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The Stuff We Are Made Of

The Stuff We Are Made Of

Lessons from the Ethics of Our Fathers


Just which buried treasures are laid out upon the simmering sidewalk at this particularly peculiar garage sale? Upon closer, albeit skeptical, glance: three tired-looking vases, a misshapen magazine rack, and an odd assortment of framed photos lethargically lounge under the sweltering sun.

Behind Mr. Garage Salesperson there are mountains of—dare I say it—junk: extension cords, a hamper, dusty toys, yellowed newspapers, amongst other random items. People are busy rifling through the—dare I say it again—junk.

No, I don’t need lamps, extension cords, vases or framed picturesI must run. Run before I become entangled in that huge mess of possessions, aptly called a “gar(b)age sale.” No, I don’t need lamps, extension cords, vases, or framed pictures of daisies and petunias. No, I most certainly don’t, and no, I most certainly won’t make a purchase at this particular shopping venue.

Make no mistake about it; I’ve got plenty of shopping to do, and no time to waste. There are only two short weeks left to summer, and the kids desperately need stuff.

Stuff. What a word. While stuffed cabbage might taste delicious, and a stuffed toy may enchant an infant, the word “stuff,” to my mind, sounds ominous. An elevator can be stuffed with people, and then by consequence feel stuffy and uncomfortable. A stuffy closet or room is always unpleasant.

But “stuff” can also mean things. Many of us have a running list of the “stuff” or things we must, just must, have.

Yet, at the end of summer, those once sparkling sandals or sneakers or swim shoes seem to wither into oblivion. That very much wanted outfit and its shiny accompanying accessories have lost their luster, as though a new season has pushed them into obscurity.

In the text of Pirkei Avot, the Ethics of Our Fathers (a compilation of practical, short teachings of our sages, traditionally recited on the long Shabbat afternoons from Passover through Rosh Hashanah), it states: Marbeh nechasim marbeh daagah, “the more possessions, the more worry.”

As human beings, we have plenty of needs. Fresh food, clean clothing and comfortable shelter certainly help us thrive. These we can identify as necessary essentials.

Therefore, we do need to buy groceries, shop for clothing, and furnish as well as maintain our homes.

But let’s think about the words “more” and “possessions.”

Might “more” mean more than what we’ve owned last year, one in each color, or simply more extras just in case? Might “more” mean at least as much—or more—as the next-door-who-have-more neighbors?

The “more”s tend to accumulate in rapid successionThe ever-increasing incidents of Marbeh Nechasim (more possessions) Syndrome are simply more-tifying. MNS, this modern day pheno-more-nom, can even be the “more” thoughts that run through our minds, like a train on a circular track chugging the repeated refrain: more, more, more. When awakening in the morning, we might first think, I need more sleep, more energy. Then the “more”s tend to accumulate in rapid succession throughout the day.

The cereal needs more milk. The homework could have been more thorough. Our boss or teacher wants more from us, requiring that much more time and patience—and we haven’t even mentioned possessions yet.

Upon making a purchase, I have often heard from the salesperson cheerily accepting my currency, “Is that all?” “How good of you to ask!” I facetiously think. “Why, no! I desperately need a wicker picnic basket, and periwinkle pillow shams. Oh, and . . . a deep-sea diver for my fish tank. How very thoughtful of you to remind me of all this! Why, yes. Please do add those necessary items to my bag at once.”

I’ll happily admit, it’s fun to buy and have things. But MNS somehow always seems to rear its scheming head just when I least expect it.

Shriek. Where is it? I’ve lost it.
Sniff. It’s torn, stained, shrunk.
Scowl. I need an upgrade.
Shout. I must buy the accessories and attachments.
Gasp. Now it’s on sale! I bought it at full price.
Oh! (deep sigh). All this simply doesn’t fit into my house; I need more storage space.

Fortunately, this abysmal syndrome can be effectively remedied. Have you met the distinguished alternative healer with a specialty in MNS? He doesn’t peddle any hard-to-swallow vitamins, or strange-smelling liquids in delicate vials. His regimen is easy to follow, and he even makes house calls on Shabbat!

It’s time to open our minds and heartsTo be fair, it’s not just one doctor; there are many. Meet some of the sages from Ethics of the Fathers: Hillel, Shimon Hatzadik, Antignos Ish Socho, Yehoshua ben Perachyah, and Ben Bag Bag, to name a few. Now, more than ever, it’s time to open our minds and hearts to their invaluable teachings and profound lessons, allowing us to see beyond today’s material culture. Their sacred words enable us to discover a spiritual space where “more” carries deeper value; we are ultimately guided to appreciate life, our possessions, and our fellow beings in a new light. For as long as we’re human, we’ll always need stuff. But we can take a better look at stuff—that is, the stuff we’re made of, and the stuff we’re made for.

Chana holds a master’s degree in special education, and has been in the field of education for twenty-five years. Her cherished roles as Jewish woman, mother and Learning Strategies instructor provide inspiration and material for writing at every turn.‎
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Marilyn Jost Hillsborough April 13, 2015

Stuff Thank you for this wonderful article. I am a Jewish woman, who teaches a 7 &8 Alternative Classroom in NH. It is not a wealthy community, and needless to say, not a Jewish community. I am finding the lack of ANY kind of faith deplorable, and have noticed how much my students value "stuff", most of which is literally junk that is forgotten after only days of ownership.

My hope is that I will be able to at least get them thinking about what they really value in life, and not just the "stuff" that impacts them daily. We will be reading and doing a writing prompt about your topic. Reply

Lamont Myers hallandale, Fl. April 26, 2012

stuff Good lesson on self awareness on every level. We are what we come in contact with, it`s what we choose to posses . Reply

Ben June 16, 2008

I like the style and the lesson Very nice ! Congratulations. Reply

Anonymous Brooklyn , NY June 16, 2008

Prikei Avot says that a Person is Rich--- When one is Satisified with his/ her Portion in Life. Trouble with is today is that we want fancy stuff, and not the basic items necessary to make a mitzvah nice. Hiddur a Mitzvah (being more careful) is not to show off, but to do it according to G-d's laws, in a respectful, modest, humble, and simple manner. But we forget that when we prepare for Shabbats, Yom Tovim, and simchas.
Thanks for this wonderful article and advice. We can learn a thing or two from this. Reply

M.H. North Miami Beach, Florida June 16, 2008

Do you make house calls? You hit the nail on the head here. As a school teacher approaching the last 2 days of the school year, that ominous summer task (of all teachers, I believe) looms huge on the horizon, and I'm not talking about new lesson plans. "What are you doing this summer?" we ask our fellow staff members. "Cleaning my house!!!" is the battle cry.
So, since you seem to have framed this arduous task in such a humorous, yet spiritual manner, what is your hourly rate? You know that these decluttering experts really rack up the billing hours, trlying to cure the worst cases of MNS, armed with industrial-size black garbage bags, zillions of plastic containers with snap on lids zipper-closing bags, etc. etc.
Or would you say that reading the prescribed chapter of Pirkei Avot each Shabbos will cure us?
Or how about an on-line support group through We can review each mishna and then share our latest "I didn't buy it, or I threw it out" success stories?
OK? Please?......... Reply

Katherine Lipkin Copley, OH June 29, 2007

fun way to learn! An educational piece written in such a delightful manner.... Reply

Florence Lenhard Chester, NY June 28, 2007

More Stuff Thank you for your very timely, apt,hilarious and yet extremely thoughtful essay about "this more stuff" thing. And although except for Hillel, I am not familiar with the sages that you named at your closing, your message calls out to me in this season. Thank you. Reply

Catherine Roozman Weigensberg Montreal , Canada June 24, 2007

We Are Indeed Made of 'More' Stuff In this well written piece, the author challenges us to strive for less material possesions and more substance. It is certainly difficult in our commercialized, instant gratification, 'buy it now' society. We've all fallen into the trap. But we can do it one step at a time...and turning to the sages is definately a step in the right direction. Thank you, Chana Perman for reminding us that less is more. Reply

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