Charitable Giving: Heed ancient wisdom: much stuff, much worry

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This past summer, tens of thousands of Jews worldwide marked the completion of the Talmud cycle, studying one page a day for seven years. They celebrated and began anew. In the process, they stretched themselves in study.

But too often, instead of setting spiritual or intellectual goals, we are driven by material goals. According to research in the new book “Life at Home in the 21st Century,” we are fast becoming a nation of hoarders. The research data points to the amount of possessions most ordinary American families have. And it turns out we have a lot. One of the findings was the direct relationship between the number of refrigerator magnets and the amount of other household objects. I counted over 20 on the side of my fridge, but just as I was about to take some down, I spotted my favorite: “With the time and energy we’ve spent dieting, we could have built a small, fat-loving civilization.” Please don’t make me part with it.

For four years, a team of social scientists based at UCLA studied 32 American middle-class families: dual-earner households with at least two children (major sources of junk). One of their many findings is that women seem to be much more stressed by family clutter than men. That may be because they predominantly buy it or because they predominantly manage it. Whatever the reason, it seems like we own too much to take care of well, and technology has only exacerbated the problem by making it that much easier to augment stuff.

Research suggests that happiness results more in the purchase of experiences than material items (a vacation vs. a new car). One of the book’s researchers explained that we buy guilt presents to compensate for not spending enough time with our families and others, and that holidays typically revolve around presents, but “We don’t have rituals, mechanisms, for getting rid of stuff.”

This is not actually true for the Jewish calendar. Every holiday in the days of the ancient Temple involved bringing the best of what you had to the Temple as a gift. When you harvested your crops, each harvest required giving a portion away to support the needy and the priestly cast. Before you enjoyed any food, you had already whittled down the amount for yourself and your family. In fact, the capacity to give food away is regarded as a source of holiday joy. Passover is a yearly time when we go through our stuff and dispose of leaven (and a whole lot of other things we find in the search for it).

I’ve thought a lot about this given the affluence of today’s Jewish community. We aren’t giving away enough of our incomes in tithes to match what our ancestors once did. And our entire community was essentially formed through our wilderness trek in the desert for 40 years. When your nationhood begins without a homeland, you carry whatever you have with you. And when you pack, it had better be only the most essential items. You can’t pack the way so many of us do for summer vacations, including supplies for every eventuality. What if I want to go mountain climbing or play tennis? What if it rains? What if there is a cyclone? The “what if” of packing has truly been influenced only by the change in airline policy. If you can only take one carry-on without payment, you begin to think twice and three times about what is essential.

The rabbis of old, like the sociologists of today, believed that having many things was a source of anxiety rather than pleasure, and they summed it up in four Hebrew words that I have translated into four idiomatic English ones: “Much stuff, much worry.” (Ethics of the Fathers 2:8) They wanted us to know that the pleasure of purchasing something is not the same as the stress of maintaining it. Just speak to anyone who has a boat.

For a little inspiration along the road, you might want to read about the father-and-daughter team Kevin and Hannah Salwen, who wrote “The Power of Half: One Family’s Decision to Stop Taking and Start Giving.” They sold their mansion to buy a house half its size and gave the rest to charity. They also applied the same logic to the rest of their lives. But don’t buy the book if you can take it out of the library!

As we cycle through the Talmud — or begin a new year — it’s a great time to do an inventory of what we can get rid of and what we can do more of. n

Erica Brown, Ph.D. is a writer and educator who works as the scholar-in-residence for the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington and consults for the Jewish Agency and other Jewish nonprofits. She posts Weekly Jewish Wisdom at www.leadingwithmeaning.com.