Question & Answer With Chabakuk Elisha - Their Gashmius Is Your Ruchnius
A Simple Jew asks:
The Sudilkover Rebbe told me, "Everything you do that benefits your children in gashmius, benefits you and your wife in ruchnius." How would you explain this statement?
Chabakuk Elisha answers:
There is a Chassidic saying that goes, "Yenem's gashmius iz dein ruchnius – Someone else's physicality (material needs) is your spirituality" (I've also seen it ascribed to R' Yisroel Salanter). Very often people can subconsciously fall into the erroneous attitude that the spiritual and the physical are two completely distinct realms (and this disconnect has many unfortunate manifestations which we need not discuss here), but nothing could be further from the truth; in Yiddishkeit these two worlds and realities are inexorably linked. To quote another Chassidic saying, "For a few coins in this world, one can buy eternal life" (also quoted in the name of the Vilna Gaon) – i.e. the material world isn't to be shunned, rather, it has a purpose which we are able, and obligated, to carry out. And this role of the material begins with the fundamental principle of the Torah: Concern for others.
This most fundamental cornerstone of Judaism is our relationship with and responsibilities towards our fellow man – as we are told, "To love G-d is to love your fellow" – and this, in turn, begins with those closest to us (as the principle in tzedaka is that "oniyei ircha kodem – the needy in your community come first"). Who is not closer than one's own family? Who is more responsible for one's own spouse or children than their spouse or parent? Thus, it is quite clear that, as the Sudilkover Rebbe said above, "Everything you do that benefits your children in gashmius, benefits you and your wife in ruchnius."
And while we're on the subject I'd like to digress for a moment to the subject of materialism. The Chassidic masters (and I'm sure many others) teach that anything beyond basic necessities is dangerously close to indulging in materialism and a slippery slope towards gluttony, and that the only material possessions that a true oved Hashem possesses are things that are completely meaningless to him. This, of course, is a high level, but it's something we should at least know and be honest with ourselves about. For this reason, there are those that speak of materialism as an evil or at least as the opposite of a virtue, and we should be very cautious when it comes to our own material pursuits, but the opposite is true about what we do for others, because whenever we do something for someone else this problem is minimized and the rule is "the more the better." It is not proper for me to look askance at anyone's possessions but my own.
So, when one may recoil at what he or she might determine as excessive materialism, we need to wonder what motivates that sensitivity – Is it not really "sour grapes" or a difference in preference? Very often we oppose it because we can't afford it ourselves or because we don't like it in the first place. For example, let's say I don't approve of someone's "ostentatious" house or car or whatever. Why does this bother me? Can I legitimately look askance at it? If I had that much money would I be any different? And the fact that I may find it distasteful does not mean that it is a virtue in me, rather it is simply that I have different taste – so, in what way does that make me more noble? To the contrary, we are the same: I buy what I like and can afford, and he buys what he likes and can afford. The difference? Nothing more than opportunity, aesthetics or preference.
Now, with this in mind, it can happen that a spouse and children are forced to live in the unfortunate position of being at the mercy – so to speak – of someone that does not put their concerns first. What I mean is this: I may decide to buy whatever suits me, let's say a sefer, a hat or an esrog for Sukkos; but when it comes to things that, for whatever reason, don't appeal to me personally, like another pair of shoes for my wife (doesn't she have enough shoes already?), or a nifty "blackberry" (who needs such mishegas?), or whatever the item of choice may be – then, as they say, "foggetaboudit."
However, if I am a decent and religious fellow I need to recognize that tzedaka starts at home. My esrog is less important than a new car for my wife, and my nice new set of Shulchan Aruch is less important than camp for the kids, or what have you. As we said above, "Their gashmius is my ruchnius" – because ruchnius is not simply found in the realm of "bein adam LeMakom (matters between man & G-d), rather, the highest ruchnius is found bein adam l'chaveiro (between man and his fellow). When we do someone for another we aren't simply performing a mitzva, we are also overcoming our ego, which is our most formidable challenge as humans. Our ego has much less of a problem when we share with G-d, there is no jealousy (moreover, it can get quite a boost when people marvel at our extra special religious articles), but it is much more difficult to give up from oneself for another human, and put someone else's wants or needs above our own. And when we do something that benefits another we not only overcome the human condition of jealousy (even in its subtlest forms) and as they say in Yiddish "fargin" (tolerate another's gain), but we have served G-d in a higher – and by definition more "ruchniusdiker" – way.
(Disclaimer: I am, of course, speaking here in general terms and common sense must be used. I do not mean that one should buy a non-mehudar Esrog if they can afford a better one, nor do I mean that we should blow money on needless extravagances, etc.)