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Possessed by Possessions

By Judy Gruen

My daughter just turned seven, and the occasion of her birthday brought with it a modest bundle of birthday gifts. With a new pile of things to put away, I decided that her room was ripe for a minor purging of broken or obsolete playthings.

We worked together, unearthing an absurd amount of cheap plastic Barbie shoes, doll-sized furniture, colored beads and other made-in-China discards. With this detritus splayed over her carpet, she said in exasperation, "Mommy, I have way too much stuff! I just can't take it anymore!"

Of course, her feeling of being surfeited with possessions will be short-lived. The next time we're out at the mall, she is sure to stop in her tracks in front of the toy store window, asking if she can get "just one thing." But as we streamlined her voluminous possessions, I thought about how hard it can be to strike the right balance between gashmius and ruchnius. Gashmius means "physicality" (related to the Hebrew word geshem, or rain, which enables physical life to exist). The word, though, has often come to be associated with an excessive or undue emphasis on materialism. Its opposite, ruchnius, from the Hebrew word ruach, or spirit, refers to that which is spiritual.

We Jews have a very specific mandate to be an am kadosh, a holy nation, which is more of a challenge when we live in an environment that's drenched in consumerism. No wonder the Torah warns us not to let our eyes lead us astray: they say that seeing is believing, but seeing is also frequently the brain prompt to desire what has been seen. And let's be honest: We Jews have brought many concepts into the world, but asceticism wasn't one of them. Some of Jackie Mason's most side-splittingly funny, dead-on accurate routines have skewered the Jewish propensity for the finer things in life.

"See this over here?" he asked in one sketch, parodying a Jew giving a tour of his home and pointing to objects d'art. "It was imported from Italy! See that over there? Hand-carved marble!"

Sometimes, I find myself fighting the pull of mindless consumerism as well. While I drive a nice, late-model car with leather upholstery, my husband is still tooling around town in the same car he owned when we were dating fifteen years ago.

"When are you going to dump that heap?" I have asked him repeatedly. "Our gardener drives a nicer car than you do."

"So?" he replies. "Want me to show you the tuition bills?"

I am a little ashamed that I can't stand his old car. I really have no good reason to dislike it, other than I want my husband to drive something that doesn't remind me of a rumpled suit. But his old car is reliable (mostly) and does its job, so what's my problem? Probably a case of gashmius. My husband, generally better focused on the ruchnius side of life than I am, isn't bothered in the least by his aged, decidedly frumpy-looking car.

Certainly Judaism has never preached that poverty is an inherent virtue. While it's clear that our only true "riches" are our children and our mitzvahs, there's nothing wrong with living well, if we are so blessed, in this world. Our patriarchs and greatest judges of the biblical era were almost all wealthy. Wealth enables one to not only live with dignity but to support Jewish educational and philanthropic institutes.

The bottom line, though, is that our reward in the World to Come will have everything to do with how we lived our lives and nothing whatever to do with what we drove.

Still, it takes effort not to be seduced by the rampant materialism of our modern, monied society. I'm glad that my daughter began to feel, if only temporarily, that her possessions exceeded her needs. I hope what it shows is that her education at home and at school is teaching her to keep her focus more on ruchnius rather than on gashmius. Maybe the process of discarding possessions once in a while not only clears space for the things we truly need, but also reminds us that the most important things in our lives are not "things" at all.


Judy Gruen is a writer in Los Angeles and the author of the new humor book, "Carpool Tunnel Syndrome: Motherhood as Shuttle Diplomacy" (Heaven Ink Publishing, 2001).



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