| Second Thoughts |

A Tale of Two Presidents

Their deeds and values speak for themselves and require no commentary


Neither Barak Obama nor Jimmy Carter is greatly beloved by American Orthodox Jewry, but, putting aside their political views, their post-presidential behavior offers some illuminating insights.

When Obama left the presidency, he remained in the Washington area, bought a million-dollar mansion, published his memoirs, traveled, lectured, gave interviews with national media, hobnobbed with the rich and famous, and improved his golf game. Just recently, he upgraded his housing needs by purchasing a $12 million estate in Martha’s Vineyard containing a mansion with seven bedrooms and nine bathrooms on spacious grounds and lovely landscaped gardens.

When Carter left the presidency, he returned to his roots and his humble home, a cottage with three bedrooms and two baths in the tiny town of Plains, Georgia. He worked on his memoirs, helped develop the Carter Library and Center in Atlanta, involved himself in Habitat for America, with whom, hammer in hand, he literally helped build houses for the poor, and continued to teach Bible every Sunday in his little church in Plains.

Two famous men, two approaches to living. Their deeds and values speak for themselves and require no commentary. Some might envy Obama’s flashy new lifestyle, and wish they had the means to emulate it; others might envy Carter’s simple, Spartan ways and wish they had the will to emulate that.

It is ironic that for a believing and practicing Orthodox Jew, the post-presidential lifestyle most worthy of emulation is that of the former president they most dislike: Jimmy Carter. Not to stretch things too far, but in some ways it is a lifestyle that in its simplicity — when contrasted with Obama’s — is faintly redolent, l’havdil, of the classic Mussar concept, mistapek b’muat, literally “being content with minimals” — a concept reflected in Avos 6:6. (Menachem Begin’s austerity in contrast with Ehud Olmert’s prodigality also comes to mind, but that is for another column).

Although it is an underlying principle of the religious life and of avodas Hashem, this concept is not widely known or seriously stressed in the Orthodox community. Among the mitzvos and virtues that religious Jews hold most dear — observing Shabbos strictly, keeping kashrus and taharas hamishpachah meticulously, davening with kavanah, studying Torah regularly, giving tzedakah generously, abjuring gossip — among many other foundational mitzvos, it is fairly obvious that mistapek b’muat is not close to the top of the list. Some might not even be aware of the concept.

Why this crucial concept is so neglected in our time is puzzling. Or maybe not so puzzling. For — let us be frank — even the very religious these days have not successfully avoided the pitfalls of consumerism. Even the most Orthodox and chareidi enclaves, such as, say, Boro Park, or Golders Green, or Lakewood, or Monsey, or Bnei Brak, are not quite the poster children for making do with minimals.

Yes, poverty is a stark reality in these and other Orthodox communities, but it must be admitted that for the mainstream above the poverty line, acquisitiveness is not the exception. Just a cursory glance at the ad campaigns directed toward Orthodox Jews that feature $25,000 wrist watches, diamond-studded necklaces, high-end vacations and hotels, and luxurious goodies — not to mention shtreimels and sheitels costing well in excess of $4,000 — offers a vivid glimpse into a society for whom mistapek b’muat is not quite a household term. Some even say that we are consumed by consumerism.

At the recent passing of Rav Gershon Edelstein ztz”l, we learned again that he was an exemplary embodiment of minimal living, as were all the great Torah leaders of our time, such as Rav Moshe Feinstein, Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, Rav Yosef Elyashiv, Rav Kahaneman, Rav Aharon Kotler, Rav Levenstein, Rav Shach, Rav Moshe Shapira, Rav Steinman, Rav Yosef Soloveitchik zichronam livrachah, and numerous others. Even if we cannot begin to approach their level of de-emphasizing the material, it is still uplifting to know that such flesh-and-blood people lived among us and served as models for our generation.

Genuine mistapek b’muat is probably beyond the reach of most people today, and in any case, we are not required to be ascetic. Nevertheless, an attempt to strike a balance, living comfortably but not ostentatiously, would be in order. And if the lofty heights of these saintly men are far beyond our grasp, we can lower our sights onto more ordinary public figures — such as some past presidents — and, if we look carefully, derive useful lessons even from them.


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 966)

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