Recently, while cleaning house, I picked up a glass bowl containing clear, Lucite fruit. The bowl needed dusting and the fruit a good washing. It had been lying there, an inconspicuous speck in the scheme of my life, gathering dust for quite some time. I hadn't thought about it in years although it had a place of prominence on the coffee table in the family room. Suddenly, the remembrance of how it was acquired and the importance that it assumed at the time struck me with a seasoned clarity.
It was the late seventies. My husband was doing a pediatric residency in Birmingham, Alabama, and with one child, and another on the way, we hardly had money to pay the bills much less expendable income. But our friends were making a living and were able to afford things we could not. A three-dollar lunch was a luxury never mind anything else. Still I had desires and reflecting back, sad and embarrassed to say, I felt pressure to conform to the community in which we lived.
There was a store called "The Dande'lion." It was elegant and expensive, with perfumed air and regal displays of cushy sofas, gilded frames, and magnificent arrangements that I could no more afford than a trip to Australia. I peered through its windows from time to time until its lure finally drew me inside. "Just looking," I wistfully repeated to the by-now familiar shop clerks. And what I always longingly looked at was the glass bowl, which irrationally seemed within my reach.
It wasn't a typical bowl, having curving tall handles on each end, and deeply etched waves within the body. I thought it was gorgeous. Every visit to the store was always to see that bowl and the fruit that filled it. I began to plan. If I saved birthday and Chanukah money, I reasoned, why, it would take me just six months to purchase the bowl and the luscious, inedible, plastic fruit. At an extravagant price for a glass bowl and a few pieces of molded plastic, it was a virtual fortune to be expended on a frivolous non-necessity. But I had to have it.
Desire creates an insatiable craving, a monster whose belly can never be filled.
When the bowl was finally in my home and filled with its transparent contents, I stepped back to admire, so satisfied with the acquisition. I placed it in a conspicuous spot waiting for the admiring approval of my husband who had no idea of the financial sacrifice this had cost us. With one casual glance, "Hmph, looks like a longhorn to me," the piece that I longed for, saved for, coveted with an unnatural passion, turned into a cow right before my eyes. It still looks that way -- a glass, longhorn cow filled with its useless and spurious fruit.
My husband meant no harm. Not knowing or caring to know the difference between Sears and Neiman-Marcus, he could not have possibly known how much I loved that bowl.
It has been many years since the longhorn episode and I have tempered my desires and grown from the experience. I have learned to distinguish between the verbs "to want" and "to need". I have also learned that desire begets desire, and once acquired, all new things lose their luster, and fall into dusty, forgotten disuse. Gems become old, paving the way for new jewels -- bigger, better, brighter, more impressive, more competitive than those that came before. Ultimately desire creates an insatiable craving, a monster whose belly can never be filled.
"He who loves silver will never be sated with silver" (Ecclesiastes 5:9). How often have we purchased something only to replace it in a few years by something else? And have those things truly been the source of more happiness?
Our world has become so consumed with ostentation and extravagance. Particularly now, as we prepare for the arrival of the holiday of Sukkot, it behooves us to remember the words of Ethics of our Fathers, ""The more possessions the more worry..."
For one seminal week in autumn, we attempt to loosen our hold of material possessions and appropriately place our complete trust in God. As the world begins its seasonal journey from the vibrant life-filled hues of summer to the barren and sapless foliage of winter, we experience God's ultimate kindness and protection. Outside in fragile, roofless huts, exposed to sometimes frigid cold and oftentimes, unrelenting heat, we have an almost unparalleled opportunity to experience God's presence. For this one intensely connected week we acquiesce to His will, sublimate the incorrect notion that we control our own lives, and acknowledge that everything that we are, and everything that we have -- our health, our possessions, our families and relationships, our very lives -- is only because of Him.
And then the Sukkah roof is unceremoniously removed, the walls are unfastened, and all are stored for another year, for another opportunity in time to be with God. The leaves, in their various stages of glorious decomposition, sweep across the patio, marching ever closer to the precipice of winter. And I, ever so hesitantly, turn the knob of the door and reenter the realm of the cushy sofas, gilded frames, and magnificent arrangements while clinging to the memories of personal transformation in the Sukkah.
The things I buy, no matter how beautiful, will never give me a step into eternity.
There in my home lies the glass cow, in its permanent spot on the table, and I challenge myself to hold fast to the lesson of the Sukkah. I steel myself with the knowledge that the acquisition of things is a transient pleasure, filling me with temporary satisfaction and false security. And I am left with the incontrovertible realization that the things I buy, no matter how beautiful, will never give me a step into eternity. Rather the deliberate retreat into the space of the spiritual, into the place of action through mitzvahs, kindness, and Torah study creates a sublime and supernal connectedness to the Creator. The awareness that these alone are the raison d'etre of my being becomes a great enabler while the decorative ornamentation of my glass cow, so important and so self-consuming at one time, is now little more than the fluff and flutter of an external world.
All goodness achieved in this world, all love and pleasure given to others, and ultimately every successful attempt to relate to God, lie in our willingness to surrender our own corporeal will to His eternal and immutable one. It is certain that when all is said and done, it will never be written on anyone's tombstone, "She wore a nine-carat diamond." It may be written, however, that she was a nine-carat diamond.
Written in memory of a "nine-carat diamond", Dr. Sadell Sloan, Sarah bas Yehoshua, unsurpassed and unforgettable, in commemoration of her fourth Yahrzeit, 21 Elul