Someone recently commented here that she was shocked by the level of materialism that exists in the frum world. I have also often felt that way, but I’ve recently come to the conclusion that it was an unfair judgment on my part, so I thought I’d share a bit about what caused me to change my attitude.
Many BTs start out with an anti-materialistic stance. That’s partly because we are spiritually inclined by nature and partly because we are reacting to the extreme materialism of the secular culture in which we were raised. I, for one, spent a great part of my teenage years proving to myself that I was not – please excuse my language – a J.A.P. I went so far as to attend far-left indoctrination meetings on a regular basis. The main thing I learned there was resentment toward the wealthy. That attitude stuck for years, well beyond my involvement with the Left.
Several years into my teshuva, when attending a Shabbaton, a “first-timer” asked me, “What do all these women, dressed to the nines, have to do with G-d?” I didn’t have an answer for her. It bothered me, too, and it continued bothering me. I even knew a Mymer Chazal to justify my attitude: “Poverty befits a Jew like a red bridle on a white horse.” (Chagigah 9b.)
Now in some ways, the feeling that it was more spiritual to live with less was good for me. It helped me get through lots of lean years. At the same time, though, I was judgmental of people who had more. So between arrogance, judgment, and envy, the picture is not very spiritual at all.
My change of attitude came in a shiur given by Yavilah McCoy, founder of the excellent organization Ayecha (perhaps I’ll post about Ayecha some other time.) She spoke about the Avos and their “specialties” in serving Hashem, that is, chesed, gevurah, and tiferes.
“Tiferes is my favorite,” she said. And she gave the example of receiving a gift from a friend wrapped in a way that was perfectly designed to suit her tastes. Giving the gift was an act of chesed, but by beautifying it the giver added a personal touch. That is the way we should perform our mitzvahs to Hashem. We deliver Him gifts in wrapping paper.
Therefore, when a lady wears a pretty dress l’kavod Shabbos, she beautifies the mitzvah of Shabbos. (My husband points out that by beautifying herself, she may also be beautifying the mitzvah of shalom bayis.) And even if she wears it not purely for the sake of Hashem or her husband but for her own pleasure also, does it really matter? Who but a tzaddik performs mitzvahs in absolute purity?
Everyone has personal indulgences that motivate them to serve Hashem better. If my neighbors have a nicer house than I do and turn their home into a center of shiurim, hachnassas orchim, and tzedaka, should I begrudge it to them? Even if they need the external trappings as a motivation to continue doing those mitzvahs, since Hashem has seen fit to bless them with material wealth, it is certainly not my place to judge them as “too materialistic.” My job is to learn to fargin my wealthier neighbors. In turn, their job is to prevent themselves from snobbery. We are not what we own, and we should not define each other that way. After all, the sin that keeps us in galus is not materialism but sinas chinam.