the grandchildren once made an elaborate sign for the door. “Lefkowitz” in mosaic, was too much for them. “First you have the sign. Then the door looks old and shabby, so you need a new door. Then of course the floor tiles have to be replaced. It doesn’t ever really end” was the Rav’s feelings on the matter. They had no room for it…
I recalled a famous tale about Yaakov, Eisov and Yishmael when I heard the story.
Yaakov and Eisov had divided reality between them Yaakov was going to aim for Olam Haba, the future world, and Eisov was going to set his focus on Olam Hazeh, this world. One day, Eisov decided to see whether Yaakov was keeping his side of the deal. He visited Yaakov and saw him sitting down and enjoying a five-course meal! “What’s this about? I thought you were dedicated to Olam Haba?” said Yaakov’s wicked twin and foil. “Today’s Shabbos! Our eating is dedicated to Olam Haba” Yaakov replied. Eisov silently decided to wait and see. The next day he came back, and saw a similar sight. “AHA! I caught you.” Yaakov quietly explained that this is Rosh Chodesh, and a proper celebration is in place. Eisov left, but was still very suspicious. He returned the third night and saw the same scene. Reb Yaakov, surrounded by his sons and students were enjoying still another feast. “We’re having a siyum (a party made when completing a section of the Talmud or other serious study). Why don’t you come to my yeshiva tomorrow? You can start the new section, Bava Metzia, with the rest of us, and before you know it, we will complete it and make another party. Eisov arrived and sat with the students. They began a heated and complex discussion of determining ownership when two people are holding a talis and each one claims it’s his. Soon Eisov felt his eyelids dropping. He really didn’t care. If it was him, he’d just grab it and run.
Despondent, he headed to Yishmael who was both his father in law and his uncle. He needed to vent, and this took place in the pre-therapy age. ” Don’t worry about a thing. Tell Yaakov that because you know that you won’t be getting Olam HaBa, your enjoyment of Olam Hazeh is compromised, so you are unfairly losing both worlds. Make it worth my while, and I’ll negotiate the deal for you”. Eisov was ecstatic. “What a deal. You can have everything you want in this world, and you can still get Olam HaBa!” He continued living it up enjoying the kind of life he had been until now. When he died, he was taken to …. hell. “What happened? I made a deal.” The angels told him, “The deal was that you can have one world. You’ve fully enjoyed Olam Hazeh, you received your portion. You don’t have a right to Olam Haba”.
While of course none of this is true, it makes you think.
There’s another path to simplicity. You can have it all, and have it focused. We also went to the Viznitz Tisch, a huge Chassidic gathering. We were surrounded by well-dressed Chassidic women, countless kids and below in the bais midrash hundreds of Chassidim focused on the rebbe’s words, and following it with inspired songs.
As you know, I love taking you with me on my trips, my dear friends, but this time, let it touch you enough to question why you need all that stuff, and how much of your life you are willing to pay for it.
PS Mazal Tov! Lele Katz of Bnos Avigail got engaged!