Rabbi Dr. Abraham J. Twerski
Rabbi Dr. Abraham J. Twerski

Histapkus vs. Consumerism and Entitlement

"He afflicted you and let you hunger, and He fed you the manna" (Deuteronomy 8:3)

"Lest you eat and be satisfied, and build good houses and settle" (ibid. 8:12)

My forty years of working in addiction have proven the truth of the statement of Ramchal in Mesilas Yesharim, that we must be most cautious that our "wants" do not become "needs" (this is the theme in Prishus). The core of addiction, whether it be to drugs, alcohol, gambling, food, or whatever else, is that a desire for something, which a person could at one time decide whether or not to gratify, can become so intense a need that a person may do anything and everything to gratify it. The cocaine or heroin addict will do whatever is necessary to get the drug: cheat, steal, and yes, one may even kill.

Some Holocaust survivors came to Israel with only the clothes they were wearing. Our shul gathered clothes and we sent many bundles of them to Israel. We received a "thank you" letter from one recipient, and it was on her personalized stationery. I asked my father how a person who is so destitute could afford personalized stationery, and he explained that before the war, she was very wealthy. To her, personalized stationery had become a necessity, not a luxury.

That's what has happened to many people in today's society. There are two major influences that affect us: consumerism and entitlement. Consumerism is an industry wherein the media is used to make us believe that there are things that we must have. A prime example of this are children who so carry on that they must have a particular doll or toy that was advertised, that in order to keep their sanity, the parents get it for them. Never mind that in a few days the doll or toy may end up on the heap of toys in the closet.

While we may not be able to fault the juvenile mind, the fact is that many adults are taken in by consumerism, and are convinced that some things are vital for their existence.

The Steipler Gaon once had his students come to his home for the shiur, which he delivered while lying in bed. He was not sick, but he only had one pair of pants, which were at the tailor.

The second principle that is operative today is entitlement. Many people believe that they are entitled to what others have, even if they have not done anything to earn it. When I was a child, we had no air-conditioning, microwaves, washer-dryers, television, cell-phones and many other gadgets that are in common use today. Inasmuch as we survived, it is obvious that these are not necessities of life, However, they have become necessities. If people earn enough to afford these luxuries, they may certainly have them. However, there are able-bodied people who are recipients of charity who believe that they are entitled to these. To deny them these things is considered as heartless as if they were denied food, clothing, or shelter.

The Steipler Gaon writes that in his childhood, candy was virtually unheard of. A fresh apple was a treat, and the "new suit" for Pesach was a hand-me-down that had been altered, and a child was thrilled to get it. Today's children feel that they are entitled to everything, and if they do not get what they are entitled to, they are unhappy and angry. This attitude persists into adult life, and the Steipler Gaon believed it is a leading cause of much unhappiness.

There are many Jewish families that live below the poverty line, and are in need of food and rent money, and it is the greatest mitzvah to help them. But many people have become accustomed to a life style of much more than their basic needs, and their children feel that they are entitled to similar standards. Even people supported by public funds may believe that this is their due.

There are many students who study Torah with great dedication and true mesiras nefesh. It is difficult to live according to the literal meaning of the mishna, "This is the way of Torah: Eat bread with salt, drink water in small measure, sleep on the ground, live a life of deprivation - but toil in the Torah" (Pirke Avos 6:4), but many students do live a frugal life. The wife of one kollel yungerman was asked, "Don't you have a husband? We never see him at simchos." She answered, "My husband says that he is not being paid to go to weddings."

The conclusion of the above cited mishna in Pirkei Avos is, "If you do this, you will be happy in this world and it will be good for you in the World to Come." Rebbe Simcha Zissel said that if one only observes how others live in greater comfort, one cannot be happy in this world. But "If you do this," i.e., if you indeed live a frugal life, you will achieve happiness. From personal contact, I can tell you that the Steipler Gaon was a happy person. His home had the very barest of furnishings, but he was far happier than some people who live in splendor.

However, there are some bachurim who have been affected by the prevailing entitlement and consumerism attitudes. Their expectation of a shidduch is that the father-in-law will provide them with expensive living-quarters and furnishings and with a comfortable stipend. This is inconsistent with the statement, "The Torah was given to be studied only by those who ate the manna" (Tanchuma B'shalach 20). Obviously the Torah was given to all future generations, but the Midrash means that the Torah was given to be studied only by those who live a frugal life, such as surviving with the rations of the manna.

Is it possible that some young women cannot get a shidduch because their fathers are unable to meet the boys' demands? If this is so, it is a most serious indictment. Sodom was destroyed because of the complaints of one young woman.

We must take caution to avoid being influenced by the prevailing attitudes in our environment. The message of consumerism is that "without this, you cannot be happy." Falling prey to consumerism is dangerously similar to the bottomless pit of drug addiction, where there is never any gratification that endures for more than minutes. Indeed, many youngsters, even youngsters from frum families, who have fallen into the trap of drugs were looking for the happiness of which consumerism convinced them they had been deprived.

Many of the sifre mussar emphasize the importance of histapkus, being satisfied with the bare necessities. This is a counter-culture attitude, in direct opposition to the consumerism and entitlement attitudes. However, even some people in the frum world do not adhere to histapkus, which is an important principle of living a true Torah life. We would do well to examine our values and see whether they are really consistent with Torah values.

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