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Appreciating Our Wealth (Part III)

by Rabbi Ben Tzion Shafier - TheShmuz.com

My grandmother grew up in Poland before the First World War.  She told me that her family was considered well off: they lived in a two room house. That meant two rooms. One for the parents, and one where the kids slept, ate, played, did chores, cooked, bathed, and cleaned their clothes. That was it, two rooms. Period. And believe me, the rooms weren’t large, and the families weren’t small. Today, when we go on vacation and ‘rough it’  by putting the whole family, parents and two kids, in one motel room, it’s cute and cozy -- for an evening. But that was the amount of space that people lived in with all of their belongings, all the time. That was home. On floors made of dirt, with furniture consisting of the barest table and a few chairs, with wood-burning fireplaces that had to be stocked by chopping trees, they lived. With walls filled with cracks that let the cold air of winter in, but held the sweltering heat of summer; driving a horse to the market and bathing only on special occasions-- without phones, without TV, without running water or electricity, people lived. Regular people, our people, our grandparents, or great-grandparents, lived.

We aren’t any different than they were. They walked, ate, slept, and breathed as we do. They weren’t born on a different planet, and they didn’t live a thousand years ago. Yet their life was so different from ours that it is difficult for us to even imagine ourselves in that setting.


I had a Tanta (great aunt) Perel who came over from Poland before my grandmother. When my grandmother first came to visit, Tanta Perel said to her in an excited voice ‘You must see this. You won’t believe your eyes! Our new building has a bathroom in the apartment itself!’  It was a standard of luxury that she couldn’t even imagine. 


While it may sound like ancient history to us, it wasn’t that long ago that people used an outhouse. In the freezing cold of winter they would don a coat, go out to the back, and there find a bare hut. This is how they lived. There was no such thing as cars and planes and buses. If you had somewhere to go you got into a horse drawn wagon and bumped along a stone road for hours till your insides wanted to come out. There was no such thing as roads and highways. Even smooth walls were something that was unheard of.


Heat was a thing for the rich. My father had a friend who grew up in a cold part of Eastern Europe; he had a handy way of telling whether it was a cold morning. There is a Jewish custom to wash one’s hands immediately upon awaking in the morning. Many people leave a vessel, filled with water next to the bed, so they can wash as soon as they get up. In the early morning, before this man got out of bed, he would look in the vessel, if it had iced over he knew it was a cold day!  I just want to remind you that water doesn’t turn to ice at 58 degrees. And not at 48 either. He slept in the very room that the water froze in! Now we set that thermostat to a comfy 72, and if it goes below 62, we complain ‘Hey, it’s freezing in here!’  Did you ever have your furnace go out? You called the heating company, and they said they will have someone there by the morning. When it got down into the 50’s, you went to sleep at your neighbors. ‘How could a person possibly survive in 50 degree temperature!?’ Yet people did survive; people who were no different than you or I.


We also enjoy material possessions that two generations ago were unimaginable. If you walk down an aisle in Wal-Mart, everything you see is available to be had. In whatever color, shape and texture you like, it is there for us to buy. And for the most part, we have money to buy it with.


To give you an illustration, I gave a talk on this topic and after the lecture a woman came over to tell me an incident. She was friendly with a new immigrant-- a Russian woman. She took her adopted friend on their first outing to a large supermarket. When this Russian immigrant walked into the produce section and saw the abundance and plenty on display, she was so overcome with emotion that she fainted. In all of her years she had never seen so much food, so readily available. During the Communist regime it was considered a regular part of the day to wait for hours on line for food. Now, if we are held up for ten minutes at the checkout counter we are already looking for a new grocery store.


Let me show you another example: If you own a house built before W.W.II, you will probably notice that no matter how large it is there never seems to be enough closet space. The home might have big rooms, plenty of bedrooms and lots of living space, but tiny, undersized closets. That is because the builders in those times built homes for the people who lived then. No one then would dream that we would own the amount of clothing that we do. I spoke to a woman who grew up in the 1930’s, and she told me she had two dresses: one for weekdays and one for the Sabbath. She wasn’t poor; she came from a typical home. That was considered normal.


Now we have racks and racks of clothing: suits, shirts, slacks, sweaters, winter coats, summer jackets, light fall coats, ties, belts, pocket books, and matching accessories. Not to mention shoes. My mentor, Rabbi A. H. Lebowitz grew up in America in the 1920’s. When he wore a hole in the bottom of the one pair of shoes he owned, he didn’t have the heart to ask his father for the twenty five cents that it cost to have new soles put on. So he figured out his own solution. He put a piece of cardboard inside the shoe, so his socks didn’t rub out on the concrete when he walked. It worked well until one day he went outside and it was raining. He walked in a puddle- splash! And his new soles were useless.  


Do we know of anyone today who doesn’t own a number of pairs of shoes? In black, and blue, and brown; ones for casual wear, ones for dress, ones for running, others for basketball, still others for bowling. Do you play golf? Of course only an entirely separate wardrobe is fitting. And, heaven forefend to play tennis in basketball shoes!


If we were to describe our wealth to people of a different generation, I don’t think they would believe us. Kings in prior times didn’t enjoy the luxuries that we do.  If you look at pictures of King George, monarch of England before the Revolutionary War, he was sitting on his throne in the comfort of his palace wearing layer upon layer of robes, topped off by a fur covering. Did you ever wonder why he was wearing all of those layers? The reason is because it was mighty cold in the king’s quarters. The King of England with all of his wealth had to stay warm by huddling up to a smoky fireplace that heated up the part of his body that was facing it, but not the rest of him that was facing the other way. He still had to walk dimly lit, dank, hallways at night. He still had to sleep on a mattress of stuffed feathers. (Keep in mind, there were no chiropractors around to care for his aching back as he sunk down into 36 inches of duck feathers.) And when his brother, the Duke, was getting married, traveling to the wedding meant enduring a backbreaking carriage ride for the better part of a week. The Crown Jewels couldn’t buy him the luxuries that we take for granted today.


The reality is that we are wealthy beyond belief. We enjoy comforts and abundance that are historically unprecedented. And we aren’t speaking about the captains of industry or the extremely affluent. The average taxpaying citizens of today live in opulence and splendor that previous generations couldn’t even dream about.

For centuries, all that man has desired is freedom from tyranny, and a homeland where he enjoys liberty and rights. Armies went to war for this, entire generations sacrificed all that they had for this, and we now have it. We are there. We have finally arrived; living in a free society, with equal rights, and almost unlimited opportunity.


But to enjoy our great wealth we need to stop and appreciate it. When a person does that they recognize how blessed their life is, how fortunate they are to be living in today’s times, and  much they have to thank their Creator.


Click here for Part Four



 The Shmuz”, an engaging and motivating Torah lecture that deals with real life issues is available for FREE at www.TheShmuz.com. The Shmuz on the Parsha Book, a compilation on all of Chumash is now available for purchase either in your local Sefarim store, or at the TheShmuz.com.




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