Back in the early 50’s, my friend’s older sister, Malka, worked as secretary in one of the Bais Yaakov elementary schools. The children were, for the most part, the daughters of survivors; many had been born in DP camps. Their homes were far from wealthy, and the school served them a hot lunch each day. Nearly as often as not these lunches consisted of vats and vats of fresh, steaming noodles, served with a variety of condiments: butter, sour cream, cottage cheese, cinnamon sugar, and other good things. Those were innocent days; no one had ever heard of cholesterol, and anorexia – if indeed the term had been coined yet – was less of a reality than little green men traveling on flying saucers. Malka would happily help herself to generous portions of this wonderful comfort food. Only one rule governed school lunches: Yedder ayner zohl kooken auf zayn eigener teller – Everyone may look only at [her] own plate.
I was reminded of Malka’s Bais Yaakov years the other day when I read about the proposal to limit expenditures at frum weddings. If only we had internalized the aforementioned, simple etiquette I doubt that the Orthodox community would find itself confronting the situation it faces today.
I should mention from the outset that I am no longer a New Yorker, since a number of people – most of them blood relatives – blame my “total clueless-ness” on that fact. Some twenty years ago I left the city of my birth to realize my destiny and have been traveling through the revolving door of Chinuch ever since. Unlike some of my counterparts in “golus,” I felt no need to return on a regular basis. My visits were precipitated by family events, nearly all of them, Baruch HaShem, simchas. With every visit I experienced a level of culture shock at what I perceived as a galloping tendency towards conspicuous consumption within the frum community. And as much as I always try to keep my eyes on my own plate, I could not avoid noticing that others seemed to be eating off bone china, with golden chargers underneath – metaphorically speaking, of course. While I was away, for example, the cost of sheitlach skyrocketed to four figures. Moreover, every kallah believed herself entitled to at least one “custom” sheitel as a gift from her prospective in-laws. Somewhere in there, by the way, the concept of gift seemed to get lost… With each return to New York I noticed that my peers seemed to dress more and more elegantly; their children wore clothing that clearly cost more than anything I owned. The thought of the dry-cleaning bills alone boggled my mind. Nevertheless, I did not find any of this disturbing until I was given to understand that my friends did not necessarily dress this way by choice. While my back was turned, a new way of Jewish life had developed, one that featured the sort of stress on superficial values that I once associated only with the vulgar nouveau riche featured in the writings of Philip Roth. Granted, our bar mitzvahs do not feature statues of the bar mitzvah bochur sculpted in chopped liver, and Baruch HaShem we do not have to contend with crude dancing and entertainment, but the excesses of which we are guilty are bad enough.
Perhaps the reader thinks that all of this would place me squarely in the camp of those who seek to put an end to conspicuous consumption by imposing limits on the baalei simcha, but this is decidedly not my orientation. Truth be told, I have no grievance with those who can afford to entertain lavishly in honor of a simcha. Indeed, on those occasions when HaShem blesses me with a family simcha, I want to bring the immediate world into my rejoicing. I want to make as many people as happy as possible. And if I had the wherewithal, I might even feel differently about the aforementioned chopped liver statue – probably not… The problem is not that people who have money spend extravagantly in honor of a simcha. The problem is that people who do not have the means feel compelled to incur enormous debts in order to keep up with them. And throwing new rules at people will not resolve the problem. We already have a perfectly good rule – לא תחמוד. A very compelling rule, I might add – one of the top ten. Perhaps if people directed their attention to the halachos of לא תחמודwith the same zeal that characterizes their pursuit of hidurim in various external aspects of Yiddishkeit the new proposal would be obviated. Hillel, we are told, obligated the poor to study Torah. Rebbe, on the other hand, did not obligate anyone to have out-of-season produce on the table.
I realize, of course, that competitiveness is an aspect of human nature, one that – along with greed – is basic to a system of free enterprise. This, however, does not excuse its pervasiveness within frum society. Do we not make every attempt to shield ourselves and our children from anti-Torah influences that surround us? Moreover, this compulsion to compete neither begins nor ends with simchas. As an educator of nearly thirty years I have seen unhealthy competition destroy individual students and break down the delicate fiber of social relationships. I do not, of course, refer to קנאת סופרים, but that concept is also worth re-visiting. As I was led to understand, קנאת סופרים refers to constructive competition, wherein one student envies another’s accomplishments – not the trappings of his success. It does not refer to the kind of competitiveness that leads one student to hope for the defeat of another so that he can come out on top. When the Torah says that Rachel envied Leah, Rashi points out that she envied her sister’s good deeds – not her good fortune.
The envy that I see is an obsessive, covetous, Keep-Up-With-the-Schwartzes sort of envy. It manifests itself within our society in many forms, but no one seems to address the situation directly. Instead, the powers that be choose to throw rules at the problem in a helpless attempt to deal with its symptoms. Are high school students trying to out-dress one another? Let’s institute uniforms. The girls have begun wearing outrageously patterned socks? Let’s make a rule about socks – no patterns whatsoever. They’re wearing expensive jewelry to school? We can figure out a rule… I recall that there was once serious consideration of eliminating all “fun activities” at the Bais Yaakov Convention, because every host school felt compelled to out-do the fun of the year before. Surely this is a simplistic, misguided response to a serious concern. Does no one see that the problem here is neither socks, nor earrings, nor fun? The problem is that no one is paying attention to the fact that we and our children are ignoring one of the Aseres Hadibros. I grant you it’s the last of the Dibros, but if anything that should make it more beloved! I venture to say, for that matter, that the obsession that many people have with implementing chumros on top of chumros in certain aspects of Yiddishkeit may, in some cases, stem less from a desire to be closer to HaShem than from a desire to be closer to Him than their neighbors are.
Should limits be put on the conspicuous expenditures at simchas? If the Rabbis feel they must, then surely this avenue must be pursued. However, until the problem of covetousness is dealt with directly, from the time children are very small and throughout 120 years of existence, the problem will only re-surface in another incarnation. Let us see the simcha takanah supplemented by the same concerted efforts towards education that were responsible for the revival of the study of hilchos shmiras halashon. There is enough source material available, plenty of food for thought and discussion. Just make sure to keep your eyes on your own plate!