White Friday

One who increase possessions increases worry
— Hillel

Last week I suggested to readers that to combat some of the baseless hatred of the Friday before - when the Paris terrorist attacks happened - they engage in random acts of kindness. Many reported back on acts small and large that helped lift them above the despair of what seems an ever intolerant and violent society. One tutored an Afghan war veteran in physics and calculus to help him complete his pre-med requirements. One made a bank teller feel good by wishing her well on her recent marriage. Some of you said that you were studying to honor the memory of Ezra Schwartz, an 18-year old American who was murdered last week while studying in Israel for his gap year.

Another 18 year old Israeli, Naftali Litman, and his father Yaakov, were also killed in a terrorist attack last week. The family was driving to a Shabbat celebration before the wedding of Naftali’s sister, Sara, to be held later that week. Despite the heavy and tragic losses, the Litman family went ahead with the wedding and invited the entire State of Israel to participate. Sara and Ariel, her fiancé, responded to tragedy by lifting everyone else up to share in their joy.  Last Friday, one reader contributed to a fund in their honor, which has currently raisedover $21,000 from complete strangers in what, could be argued, is a wedding gift registry held up by a thousand kindnesses.

That takes us to this coming Friday. What will you be doing tomorrow?

The Friday after Thanksgiving has been named Black Friday to put merchants in the black by pumping up pre-holiday sales. Some stores have started opening on Thanksgiving itself so that football game viewing ends with door-buster spending. Thank goodness, some chains have reacted to this consumer fever with a backlash. REI, the outdoor equipment supplier, will close all of its 143 stores not only on Thanksgiving but on the Friday afterward and is paying all of its 12,000 employees so that they can have a day outdoors with their families. Forty-nine state parks in Northern California are offering free admission to encourage people to spend the day in nature, not in the mall.

But not everyone will be so high-minded. Many will hunt outdoors for parking spaces and then hunt indoors for bargains. They will lose sleep to save a few bucks on new technology or new clothing. They will bring home their packages and have to find a place for them. They will buy gifts that may get returned. They will buy things they never needed in the first place and they will ignore the famous statement from Ethics of the Fathers 2:8: “One who increase possessions increases worry.”

Why, you may ask, will more material possessions generate more anxiety? Because, in the words of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, in his commentary on Ethics of the Fathers, these things seem "desirable to many but can have an adverse effect on those who possess them." The ancient Sage behind the quote, Hillel, pushed back by also enumerating “things” that, when increased, only bring more joy and wisdom: “The more Torah, the more life; the more study, the more wisdom; the more counsel, the more understanding, the more devotion to duty, the more peace.” On this, Rabbi Hirsch writes: “The more the Torah will be acquired in theory and observed in practice, the more will human existence become life in the true, genuine sense of the word.”

If what you already have doesn’t make you happy, then how will having more of it make you happier?

If you want to acquire anything that brings about a better state of humanity, here is what Hillel recommends you buy at the mall: a good name and words of Torah. If you acquire a good name, Hillel states, that is the best acquisition you can own.

Many years ago, I saw a sign in the elevator at work, “If what you already have doesn’t make you happy, then how will having more of it make you happier?” Black Friday does not exist to help you. It’s there to help store owners and jolt the economy. Do something for yourself instead. Reconsider tomorrow from a Jewish point of view. You might join with REI and make it Green Friday and then, when you come back from your hike, you might want to turn Black Friday into White Friday, a day pure and free of consumerism, a day that ends with a white tablecloth and a Shabbat meal and the white light of candlesticks. And if you are going shopping, shop for some food that enables you to host a neighbor or a person in need of some company. If you can’t begin the day with rest, kindness and serenity, at least end it that way.

Shabbat Shalom