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Sukkot: Living Modestly

One of the attributes that characterize the festival of Sukkot is modesty, as per the verse that states, “Walk modestly with your God.”[1] Living modestly means living a modest lifestyle, one that is not ostentatious, flamboyant, and is void of pretenses. On Sukkot, we are invited to exit our homes and enter the modest, sometimes shaky sukkah and to be happy with those conditions. The book of Ecclesiastes, which many congregations read on Sukkot, reminds us that all the possessions of this world are nothing more than “vanity.” Furthermore, one of the main celebrations on Sukkot in Temple times was the Simchat Beit Hasho’eva, which showcased the Nissuch Hamayim (the Water Libation Ceremony). During the entire year, the Temple service included wine libations in the form of wine that was poured on the altar. Wine is an expensive, choice, and premium beverage that gladdens the heart. Nonetheless, the greatest celebration and joy of the whole year was on Sukkot, when the simple, transparent water. It is the joy of the small things in life.

The joy and modesty of the festival of Sukkot present us with a completely opposite alternative to today’s commonly accepted norms.

So What’s Wrong?

Have you ever noticed that the middle class always strives to live beyond its abilities? As the abilities increase, so do the demands for a higher quality of life. Products that were once considered luxuries are now standard in every home. On the other hand, the middle-class, or at least those people that see fit to represent it on media, communicate an atmosphere of hardship and lack, which would seem to be more appropriate for describing the state of the lower and poorer classes. One might say that the image of the average person being broadcast by the media is that he or she wants to live like the wealthy, but they complain as if they were poor.

The Torah, particularly on the festival of Sukkot, proposes a completely different way of life for the average individual: Live as if you belonged to the lower and poorer, yet rejoice like the wealthy. According to the Torah, a person should live modestly, which means living at a level that is a bit beneath his financial abilities. This makes it possible to leave something for future generations, it provides stability in hard times and even offers a relative feeling of having some money left over (because every month, after all the expenses have been paid for, still a little more is left over). Despite living on a budget that is lower than what one can afford, the Mishnah says, “Who is wealthy? He who is happy with his lot.”[2] A person who is able to make do with less is truly happy with what he has and thus lives a life of wealth and contentment.

Presence of Mind to Battle Consumerism

In truth, living below our means is a vessel for experiencing a sense of plenty. How so? In the short prayer composed for travelers, it is written, “The needs of Your people are many, and their presence of mind is short-lived.”[3] Chassidut explains that there is a cause and effect here: Our needs are many because our presence of mind is short-lived. In other words, because we do not have the presence of mind to focus on what we really need. As a result, we imagine that we need far more than what we really do. When a person does not know how to find happiness, meaning, and serenity from within, he ends up searching for it on the outside by imagining that if he just buys this or that consumer product, his life will be complete, and he will enjoy peace of mind. This is the root of the psychological impetus of consumerism. But exactly the opposite occurs. Every additional purchase creates a further imaginary need for another purchase—the cycle is endless, and the hoped-for peace of mind can never be reached. So much of our modern consumer-driven economy revolves around this psychological fallacy which feeds yet another trip to the store or another evening browsing Amazon.

Conversely, the more focused a person is and the more clearly he or she recognizes what is important to them in their lives, the more presence of mind they enjoy, and the more they can concentrate their buying power on that which they truly need to meet their goals. For example, sometimes families with only one or two children live in a constant state of monetary scarcity, while families blessed with many children live happily with a much smaller budget. If a person believes that raising a large family is an important, happy goal, he can live a modest lifestyle while finding joy in the larger gifts that are his children and enjoy the smaller gifts that come his way.

Be Wealthy

The standard for a modest lifestyle seems to contradict the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s famous declaration, that in our generation, everybody should live in financial abundance and even wealth. In truth, however, there is no contradiction. The Rebbe wanted every person to live modestly and to be happy with his lot, and many times even expressed opposition to the culture of luxury so common in the Western world and particularly in the United States. Nonetheless, together with an internal sense of modesty and making do with less, the Rebbe blessed every Jew that his external experience will be one of, “God’s blessing makes one wealthy.”[4]

The Rebbe explained that every person is an emissary of God, an agent of Godliness that was sent into this world to influence reality. To do so, they need abundant means. However, together with means, one must have modesty and joy to influence reality. To live as a true influencer—one who spreads Godliness in the world—we must free ourselves from our dependence upon never-ending consumerism. A person who can be content with little and lives his life with his priorities set right can direct his resources to helping others and advancing important initiatives. On the flip side, there are people with large incomes who devote a very small part of it to helping others, for they live with a constant, nagging sense that they never have enough. Surprisingly though, others with far lower incomes can quickly find the resources to devote a large proportion of their earnings to causes that are important to them.

Sukkot is thus the time to reset our priorities. As we leave our homes to dwell in the minimalistic Sukkah, we are privileged to receive an opportunity to set our priorities straight and learn to be happy with our lot. By doing so, we open the heavenly door to a rich, blessed year, in which we will be able to help others without thinking twice.

[1] Micah 6:8.

[2] Pirkei Avot 4:1.

[3] Brachot 4:4.

[4] Proverbs 10:22.

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