Toward a Simpler Life
As summer approaches, I think back to one of our most memorable summer trips. Our family attended a Shabbaton where I was scholar in residence, at Kesher Israel congregation in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. The Rabbi, the synagogue and the community, were all wonderful, warm, fantastic and incredibly hospitable.
On the way there we visited the Amish in Lancaster County, took a buggy ride, had a tour of an Amish town and house, and schmoozed with the Amish. On the way back we attended the North East Pennsylvania State Fair. At the State Fair there was, of course, the world’s largest pig. There were hog races, a demolition derby and truck races.
Now, we enjoy music, reading, hiking, museums and art galleries, but, I am not ashamed to admit, we also really enjoyed the State Fair. We had a great time – we cheered on the hogs in the race, we applauded at cars being demolished, and we sat through the “World’s Strongest Clown” show. I thought to myself, maybe I am a bit of a snob sometimes; I look down on people because they do not enjoy the same things that I enjoy. Sometimes that “snobbery” prevents us from even trying something that may be enjoyable. I am not planning on wearing cut-off jeans and getting tattoos or anything like that, I am just saying that we should not let our prejudices get in the way of enjoying things even if they seem unsophisticated. The Amish were also fascinating and I found myself being impressed with “the simple life.” As summer approaches, I think that we should consider for ourselves, and try to teach our children, that there are a lot of simple things that we can do that are very enjoyable, do not cost a lot of money, are not commercialized and are very low-tech.
I think there is a lot to be said for encouraging the Jewish community to pursue a simpler life. The extravagance that one can observe among religious Jews, whether in lavish bar-mitzvahs or weddings, clothing, houses, and cars etc. does not seem to fit with the prophet Michah’s exhortation to “walk modestly with the Lord, Your G-d.” I like being comfortable, I love gadgets, but there is a lot to be said for simplifying.
At the State Fair I learnt that you can have a lot of fun for very little money and it may be in a very surprising context. A family of religious Jews sitting with a with a whole lot of people who are extremely different, and all whooping it up and having a great time together, gives me some hope for humanity after all.
Getting back to the Shabbaton, I think that a lot of what Shabbat is about is simplifying life. We don’t carry our wallets; no credit cards, business cards, driver’s licences, etc. The verse in the Torah states that G-d “shavat vayenafash” which , that G-d rested on the seventh day and rested. The word shavat means “rested” and “vayenafash” also means “rested.” Rav Samson Rafael Hirsch has an interesting translation. He translates, vayinafash as “He withdrew into His essence.” G-d ceased creating, He stopped the expansion mode and withdrew into His essence. On Shabbat every one of us is obligated to cease the expansion mode, the building mode, the acquisition mode and withdraw into our essence, so that on Shabbat our essence is not represented by a wallet, or a cell phone, but rather by the soul.
Shabbat is a little return to simplicity. Yes, we have fantastic food, but only go to where we can walk, we don’t buy anything, we don’t sell anything, we don’t use any electronics, and we only communicate by word of mouth. We appreciate simple things, like eating an uninterrupted meal with the family, singing together, schmoozing, and taking a stroll to nowhere in particular. Shabbos is a simple, but beautiful, staycation. Shabbat Shalom.