How hard do we work to leave our children things that they either do not want or do not need?
Ask members of any beis din how they would describe a case of children battling over a yerushah, and they will probably say disturbing, frustrating, and perhaps even extremely painful. After five long years, I just concluded such a case and it left me totally exhausted — physically and emotionally. (This is being written with their permission.)
The case didn’t involve a lot of money, real estate, properties, or stocks. It was just about “things.” Plain and simple, things. It started five years ago with a little bickering, arguing, and complaining, and morphed into one of those drop-dead family civil wars, in which the words compromise and empathy just did not exist.
And it was all over things. I wanted to title my article “Things,” but after remembering a story I heard many years ago about Rav Elchonon Wasserman Hy”d, I chose to title the article “Buttons.”
When Rav Elchonon came to the United States in the 1930s to raise funds for his Baranovich yeshivah, he was having a difficult time. Someone suggested he go visit an old childhood friend of his who had arrived some years earlier on these shores and had become very successful in the garment industry. They warned him, however, that his old friend no longer lived the life of a shomer Torah u’mitzvos.
Rav Elchonon was desperate for funds, so he went to him anyway. This man was overjoyed to meet Rav Elchonon, his old classmate, and they began to reminisce. He proudly gave Rav Elchonon a personal tour of his large factory, showing him all the latest modern machinery.
When they finally sat down to talk, he asked, “Nu, Reb Choneh, how can I be of help to you? What brings you to America?”
Rav Elchonon took hold of his frock and showed him the buttons, and said, “My buttons have become faded and brittle, and I thought you could help me replace them.”
He quickly jumped up and took Rav Elchonon to the tailor room and began selecting new buttons. Then he said, “Truthfully, what was the purpose of your trip to America?”
Rav Elchonon said, “I already told you, I came for buttons.”
And with that, Rav Elchonon took leave of his old friend.
A few days later, the very troubled garment factory owner showed up at Rav Elchonon’s hotel and said to him, “I would like to know the real reason you came all this way to America. Surely you didn’t come just to buy new buttons?”
Rav Elchonon looked at his old friend and said, “Do you remember from cheder the gemara in Maseches Chagigah that talks about the distance between Heaven and Earth? You can’t understand how I could come all the way across the ocean just to buy buttons. So how can you accept that your neshamah traveled such a long distance to This World, just to make buttons?”
After taking a few moments to absorb the penetrating words of Rav Elchonon, he began the road back to the life of a Torah Jew.
EVERYONE LOVES NICE THINGS. Who doesn’t want a late model car parked in his driveway, beautiful silver displayed in the breakfront, and elegant dishes to dress up the Shabbos table? But for a Yid, such niceties always have been and forever will be… just things. While they’re nice to have and enjoy, these possessions do not define us. They fall into the category of “nice to have,” not “have to have.” If our goal in life is that we must have these things, then we have lost our direction as the children of Yaakov Avinu.
We are all familiar with the Rashi that explains how Elifaz was able to fulfill his father Eisav’s instruction to kill Yaakov by taking all his possessions away, applying the dictum ani chashuv k’meis (a poor person is considered as if he were dead). This is difficult to understand; Eisav wanted his brother dead, in the plain sense of that word. He couldn’t have cared less about the rule that a poor person is considered dead.
Rav Zweig explained that for Eisav, everything was about money; for him, it was the whole purpose of life. Eisav believed that once Elifaz’s robbery left Yaakov penniless, his life would have no purpose. However, Yaakov is different, and by extension, so is Klal Yisrael. Yaakov understood that possessions are just transitory and life can and will continue with full purpose and accomplishment.
Material possessions surely enhance our lives, but our lives should not and cannot be dependent on having them. Chazal speak about the significance of having nice things. We find in Berachos (57b) that having a nice home and nice furniture help expand a person’s mind. However, if the entire focus and mission of one’s life is to have nice things, at the expense of simchas hachayim, ruchniyus pursuits, and time with family, then these things don’t expand the mind of a person — they control it.
This family dispute I presided over was about some paintings and furniture that, if divided up evenly, would not even cover a mid-size family’s yearly yeshivah tuition. Some of the disputants were well-to-do, others were holding their own, and all were in agreement that the inheritance really wouldn’t change their quality of life in any way, shape, or form. But they all wanted the same things.
Sometimes the buttons consume our existence.
A few years ago, an experienced elderly rav told me that he had before him a case of two brothers battling over a seemingly small yerushah: a pair of tefillin that had belonged to a great-grandfather who was the rav of his little town. These tefillin had survived the flames of Europe, but were now sparking animosity between these brothers. Neither would give in; and the fight deteriorated to the point where they were no longer speaking, even though each was the other’s only sibling.
Trying hard to find a way to make shalom between them, the rav finally suggested what he thought was an absurd scenario: one would take the shel rosh, and the other the shel yad. He assumed that resorting to Shlomo Hamelech’s proven formula would help them realize their foolishness, and they would come to an agreement.
He was wrong. They did not, and each brother now has in his possession half a set of tefillin.
WHEN RIVKAH IMEINU expressed concern about the status of her pregnancy, the pasuk says “Vayisrotzetzu banim b’kirbah,” and Rashi explains that this refers to Rebbe and Antiochus, who each had great fortunes. The Maharal adds that this refers to Bnei Yisrael and Edom as well. What connection can there be between Rebbe and Antiochus, other than that were both very wealthy? What does the Maharal mean when he says this refers to Bnei Yisrael versus Edom?
The mefarshim explain that although both Rebbe and Antiochus had a desire for materialism, their approaches were as different as day and night. Antiochus was consumed by that desire, and Rebbe channeled and controlled it. To Antiochus, riches were life itself; to Rebbe, possessions were just “things.” That is our responsibility as well.
We build big houses that we will never be able to fill, and buy more and more clothes that we will never, ever be able to wear. We seem to always be striving to acquire new things — bigger, better, and nicer. And the pursuit of these things consumes our lives, and then the lives of our families as well. We don’t pursue things because we need them, but rather because we want others to see that we have them.
I once read a cute story about a young man who made it very big in the stock market, and began building a mansion worthy of his new stature. One day, as the construction was progressing, he was standing outside with the architect discussing the exterior of his new house. An elderly gentleman who lived across the street approached and suggested that the house be painted blue.
The young man, trying very hard to be respectful, asked the elderly man, “Why would you offer advice on the house I’m building?”
And the man responded, “I don’t understand why you’re making such a big deal about the outside of your house. You don’t see it anyway. But I live across the street. I assumed you were doing all this for my benefit. So I’m just telling you that I prefer the color blue.”
A cute story indeed, but how much truth is there to it? How much of that applies to each and every one of us?
Rav Elchonon once shared an incredible insight. One of the worst curses in the Tochachah, near the end (Devarim 28:66), is “V’hayah chayecha teluyim lecha mineged — your life will hang before you.” That means your life will always depend on something beyond what you have now. You will always be thinking the grass is greener on your neighbor’s lawn. You will never be happy with what you have, you’ll always be looking for more. A frightening tochachah, indeed. Are we living through this today, in these days of Ikvesa D’Meshicha?
OUR OBSESSION with possessions is not limited to material objects, but extends even to spiritual objects. We need the biggest libraries, collections of one-of-a-kind seforim, and the most exquisite Judaica.
I remember years ago, when I lived in a different community, someone had built a brand-new house and included in it the requisite “seforim shtib.” He was not a learned fellow, and he kindly asked me if I could help him assemble a respectable library, as he was not familiar with any seforim. I went with him to a seforim store to purchase the volumes I felt were required for every library. As I was selecting the titles, he passed along a request his wife had made — to please try to buy some blue and lavender seforim that would match the carpet she had ordered for the room. These seforim would not be tashmishei kedushah, but rather just “things.”
The Chofetz Chaim ztz”l looked at seforim very differently.
Two of his greatest and closest talmidim were Rav Elchonon Wasserman and the Ponevezher Rav. Once during their learning, they needed to locate a source in a rare sefer they didn’t have. When they remembered that the Chofetz Chaim himself quoted from this sefer in his Shaar Tziyon, they went to his home to ask if they could borrow it. They were very surprised to hear that he didn’t own it.
They asked him, “But didn’t Rebbi quote it in his sefer?”
The Chofetz Cham answered that he had borrowed the sefer from someone when he needed it. He then glanced at his meager bookcase and sighed.
Rav Elchonon noticed this and asked, “Is Rebbi sighing because he doesn’t own this sefer?”
The Chofetz Chaim replied, “No, I was wondering if I really need all the seforim I own. Every sefer costs money, and acquiring money takes time. If I didn’t need a sefer I bought, that means I wasted my time.”
When Rav Elchonon told this story to his talmidim, he would add that the Chofetz Chaim’s entire library consisted of only 30 to 40 seforim. Yet he was still concerned over whatever small amount of time he might have wasted to acquire them. Clearly this type of thought doesn’t even enter into our orbit of thinking.
A PERSONAL STORY. In my younger years, I was an avid seforim collector, with a particular interest in halachah. Every new halachah sefer made it into my bookshelf before the ink was dried. My wife was kind enough to have a carpenter build bookcases large enough to store my collection.
When I first came home in April 2020 from the hospital after my bout with Covid, I spent the first few weeks regaining my strength in a makeshift bedroom that was our former den. Eventually I was able to climb the steps up to the second floor where my library is.
I remember the first time I was able to reenter my study after an absence of several months. I was overwhelmed. I sat at my desk and just looked around the room several times, getting reacquainted with my surroundings, and gazing at all the seforim on the shelves. I once read that the Imrei Emes had a library of more than a thousand volumes, and would never put a sefer into a bookcase before learning it cover to cover.
And I began to think about how I had almost left this world, and about how many of these seforim I had never even opened. I began to wonder what I got by having so many seforim. Yes, everyone who came into the study was duly impressed — but what other purpose did it have? I was filled with overwhelming sadness as to how much I still had to learn, and how I had almost lost the chance.
I once visited the home of my childhood friend Reb Avrami Wolfson z”l and saw his incredible library. What impressed me was not the number of volumes, but rather that every single sefer I opened had his comments and notes in the margins. Other than unique people like that, we all buy seforim to dress up our bookcases, and we can sense the Chofetz Chaim’s displeasure at the waste of time and money, just to acquire “things.”
Years ago I had a case that was particularly painful to watch. A Holocaust survivor who had made a lot of money wanted to leave a legacy for his descendants. He was always troubled that he had arrived on these shores without having salvaged anything from his parents’ palatial Vienna home. He was left with nothing, and he didn’t want that to happen to his family.
He commissioned an artist in Tzfas to create a beautiful illuminated Tehillim and told him to spare no expense in completing it. A picture would accompany each kapitel, depicting the message Dovid Hamelech was trying to convey. The Tehillim was dedicated to all his family members who had perished in the Holocaust. The front cover displayed a beautiful portrait of this survivor as a young man — showing how he wanted future generations to know him.
It cost a fortune, and was indeed a masterpiece. It was his pride and joy and the centerpiece of his study. Its only downside was that its height and weight made it very non-user-friendly.
He was getting on in years and wanted to bequeath it to one of his six children. The problem was that none of them wanted it. He was broken. Here was his life’s work, his legacy, and not one of his children expressed any interest in inheriting it. I was stunned. This man had put in so much effort, time, and money into creating a legacy for generations, and it didn’t even make it to the next one.
HOW DIFFERENT ARE WE? How hard do we work to leave our children things that they either do not want nor do not need? Our buttons are not their buttons, and their buttons will not be their children’s buttons.
Our gedolim lived very different lives. Things meant nothing to them. Their only life concerns were time and spiritual accomplishments.
Rav Aharon Leib Steinman ztz”l was 84 years old in May 1998 when he made his first trip to the United States with the Gerrer Rebbe — his first time leaving Eretz Yisrael since arriving in 1945. His devoted rebbetzin was nervous about her husband making this strenuous trip at his age, especially in his weakened condition. She inquired about the weather and was told that unlike in Eretz Yisrael, rain was common during the spring season in America. So she packed his raincoat and some warmer clothes. As he prepared to leave, the rebbetzin told him about the different clothes she packed for him.
Rav Aharon Leib thanked his wife for the valuable lesson she had taught him. He explained, “I am only going for several days, and yet you packed as if I am going away for months. How much more do I have to prepare for the eternal trip that I will have to take one day? How many mitzvos do I have to pack for my trip to the Next World?”
After Rav Aharon Leib left, the rebbetzin burst into tears. Her grandson, Rav Gedaliah, asked her why she was crying. She responded, “Saba made me think about the need to accumulate as many mitzvos as possible and I don’t know if I have enough to be allowed into Olam Haba!”
Even more important than the waste of a lifetime acquiring things we want but do not need is the question of what our children learn when they watch us looking for buttons. We should dig deep inside ourselves for the answer to this question. You can rest assured the answer is there.
The Steipler Gaon ztz”l often repeated a story to his own family that brings home the message. When the Steipler was a bochur in the Novardok yeshivah, he returned home once for a short visit with his parents. Someone there whose son also learned in Novardok asked the Steipler to bring a letter back with him. The next day the Steipler headed to the train station, carrying the letter with him to bring back to Novardok.
During the trip, an announcement came out that World War I had begun, and the train could not continue. The Steipler, unable to return to Novardok, opted to find somewhere else to learn — but he safeguarded the letter.
It was eight long years before the Novardok yeshivah reopened. When the bochurim returned, the Steipler met the young man for whom the letter had been intended, and gave it to him. At this, the young man became very emotional and explained that his father had been forced to flee his town, living as a refugee until he became ill and passed away. The young man expressed guilt over not being able to see his father before he died. To receive this letter at this time was like getting a message from Heaven, his father’s last will and testament.
When the young man opened the letter, it read, “Please remember to bring home some herring from Novardok when you come home, as you can’t get such good herring over here.”
The Steipler never forget this incident and spoke about it to his family for decades. Here was an opportunity for the father to send his son a message of chizuk, to say that his learning is the most important thing in the world — and instead, his father’s last message was about how important herring was to him.
Of course the father had no way of knowing when he wrote that note that he would never see his son again. But what an unfortunate legacy. When a son sees his father hurry out of shul during the haftarah or the rav’s drashah for a shtickel herring, what is the lesson he will learn?
Whether buttons, seforim, herring, or anything else for that matter, if possessions become the focus of one’s life and the purpose of his existence, then he has adopted the ways of Edom. For we children of Yaakov Avinu, they are all just “things.”
(This article was written l’zecher nishmas Sara Chaya bas Rav Chaim Aryeh Zev)
Rabbi Aryeh Z. Ginzberg is the rav of the Chofetz Chaim Torah Center of Cedarhurst and the founding rav of Ohr Moshe Institute in Hillcrest, Queens. He is a published author of several sifrei halachah, and a frequent contributor to many magazines and newspapers, where he writes the Torah hashkafah on timely issues of the day. He is also a sought-after lecturer on Torah hashkafah at a variety of venues around the country.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 901)
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