Wednesday, December 21, 2016

On the Direction We Face- Choosing between a focus on ruchniyus versus gashmiyus

There’s been a lot written about the high costs of raising a family in the Orthodox world. There have many articles and discussions about the tuition crisis in the Modern orthodox world. While these are certainly very real issues which require serious thought, I’d like to look at another issue involving wealth and the Orthodox world. To what degree does the pursuit of wealth and comfort interfere with, and even contradict, the desire and ability to live a life of holiness?

There is a gemara in Maseches Baba Basra on 25b which says that one who wants to be wealthy should face slightly towards the north when davening, while one who wants to be wise should face towards the south. This is based on the fact that in the Mishkan and Beis HaMikdash the Shulchan, which represents physical blessing, was to the north of the mizbeach, while the menorah, which represents wisdom, was to its south. A friend of mine once pointed out that from the gemara it seems clear that one must choose their loyalty, and that one can’t truly pursue both paths. This, of course, is not to say that there are not people who do not possess wisdom and wealth. Rather, to some degree, one can only be most loyal and desirous of one of them.

Having just completed Rav Soloveichik’s Lonely Man of Faith, I was struck by how prescient much of what he wrote half a century ago was in describing the Orthodox world of today. In particular, I was taken by his description of a level of observance which desires to get the benefits of religion without any sacrifices. He bemoaned the sense that religion is there to provide comfort to us, without asking anything of us in return. I found myself wondering what he would say about communities where Torah and Mitzvos sometimes seem to be just a topping on top of the main course of consumerist values.

A dear mentor has noted that when reading certain religious periodicals, he is unsure whether to concentrate on the peshat in the “gemara” in the middle of the page, where stories are told of the gedolim who lived simply as they pursued lives of ruchniyus, or on “Rashi” and “Tosefos” on the sides of the page, where there ads for Pesach in Switzerland, and gourmet supermarkets advertising also sorts of delicacies. Again, I must stress that this I am not suggesting that wealth and deep Avodas HaShem cannot go together. Tanach and Shas contain examples of those who in fact combined both. Still, I wonder whether we as a community are putting the emphasis in the right place, and providing the message that when we must choose, there is one obvious choice we should make.

While we are blessed, to live in a time where are surrounded by prosperity, we also face certain challenges. We run the risk of becoming observant of mitzvos, while failing to live by some of the values of the Torah. While we often talk of “tzniyus”, modesty is about much more that what one wears. In the Middle Ages there were takanos made about not being ostentatious in building expensive homes. While one could, mistakenly in my opinion, make the claim that we no longer need to worry about those outside of our community seeing our wealth, we do need to be concerned by those inside of our community, indeed within our families seeing how we live. It is not just about the differences between the haves and the have-nots. It is the message of what we value most that should also concern us.


  1. "There is a gemara in Maseches Baba Basra on 25b which says that one who wants to be wealthy should face slightly towards the north when davening, while one who wants to be wise should face towards the south."

    Had I been there at the time, I would have commented ... and the one who wants whatever blessings HKB"H decides to bestow upon him should face directly east.

  2. Actually, if you were there in Bavel, you probably would have said "west" -- toward Israel.

    One stand oriented one way, turn one's head to the side, and turn one's thoughts a third way. Rishonim discussing the gemara resolve the question you're raising with different combinations of those 3 elements.