What Do You Have When You Have Nothing?

The greatest gifts are the ones you carry in your heart.

Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz is the Senior Rabbi of Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun in New York.

Chaim Steinmetz
Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz is the Senior Rabbi of Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun in New York.

My mother was sixteen when she was sent to the Kolozsvár Ghetto. There, as she and her family were stripped of their remaining possessions, she experienced her first taste of the torture the Nazis would inflict on her. Men were taken out at night by Hungarian guards and members of the Gestapo, and a flame was held to their feet to get them to reveal the whereabouts of any gems or gold they might have hidden. From that point on, things only got worse. She was deported from the ghetto to Auschwitz, then sent to a labor camp a few weeks later, and finally, toward the end of the war, escaped while on a death march.

Those first moments of freedom must have been frightening for my mother. How does a 17-year-old girl look forward to life without a home, a country, a single possession? What do you have when you have nothing?

As my children were entering their teens, I would emphasize to them the contrast between their childhood and my mother’s. I used to think of this contrast only in one direction, as in how much more my children have than their grandmother did at their age: freedom, security and material comfort. 

Now, I think there is another contrast: My children’s generation, with all of its material advantages, still struggles with resilience and character. The generation of survivors, the people who had nothing, who had every reason to emotionally collapse, exhibited remarkable character. If you asked these survivors the question of what you have when you have nothing, the answer would be: You have a lot.

Rosh Hashanah is a time of inquiry. We make requests of God for the blessings we desire in the coming year while at the same time reflecting on who we are, and what our priorities should be. And this question of “what we have when we have nothing” is critical to understanding both of these questions.

The Roman orator and statesman Cicero wrote: “Omnia mea mecum porto.” (“I am carrying all my things with me.”)  Rav Azriel Hildesheimer, at opening of Berlin Rabbinical Seminary in 1873, related this quote from Cicero to a Talmudic passage that says, “Blessing rests only on a thing which is hidden from sight.” Rav Hildesheimer explains “that the only blessing is that which is invisible, that is, of the spirit and the idea,” and that the lesson of Jewish history is that “the scorned, sold and mortgaged Jewish servant, who has been driven out at the whim of others, was continuously reminded, again and again, that his only true belonging was that which he carried with him constantly, which no one could separate him from.”

This lesson is what I learned from my mother’s example: The greatest gifts are the ones you carry in your heart. These survivors, these penniless, unfortunate, persecuted refugees, possessed something invaluable: their heart. And that is all that mattered.

It is our heart and the mindset we carry that determines our happiness. This lesson, one that was stressed by the Stoics, finds expression in the Mishnah that says “Who is the mighty one? He who conquers his impulse … Who is the rich one? He who is happy with his lot.” Strength and wealth are primarily a matter of mindset. When facing challenges courage is more important than strength; in everyday living, contentment is more important than wealth.

It is our heart and the mindset we carry that determines our happiness.

All of us would nod our heads in agreement when hearing these lessons. However, this is not the way we actually live. An abundance of material comfort doesn’t diminish material desires, but on the contrary, makes us more materialistic. The Talmud sees the wealth the Jews took out of Egypt as a corrupting influence, and the motivating cause behind the Golden Calf.  Similarly, material success has reoriented the way Americans think. Tim Kasser notes that contemporary Americans think that the “goods life” is the path to the “good life.” This mistake leads to a great deal of unhappiness. Kasser notes multiple studies that show that the more materialistic someone is, the less happy they are likely to be.

That is why the lesson of the Mishna is so significant: How many people actually are happy with their lot?

The experience of having nothing teaches us how to be grateful for everything. One of my mother’s favorite sayings was “hunger is the best cook.” She said that the food she ate right after being liberated was the best meal she ever ate in her life, because the overwhelming hunger she experienced at the time brought out the best in the bland food she ate. With the right outlook, any piece of food is exceptional, and the mindset of one who has nothing is to see life as a gift, not a given.

But there is a second trait that is critical for our “spiritual suitcases.” While mindset is how we define, and redefine, our environment, our values help us define our own identity and who we are.

David Brooks, (based on “The Lonely Man of Faith” by Rabbi Joseph Ber Soloveitchik), coined two types of virtues a person can have:  “resume virtues” and “eulogy virtues.”

Some virtues are about work. Can you compete? Are you pragmatic? A good leader? A financial wizard? Other virtues are about the types of accomplishments people speak about at a funeral. Did you volunteer? What type of father were you? Were you idealistic? I would point out that this contrast between the domains of “resume” and “eulogy” is not just about virtues; it is about priorities and values, about the content and purpose of life.

This lesson is found in Jeremiah (9:22-23), who inspires the Mishnah in its comments on the worthiness of strength, wisdom and wealth:

Thus says the Lord:

“Let not the wise man glory in his wisdom,
Let not the mighty man glory in his might,
Nor let the rich man glory in his riches;
But let him who glories glory in this,
That he understands and knows Me,
That I am the Lord, exercising lovingkindness, justice, and righteousness in the earth. For in these I delight,” says the Lord.

Jeremiah offers a harsh appraisal of human success. Do the resume virtues of wisdom, strength, or wealth matter? No, they are not important. What matters are the values love, justice and righteousness; what matters are eulogy virtues, which are a blueprint to the meaning of life. For this reason at the end of his great philosophical work, “The Guide to the Perplexed,” , Maimonides offers an exposition of this verse in Jeremiah, because he sees these values are the very purpose of our lives.

Love, justice and righteousness are most compelling when you experience them directly.

Love, justice and righteousness are most compelling when you experience them directly. These eulogy virtues matter because we intuitively understand that they endow our lives with meaning. Dr. David Pelcovitz told me a powerful story about a 9-year-old girl that illustrates how inspiring eulogy virtues are.

A 9-year-old girl, encouraged by her mother, started to volunteer by visiting an elderly woman who had lost most of her eyesight. One day, while chatting with the young girl, the woman explained that she could recover her eyesight if she would have a small operation; but because she was on a fixed income, she lacked the resources to pay for this expensive procedure. Inspired to action, the girl went home and told her mother that she was going to do a fundraiser to pay for the elderly woman’s operation. The mother smiled at her daughter’s good intentions, but assumed, like most parents, that her daughter’s naive dream would soon disappear.

The next day, the girl went to school and began to raise money. She went from class to class, from teacher to teacher, and at the end of the day, after all the change had been exchanged into bills, the girl had a grand total of 83 dollars. She took the thick envelope stuffed with singles, and ran off to her elderly friend. Not knowing much about contemporary medical economics, the girl announced to her elderly friend that she had raised the money for the operation! So, the young girl and the elderly woman took a short walk over to the local ophthalmologist’s office.

The doctor examined the elderly woman, and says yes, she is a candidate for the procedure, and he can do it right away. At that point, the young girl chirps up and says that she will pay for the procedure, and produces the envelope with the 83 dollars.

The doctor does the operation.

The girl comes home, and reports to her mother the day’s events. The mother is mortified; she assumes that her daughter has somehow misled the doctor. She runs to the doctor’s office to apologize, and to negotiate a way to pay him the balance. As the mother continues to talk, the doctor cuts her off in middle, and opens his jacket. In his inside pocket is the envelope, stuffed with singles; he had not put the cash away. He told the mother that this envelope was far more precious to him than any amount of money, because this envelope reminded him of goodness of humanity and why he became a doctor in the first place.

This is a story about values: the values of a mother, a daughter and a doctor. They all understand the lesson of “Omnia mea mecum porto,” that it is what you carry in your heart that matters; and if your heart is filled with love, justice and righteousness you have everything you need.

If there is one lesson I want my own children to remember, it is this: What you need most in life cannot be put in a suitcase.

Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz is the Senior Rabbi of Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun in New York.

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