Self-Indulgence vs. Self-Denial
For most of my life I have made a virtue of doing for others. Being an enabler, I’ve helped others actualize their aspirations without giving much thought to my own. Last Rosh Hashanah I resolved to put myself first
for a change.
No more would I live below my means, forgoing vacations and driving cars until the kids refused to be seen in them. Going forward, I would be as generous to myself as I have been to others. I would strive to achieve balance in my life, positioning myself midway—5—on a self-indulgence scale of 1 to 10.
As a frame of reference for the scale, I chose two of the most influential people in my life—my mother and my late father-in-law. They occupied the extremes—my self-denying mother was a 1, my fun-loving father-in-law a 10—and I was a 3. Moving only 2 points toward the center, I thought, would not be very difficult.
My mother grew up as an only child in the town of Dombrowa, Poland to pious parents who had lost their first two children to diphtheria. Her father, who made a modest living as a tailor, had been orphaned at the age of five and raised by an aunt, which may in part explain why he was obsessed with the mitzvah of welcoming wayfarers to his home for Shabbat dinner. Once he caught a guest trying to steal the silverware; another time a guest smoked in bed and nearly burned down the house. Whenever his wife complained about the costs and risks of his generosity, he would say, “When God takes me, the most important thing to leave behind is a shem tov
(a good name).”
I pray that his rewards came in the world to come, because his earthly existence, and his wife’s,
ended in Auschwitz.
Now an orphan herself, my mother was forced into a Nazi concentration camp, where she honed her survival skills. It was better to nibble for a few days on a piece of potato, she decided, than to eat it fast, because tomorrow might be worse than today. This strategy served her well during a tortuous five-month death march after the Nazis evacuated her camp in the winter of 1945 ahead of the Allied liberators. Along the way, suffering from an infected boil in her neck, my mother traded a piece of raw beet she had found and concealed for a dab of ointment that healed the infection and saved her life.
After her liberation, while living in a displaced person’s camp in the U.S. zone of occupied Germany, my mother saw some survivors eating cheese, a pricey source of protein at a time of great scarcity. She located the cheese vendor, but couldn’t bring herself to spend all her money on this luxury; instead, she bought a kilo of apples for my ailing father. A few days later the local currency crashed and my mother threw away the now worthless money she had left. At that moment she regretted her decision to forgo the cheese, but by then the saving-for-a-rainy-day pattern had become a set habit. In the future, whenever faced with the decision to save or spend on herself, she would save.
I never spoke to my father-in-law about the ease with which he spent money on what I deemed luxuries, though I admittedly enjoyed his largesse. When I first met him 40 years ago in Jerusalem, he had taken a year off from his private psychiatric practice in Vancouver, mortgaged his house, and cashed in his life insurance policy in order to spend a year in Israel with his wife. They rented an upscale apartment, traveled in a new Volvo station wagon he’d purchased in Europe, and toured the country taking full advantage of its cultural, archaeological, and culinary delights.
Whether in Israel or, later, back in Vancouver, he smoked only the finest Cuban cigars and went through several a day. On weekends this renaissance man would buy dozens of magazines and books on subjects ranging from art and science to architecture and popular mechanics, indulging his appetite for knowledge as much as his physical comforts.
He loved Las Vegas, and once treated my wife and me to an all-expense-paid vacation at the Hilton. Whenever he won at keno, he would mail us a portion of the winnings. On visits to our family on the East Coast, he would treat us to shows and fancy restaurants. At the end of the visit he would hand me whatever cash and travelers checks remained and say, “Take this. It’s your inheritance. Don’t expect anything later.”
My wife and I were with him in a Vancouver hospital during his final weeks. He fought desperately to stay alive and complained of the unfairness of life. There were many art and science projects he desperately wanted to complete. But his greatest misgiving, he confided, was the fact that “There is still some money in my bank account.”
At the time, I found his deathbed lament disturbing. If he couldn’t use the money, I thought, his widow certainly could. It later turned out that she had sufficient assets for the rest of her life, as well as an inheritance for their children.
Today, as I look back on my father-in-law’s life and habits, I am much more inclined to adopt his unspoken mantra: “Don’t deny yourself. You have only one life.” And I even find the ease with which he spent money strangely enviable.
If I could spend money like my father-in-law, what might I do? Go to more concerts…travel to exotic destinations…buy fine clothes…dine at gourmet restaurants…trade in my reliable clunker for a new car…get massaged and pampered at spas…buy an even larger TV? I must admit, just thinking about all these indulgences makes me feel uneasy, even guilty, as if I’m plotting to betray the Jewish values that have been passed down from generation to generation: “What matters most is not how much you have, but how well you treat others,” “A burial shroud has no pockets,” “The best thing you can leave behind is a good name.” I also know that the pleasures derived from material acquisitions are fleeting, and no match for the deep satisfaction I experience when giving to my family.
Not long ago my mother—now a great-grandmother—expressed a hint of regret about having missed out on many of life’s material pleasures. I responded, “It’s never too late to change your ways. The rabbis taught that to deprive yourself is as much a sin as it is to overindulge. Self-denial is not a Jewish virtue.” She thought for a moment and said, “I do want to love myself more, but at my age, I can’t change.”
As for me, I believe I can change, though it has been much harder than I had figured when I started this article several months ago. I’ve also discovered that it is no longer important whether or not I achieve a perfect 5. What matters is that I can now weigh a given decision in a more balanced way by placing what I want for myself on one side of the scale and what I want for my loved ones on the other.
Taking less for myself is no longer a fait accompli. In the spirit of Stuart Smalley, the satirical self-help guru played by Al Franken on Saturday Night Live, “I deserve good things. I am entitled to my share of happiness, because I’m good enough, smart enough…”—and love myself enough.
Aron Hirt-Manheimer is editor of Reform Judaism magazine.