In a recent article, “Why We Don’t Like Cheap Things,” philosopher Alain de Botton argues that we overspend to satisfy deep urges for status and recognition. De Botton is one of the founders of the School of Life, and in this article he examines what he calls the “curious overlap between love and economics.” He begins with the rise and decline of pineapples. They were once considered a rare treasure, a fruit difficult to obtain even among the aristocracy. We find images of pineapples ornamenting homes and buildings, being gifted in oil paintings and served at elegant affairs. But then something happened. With more efficiency in production and transportation, the pineapple went way down in value and, therefore, in popularity. It’s strange because the taste of pineapple (ostensibly the reason that people like this fruit) stays the same no matter the price.
De Botton writes: “...when we have to pay a lot for something nice, we appreciate it to the full. Yet as its price in the market falls, passion has a habit of fading away. Naturally, if the object has no merit to begin with, a high price won’t be able to do anything for it; but if it has real virtue and yet a low price, then it is in severe danger of falling into grievous neglect.” The poor neglected pineapple.
One of my first thoughts on reading this article is wondering about his religious/ethnic identity. I figured he was not Jewish because, let’s face it, we love a bargain. Not only do we love cheap things, we love to tell you what we paid for them. Although de Botton is a self-proclaimed atheist, his mother is Jewish. Go figure.
Bargain seeking, however, is not only or always a behavior of the cheap. It is arguably a behavior of the smart. Why pay more for the same item or something similar. Retail versus wholesale? For us, wholesale trumps every time. Exception: spending money on rituals. The Talmud understands the verse above to be a statement about the importance of aesthetics in mitzva observance. What does it mean to glorify God? “I will be beautiful before Him in mitzvot” [BT Nazir 2b].
What is the decorative flourish that accessorizes a meaningful life? Good deeds. Intimacy with God. Treating other human beings with respect and dignity. It lies in taking the time and money to beautify the mitzvot we do. The Talmud continues: “I will make before Him a beautiful sukka, a beautiful lulav, beautiful ritual fringes. I will write before Him a beautiful Torah scroll, and I will wrap it in beautiful silk cloths.”
Maimonides takes this passage a step further and helps us understand what this means. A Torah scroll should be written correctly and elegantly, as should the text in tefillin. If you have a choice between etrogim - the citron taken on Sukkot - take the more beautiful one, as long as it does not exceed the other in cost by more than one-third [Shulkhan Arukh, OH 32:4, 656:1]. This ruling helps us understand how to prioritize when it comes to the value of the aesthetic in mitzvot. You don’t have to buy the cheapest ritual object or the most expensive but you should aim for your personal best and that best has a metric - add on one third of the cost of something you would normally spend on an item.
The Talmud understood that making what is called in the world of fund-raising “a quality gift” helps us value what we do. We value our spiritual lives when we make investments and braid beauty together with sanctity. We feel better about the world when we stand before God clothed in wisdom, justice and beauty.
This season, how beautiful are your mitzvot?
Shabbat Shalom and Happy Sukkot