Rabbi Pressman Possessing or Possessed?

rabbi pressman
Possessing or Possessed? — The Jewish Virtue of Histapkut/Enoughness

How many people here have ever moved? How many have helped someone else move? Weren’t the two experiences different? When you are moving, though you may welcome the opportunity to downsize, it’s hard to let go. Who knows, maybe bell-bottoms will come back in fashion. I’m sure that this 1990 Gameboy will be a collector’s item some day. When you help someone else move, it’s easy. You tell them, “Do you really need all this trash? Just get rid of it.” In the words of George Carlin, cleaned up for shul, “Have you noticed that their stuff is trash and your trash is stuff?”

I’ve been thinking a lot about possessions, and accumulation. I did some housecleaning this summer, and I’ve also got retirement on the horizon, which will require finding a place for the thousands of books I have stashed around the synagogue.

I also remember my four sabbaticals, each of which involved putting many things in storage. For my 1995 sabbatical we were only able to rent it unfurnished, so we had to move everything out of the house. This was as close as I’ve ever come to a nervous breakdown! As I wrote later, first you just marvel at how much stuff you’ve accumulated. Then you wonder why. Eventually you develop an active loathing of all your possessions, as you plow through endless caches of junk, apparently hidden around your house by alien magpie packrats: Boxes with unidentified keys; small denomination foreign coins; manuals for long-gone appliances; notebooks from college courses. Why did I think this was worth keeping?

Then, perhaps, you start to think more deeply about how our modern American lives are consumed by consumerism. Indeed, acquisition has accelerated, thanks to the ease of impulse buying on the Internet. Furthermore, we live in Silicon Valley, the world capital of instant obsolescence. Oh my God! 2.0 just came out and I’ve only got 1.9!

Just as an experiment, I tried to tally up how many gadgets I have that either plug in or need a battery. I didn’t count the built-in kitchen appliances or lighting—those are necessities. But cameras, computers, sound systems, and so on were fair game. The total was 41, and I’m sure I undercounted.

A few years ago UCLA’s Center on Everyday Lives of Families conducted an ethnoarchaeological study of 32 LA families, which included an inventory of their possessions. They reported:

“The first household assemblage we analyzed, of Family 27, resulted in a tally of 2,260 visible possessions in the first three rooms coded (two bedrooms and the living room),” and that didn’t include “untold numbers of items tucked into dresser drawers, boxes and cabinets or items positioned behind other items.”[1] Of course, if you’re the parent of young children, you probably have 2200 Lego pieces alone!

Then, no surprise, they found that 75% of the garages had no room for cars, because they were overflowing with, you guessed it, stuff.

We’re not talking about compulsive hoarders here, just normal families—some of whom were inspired to downsize after they heard their totals. They realized that all their stuff was causing them stress and distraction. Our great Rabbi Hillel knew this two thousand years ago, so he taught, marbeh nechasim, marbeh d’agah—the more possessions the more worries.[2]

I think this is true in two ways. First, when you own something, you have to take care of it. You worry about it being broken, stolen or lost. And you also fret over the energy needed to keep all those possessions properly stored and organized. So the more you have, the more such fears. Second, and more on point, the cycle of acquisition, consumption, and dissatisfaction is inherently stressful. Psychologically, once we have acquired that desirable thing, it becomes a normal part of our lives, the initial thrill is extinguished, and so we want still more.

18th century Rabbi Yechezkel Landau relates this to the Talmudic teaching,  “No one departs from this world with half his cravings satisfied.” The more you have, the more you want, and the horizon of your desires recedes unattainably before you. No matter how hard you pursue that other half, it keeps retreating into the distance. What a wonderful formula for unhappiness.

Then there is the envy factor. I was happy with my 2010 car, but my neighbor just bought a new 2012 model. Now I’m less happy. For the envious, what others have denies them pleasure in what they have.

For perhaps the most extreme example of this sort of discontent, consider the world of the super-yacht. I found a story about the Russian billionaire, Roman Abramovich, who owns the largest yacht in the world. It has six decks and is 536 feet long. As the story put it, “Not to be outdone, Abramovich built his yacht 1 ft 8 inches longer that the second place yacht which belongs to the ruler of Dubai.”[3]

I think that this story speaks for itself. Imagine you were a billionaire. Wouldn’t that make you happy? Wouldn’t you give a big donation to Beth David? Yet this fellow chained his happiness to his yacht being 20 inches longer the next fellow’s. And yes, Mr. Abramovich is Jewish, and he does give to charity, including Jewish causes, but still!

This extreme example is absurd, but many of us have our own, scaled down version of envy, which then arouses our acquisitive impulses. As humorist Harold Coffin put it, Envy is the art of counting the other fellow’s blessings instead of your own.”

The authors of the recent book The Tools describe the result of this pursuit of stuff very well, “Most people have a faulty way of motivating themselves. They’re motivated to get whatever they want they want—money, romance, status—because they feel they don’t have enough already. This feeling of lack is a powerful motivator, but you pay a huge price for it. That price is the ongoing feeling that there’s always something missing. Even if you get something you’ve wanted, you quickly become dissatisfied with it, which then motivates you to get something else. You can never be happy on this treadmill. Eventually, it sucks the meaning and energy out of your life.”[4]

We can start to control of our possessions by asking a simple question, “Do I possess all these things or do they possess me?” Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel once wrote, “to have more is not to be more.” But in today’s America too many people define themselves by how much they have, and accumulation without limits is our default setting.

There is an antidote and counterbalance to the campaign of possessions to take over our lives. It’s the Jewish virtue of histapkut, which is usually translated as simplicity, but is better understood as “having enough-ness.”

Rabbi Ira Stone writes, “histapkut is…embracing simplicity, being content with less. Not focusing on trying to fulfill never-ending needs and desires frees us to be fully present to the moment and available to the others in our lives.” In other words, this is  mindfulness tool.

Rosh Hashanah is a time to reflect on the quality of our lives, our deeds, and our character. We have a good road map for this: the process of Teshuvah, of repentance. This year let’s include our possessions in this process. Here’s how it works:

The essential first step of repentance is heshbon ha-nefesh, an accounting of the soul. The Twelve-Step people have a great way of describing this: Make a searching and fearless moral inventory. One aspect of this can be a physical inventory of our stuff, if not in detail, at least with general awareness. One useful question is: how many things in this room, how many items of clothing in my closet, how much stuff in my garage, have I gone two years without using? So why am I keeping it?

You then can act on that insight. With transgressions this requires apologizing to others, confessing the sin, repairing damage done, and resolving not to repeat the offense. With possessions, we have to simplify, which means we have to let go. Histapkut—it’s enough.

I did a major house cleaning before my last sabbatical. With permission, I filled the synagogue’s trash and recycling bins three times each, in addition to full home receptacles and many bags of clothing to Goodwill. Yet there was still stuff left in garage cabinets as well as a 10 x 10 storage unit. Even this partial purge felt good…afterwards!

I discovered later that the 11th century rabbi and poet Shlomo ibn Gabirol had it all figured out. He wrote, “Seek what you need and give up what you do not need. For in giving up what you do not need, you will learn what you really do need.”

The key element is learning to distinguish needs from wants. It’s never been more difficult, because we are bombarded by very smart advertisers and marketers who use psychology and neuroscience to increase our discontent with what we have.

Alan Morinis helps us in his writing about histapkut:

A need is different from a desire. A need really is essential. A desire, on the other hand, is backed by an emotional force that turns it into a virtual demand: I have to have it. And it is our desires that create trouble for us.[5]

And here is something else that repentance and simplifying have in common: they require us to set priorities, to know what is most important in our lives. In ethical improvement, this means knowing—as the wicked do not—that other people are as valuable as we are and that our desires and emotions should not rule us. If you want to control acquisition and possession, then follow Morinis’s advice: you will only make your life count when you know what counts in your life, and you will only know that if you simplify. Paradoxically, when you have less, you can better appreciate and enjoy what you have.

A cartoon I found that illustrates “The more possessions the more worries” cleverly portrayed this.

It shows a little girl playing happily when she has just one doll, but sitting bored when surrounded by piles of toys. Sometimes too much stuff can make us miserable. We are burdened by a surfeit of choice.

This connects to another teaching from Pirkei Avot: “Who is rich? The one who is happy with his portion.” Some people don’t like this teaching. They think it shows lack of ambition. Not so! Rather, this teaching tells us that desire for more can kill our enjoyment of what we do have.

There is a dramatic Hassidic story told by Rabbi Moshe Rubin about how uncontrolled discontent can destroy us. A king made an offer to one of his subjects: “Run through this stretch of land, and I grant to you all the land that you will cover!” The man ran and ran, gaining more and more land with every step. Totally exhausted, the man finally collapsed. Stretching out his arm over a few more inches, he exclaimed his dying words: “This, too, is mine!”[6]

The Jewish value of histapkut doesn’t ask us to make a vow of poverty. After all, it is also true that “no possessions, more worries.” Judaism asks us not to reject the material world, but to live in it with discernment and wisdom. So how can we find this balance in our material lives? — Through mindfulness and discipline.

The Mussar movement developed a variety of techniques is to help us change our character. One is to memorize a relevant text and recite it regularly, or at least when you feel tempted. I’ve mentioned two. So next time, before you click “add to cart,” recite, “The more possessions, the more worries” a few times. When a new version comes out of a gadget you bought just months before, recite, “Who is rich? The one who is happy with his portion.” Or just repeat, histapkut—simplicity—a few times. When a tempting commercial comes on TV, mute the sound [or, if its on DVR, fast forward—now that’s a gadget worth having!—and recite one of these maxims. After all, the advertisers want to make you feel that there is a hole in your life that can only be filled by what they are selling.

Rabbi Ira Stone, contemporary Mussar teacher, suggests asking yourself some questions:

  • · By focusing on the acquisition of the material, did you miss a moment to be available to the other who was in front of you?
  • · When you bought something, did you have any moment, even the briefest pause, where you actually made a conscious decision to continue? Or were you on ‘automatic pilot?’
  • · Did you consider others or a specific other in your action?
  • · How much of your energy is spent considering material goods?

Once again, mindfulness is the key. Stuff piles up thoughtlessly. It is controlled by consciousness.

I’ll finish with a story about the Chofetz Chayyim, the great Jewish sage and moral exemplar. An American visitor was passing through the Chofetz Chayyim’s town and stopped in to visit him. Coming from American luxury, he was astounded by how sparsely furnished the Chofetz Chayyim’s home was. Unable to contain himself, he asked, “Where is your furniture?” The Chofetz Chayyim replied, “Where is yours. The man, a bit surprised, said, “Oh, I am only passing through,” answered the man. The Chofetz Chayyim replied, “I, too, am only passing through.”

As we pass through this world, do we want to define ourselves by what we have or by who we are? Do we want to be discontent, or happy with our portion? Do we want to rule our possessions or be ruled by them? Do we want to embrace ephemeral things or lasting values? As we begin the New Year, let us cultivate the great Jewish virtue of histapkut. May we seek simplicity and contentment in our lives, and may we use the time and energy thus liberated to love, to learn, to grow, to sing, to grow closer to family and friends and to God, and to bring joy to others.


[1]    As reported at http://moneyland.time.com/2012/07/19/got-stuff-typical-american-home-cluttered-with-possessions-and-stressing-us-out/

[2]    Pirkei Avot 2:8

[3] http://www.dreamvillager.com/article~info~Style-Yachts-Superyachts-Eye-Old-Barcelona-Port~articleID~1045.htm

[4]           The Tools, by Phil Stutz and Barry Michels.

[5]         Alan Morinis, Everyday Holiness: The Jewish Spiritual Path of Mussar, p. 118.

[6]    http://www.saratogachabad.com/NP/RebMoshe/Vertlach.htm