Putting possessions in spiritual perspective

“One who acquires more possessions acquires more worry (Pirkei Avot 2:8).”
This intuitive notion serves as a powerful check on one of the most powerful of human drives: the drive to amass wealth and assets. I must have heard, learned and taught this famous dictum of Hillel a hundred times or more in the past decade alone. Suffice it to say that our generation, a generation blessed with more wealth and opportunity than perhaps any generation, needs Hillel’s guidance more than ever. And yet, as I’ve only recently learned, it’s a whole other thing to experience the wisdom of a Torah teaching in one’s own life.
When my children were younger, money wasn’t important to me. Sure, I needed funds to to pay the rent and utilities for the modest apartment we lived in, and to buy groceries, Pampers and clothing for my growing family. But, as long as we had enough to provide those basic needs, I was fully content.
Then, my family’s expenses grew, considerably so.
Five children in prekindergarten and up meant five tuition bills to Jewish day school and summer camp. These wonderful investments in our children’s future, nonetheless carried lofty price tags. Throw in extracurricular and weekend activities,mix in birthday parties and bar and bat mitzvah celebrations. Don’t forget to add in memorable family vacations, and yearly two-way trips for seven people to visit Bubbe and Zayde in Baltimore, and Saba and Savta in Atlanta. Still, our budget was swelling and, once again, I was tolerant of, if not fully satisfied with, our fiscal well-being.
But my thoughts turned to a costly future. A 16-year-old daughter meant car insurance, a new vehicle and the other expenses that come with a teenager. My mind wandered to upcoming college tuition and nuptials which, with God’s help, wouldn’t be too far off, and savings put aside for future grandchildren. Then there was the question of our own retirement.
The seemingly endless dollar signs in my brain made my head spin and my stomach weak. Making monthly ends meet no longer seemed enough. With my salary largely set, thoughts of potential investments in the stock market, into a business or real estate ventures seemed necessary to cover future expenses.
I studied the ins and outs of a particular investment for six months, and jumped in with a great deal of hope. Things went largely as planned, and I felt we had invested in something that would hopefully bear fruit down the road. What I didn’t expect to find was my stomach turned like a wrench, my mind returning over and over to my investment, and my sleep disturbed. Had I gotten the best deal? Run the numbers correctly? Chosen correctly and properly analyzed the future of the investment? Would the investment perform well long term? What were the knowns and the unknowns of the transaction? Should I buy or sell? The list went on and on, and with it, much of the peace and quiet in my mind.
I had run the numbers multiple times and received the input and advice of experts in the field, yet it seemingly wasn’t enough for me. It was as if my newly acquired assets had, in fact, acquired me. I walked around with Hillel’s dictum in my mind’s eye; the more possessions one had, the more one had to worry about. I couldn’t help but jealously look back at my earlier, simpler and more peaceful days, and relate to the spirit of Solomon’s wise quip: “The sleep of the laborer is sweet, whether he eat little or much, but the satiety of the rich does not allow him to sleep (Kohelet 5:11).”
However, unloading my investments meant a return to the fear that accompanied the prospect of an unprepared future. But how to overcome the associated nervousness and angst? Perhaps Hillel’s teaching meant that ownership and worry were inextricably linked, that one of the inevitable costs of possessions is worry itself. Would life then become nothing more than a choice between the lesser of two evils?
I turned to God and asked Him to take over. As I did so, feelings of relief slowly came to me. Although it didn’t happen immediately, I eventually reached a point of internal peace. My investments returned to their rightful place, the back of my mind. And my focus returned to what really mattered, and the reason I was doing all of this in the first place: my family.
Perhaps this is what Hillel taught us all along with his dictum. If you see the possessions you’ve acquired as yours alone, then you alone must bear the burden of concern for those assets. However, if you don’t see yourself as the “true” owner, that you are but a custodian of God’s possessions, then God can, and will, share in the burden of possession. With such an emotionally healthy outlook we can share in the promise of King David when he said, “Cast your burden upon Hashem, and He will bear you (Tehillim 55:23).”
Rabbi Yogi Robkin is the outreach director of DATA of Plano. He can be reached at

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