Mussar: Simplicity Part 1

Ever sense I can remember one of my favorite TV shows was The Andy Griffith Show. One of the reasons is because of a longing for the joy of the simple things in life like family, friends, and Aunt Bee’s home cooking. I can picture myself sitting on the front porch with Opie and Barney listening to Andy’s guitar picking or talking with friends at Floyd’s Barber Shop.

Most of us secretly long for the simpler life found in the little town of Mayberry. Why is this? What is it about Mayberry that gives us a certain amount of joy and how do we find that simple joy? This joy is not found in a certain place but in an attitude.

I believe simplicity and contentment are two sides of the same coin. It is virtually impossible to speak of one without the other.

Let’s look at the first book of the Bible for some guidance. Genesis 1:10 “G-d called the dry ground “land,” and the collection of the water He called “seas.” And G-d saw that it was good.” So G-D created the material world and called it good. How can it not be good, it is created and sustained by G-D after all. Let’s look at another passage.

Isaiah 6:3 “One called out to another, and said: Holy, holy, holy, is Ad-nai-Tzvaot! The whole earth is full of His glory.”

Not only is the physical world good, but it is holy and full of the glory of G-D. This idea is counter to what we are often taught regarding the physical world. This is largely in part because of the influence of Greek philosophy on our interpretations of Scripture. The material is not the counterpart to the spiritual. Simplicity does not by default equate to spiritual holiness nor is it the opposite of materialism. In fact it is in the physical world that are we elevated in holiness. The study of simplicity begins with the recognition of the good.

Let me explain: We were created for a physical world. A world created by G-D for our benefit. In this physical world there is perfect peace and contentment. All we could desire or need is found in this world.

Let’s return to the book of Genesis briefly. In the Garden, Eve was deceived by the serpent into believing there is something she lacked. In this case it was knowledge. Eve believed the deceptions of the serpent that G-D was withholding something from her and Adam. Eve failed to recognize the good and find joy in what she had.

Genesis 3:6 “Now the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a thing of lust for the eyes, and that the tree was desirable for imparting wisdom. So she took of its fruit and she ate.”

The Hebrew word translated “lust” is “t’shukah”, meaning craving or desire.

Let’s review! G-D created all things good; yet not all things good are good for us. The Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil was not good for us to eat. Eve desired more than what was good for her and allowed herself to be deceived by the serpent into believing she was missing out. As a result the Yetzer hara (Evil inclination) entered into the world! Much of the root cause of sin is the lust for what we do not have. This is why G-D teaches us about the dangers of coveting.

Exodus 20:17 “Do not covet your neighbor’s house, your neighbor’s wife, his manservant, his maidservant, his ox, his donkey, or anything that is your neighbor’s.”

The lure of power and influence at its root is the desire to attain what is not yours.

Micah 2:1-2 “Oy to them who scheme wickedness, who work out evil upon their beds! In the light of the morning, they do it, for the power is in their hands. They covet fields, so they seize them, or houses, and take them away. So they oppress a man and his house— a man and his inheritance

Just as G-D has allotted good land for all Israel He has allotted for us good things. G-D knows what we need and what is good for us.

Matthew 6:8 “Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask Him.”

The soul needs the material world to even exist, and the material world is given by G-D for us. Not only does G-D use the material world to provide for our needs, but He also uses the material world to elevate our holiness. For example: G-D gave Israel a list of animals which she may and may not eat. What does G-D say about animals that Israel is not to eat? “They are unclean for you.” The Hebrew term translated as “unclean” is “Tamei”. This does not mean unclean in a physical sense like dirty. A more accurate understanding is Tamei is something that falls spiritual short of holiness. Within the physical world there are things that G-D defines as holy, or set apart, and not so holy. The root problem of the physical world is not found directly in the physical world but in our Yetzer hara. Because of our evil inclination the material world can be a spiritual trap for us. We become slaves to our lust for what we do not have. The most obvious and striking example is found in the world of materialism.

In the ancient world the draw of materialism was out of poverty and the hope of salvation through material goods. In much of our modern world the draw of materialism rises out of our abundance rather than lack. Allow me to restate the obvious! It is not material possessions that are the problem, but our inclination to become over indulgent. As Alan Morinis teaches, the allure of the material is endless, and the craving is insatiable. When your desire is for what you do not have you will never be satisfied with enough. There is no end to its labor, and no limit to its longing.

How do we strengthen the middot of Simplicity in our lives and free ourselves from the slavery of covetousness?

The Gaon of Vilna clarifies three levels of practice.

  1. Acquiring less: Shlomo Ibn Gabirol 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 need.” Ask yourself “Do I really need this”? This is no easy task in a world that is constantly telling us what we still lack. Often you do not even realize what you lack until marketing advertisers tell you about it. (Apple’s marketing strategy of telling you what you need rather than providing what you think you need) This principle is true whether we are speaking of a house, a car, the new tablet, our jobs, even our spouses.
  2. Find contentment in what you have: Endlessly craving for what we do not have will stop us from enjoying what we already have. Search for reasons to bless G-D each day for His provisions. Trust that we do not have is also in His hands and He gives us what is best for us.
  3. Remind yourself that you have everything you need: This is what the Gaon of Vilna identifies as the highest level of simplicity. When we are released from the enslavement of desire for what we do not have we are freed to find joy.

In his article “The Complexity of Simplicity” Jonathan Lane makes a great point about simplicity being anything but simple. We live in a world where we are bombarded with advertisements for the next big thing. Reminding us of what we do not have but so desperately need. Everywhere we turn someone is vying for our time and dollars. Whenever someone wants to simplify their life a little it takes a lot of discipline.

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