Don't be Cheap

This is my God, and I will glorify him.
— Exodus 14:2

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

Is Your Table an Altar?

When the Temple is standing, the altar atones for a person; now it is a person’s table that atones for him.

— Talmud Hagiga 27a

This busy holiday season is full of references to the Temple and the way that these days were celebrated there. In the absence of sacrifices, there is prayer today. In the absence of an altar, there is a table today - our tables. This notion that we repent through our tables suggests that the table not only be a place to eat and gather with friends and family but a place where repair is performed. We think about where we have fallen short and how we can make up for it by the way we treat others who we bring close to us, close enough to speak to across a table.

The connection between the table and the altar of old is discussed in the Talmud and made through a rabbinic literary referencing system employed by our sages. They took a biblical verse, in this case one from Ezekiel, and connected two words in it: "The altar, three cubits high, and its length two cubits, was of wood, and so its corners, its length and its walls were also of wood, and he said to me: This is the table that is before the Lord" (41:22). If an altar is like God's table then when there is no altar our tables must serve in its place. "The verse began with 'altar' and ended with 'table,'" taught both Rabbi Yohanan and Reish Lakish. These were noted sparring partners, but there was something that the two agreed upon: this teaching. 

 The medieval French commentator Rashi says that we achieve atonement through our generosity at the table. Rabbi Samuel Edels, or the Maharsha, of the sixteenth century interprets this differently. Because the term atonement is used, he believes we treat our table as an altar when we limit what we eat in memory of what was offered in the Temple: wine, meat and bread. We might want to extrapolate that a good way to atone for sins of excess is to engage in greater restraint in what we eat and how we speak with those at our tables. Still others believe the altar and table come together when we teach Torah at a meal, as we learn in the third chapter of Ethics of the Fathers:

"Rabbi Simon would say: 'Three who eat together at a table and do not speak words of Torah, it is as if they had eaten sacrifices to idols, as it states: 'All tables are filled with vomit and filth, devoid of God' (Isaiah 28:8). But when three people eat at a table and speak words of Torah, it is as if they have eaten at God's table, as it states, 'This is the table that is before God' (Ezekiel 41:22)."

 Every time we eat, we can sanctify it through blessings, holy conversation and intentional eating or we can profane the moment. Seeking atonement means using each food opportunity as a chance for improvement generally. The table is the place where most families gather daily. It's a time when we can engage our hearts and minds or merely engage our mouths. Since many nutritionists believe that we have about 20 "food encounters" a day, we have multiple opportunities all of the time to do this better.

 This reminds me of a Miss Manners column where a woman complained about being a dinner guest at a home with her husband and son where the host complimented what she was wearing, saying "it accentuates the right places." This was most embarrassing for her and she was not sure how to respond to this inappropriate remark. The situation was made worse when the hostess - who was herself upset about the comment - was short with the guest instead of being short with her husband. What, Miss Manners, should she do if such a situation arises again?

 "Considering that the husband was lewd and the wife snippy" Miss Manners doubted that the situation would happen again since they should be crossed off the visiting list. She did, however, make this recommendation: "Should you encounter such a remark again, you could exclaim, 'I didn't know that you used to be a tailor!'"

The table is an altar for atonement when we can use it to change a dynamic that is not healthy or happy to one that engages everyone in a spirit of mutual respect and curiosity. And it's a great way to take Yom Kippur into Sukkot. The table we use to greet our many guests becomes a way for us to improve our manners, heighten our generosity to strangers and elevate the conversation.

 How can we all make our tables altars of atonement?

 What will you do to enhance your dining experience spiritually this Sukkot?

Shabbat Shalom and Happy Sukkot!