Put Your Money Where Your Self Is

What does your apparel oft proclaim?

“It’s not the $1000 suit, it’s the $1000 car,” a rabbinic leader recently explained to a group of yeshiva students. He was gently exhorting the young men to limit excessive spending in their future lives as young Torah scholars. His approach is partially rooted in traditional Jewish ethical works. It is also often communicated in contemporary Orthodox society. It its current presentation, it stems from an emphasis on spirituality, and an effort to counter the influence of greater society’s material excesses. It also grows out of the financial realism that one is likely going to need to be spendthrifty when he dedicates a period of his life to Talmudic study and Jewish spirituality.

In seeming contrast, the grandiosity of the Tabernacle in the wilderness was stunning. The structure and its basic fixtures were made of pure gold, silver, and rare animal skins. The lavishness of the Tabernacle’s construction bespoke its lofty use. Similarly, the clothing of the kohanim, and specifically the kohein gadol, were beautiful and extravagantly designed. The Torah expresses that they were “for honor and glory” of those in the Divine service.

There appears to be a friction between two opposing ideals, one focusing on spirituality and curbing personal material involvement, and the other embracing liberal financial expenditure for a spiritual goal. The tension might be highlighted by two contradictory rules that exist regarding spending for the Temple and its service. Firstly, the Talmud states that “there is no poverty [in financial behavior] in a place of wealth.” When one is focusing on religious grandiosity, it is inappropriate to be thrifty. Rather, one should buy the best and not restrict himself in any way. Conversely, the Talmud also declares that “the Torah is concerned about wasting money” in ritual spending. How do these two contradictory forces coexist? Rav Moshe ibn Chabib (17th century, often known eponymously as the Kapos Temarim, Rosh Hashana 27b s.v. Gemara Mai Shna) suggests that both approaches are true and necessary. There are two strains of thought, and it became the duty of the sages of the Talmud to wisely determine and resolve when it is appropriate to emphasize one of those rules, and when the other is more apropos. Sometimes the grandiosity and sense of magnificence that is created by constructing the Tabernacle or Temple of the finest materials is a worthwhile usage of funds. On the other hand, sometimes it is significant to hold back on spending and count one’s pennies.

A similar conflict can manifest itself throughout one’s own life. If one is dedicated to a life of spirituality, intellectualism, or religious value, where does material expenditure fit into that framework? It is a global issue and it is hard to make unilateral declarations or decisive statements. The decision which is right might require wisdom and prudence, similar to that advanced by the sages of old.

Specifically regarding one’s clothing, there might be room to think about emphasizing spending resources to make sure that one’s clothing is of good quality. This was impressively phrased by Shakespeare as the father Polonius gives timeless advice to his son Laertes in Hamlet (Act I, Scene 3. Polonius uses the word “habit” to refer to clothing):

Costly thy habit as thy purse can buy,

But not express’d in fancy; rich, not gaudy;

For the apparel oft proclaims the man.

Shakespeare wisely declares that the type of clothing that one wears has ramifications beyond indulgence. It conveys a message regarding who the person is.

“Apparel oft[en] proclaims the man” perhaps most importantly to himself. When one puts effort into his appearance and dress, it can convey a sense of self, or helps create one. One who disregards his clothing might be making a statement that he does not fully exist. Conversely, one who struggles with his own sense of self might take steps to ameliorate that by dressing better than he does presently.

Alternatively, external accoutrements can be a superficial defense mechanism where one deludes himself into believing that he feels good about himself. In reality, he feels good only about his clothing and how others see him as he wears them. It might take an honest conversation with himself to understand if appropriately good clothing create a medium to give him the message that he is a wonderful, respectable human being, or allow him to be a mere mannequin touting name brands for a popular designer, without an internal feeling of self.

One of the most well known and formative social psychologists is Dr. Phillip Zimbardo, professor emeritus of Stanford. Zimbardo extensively researched time and how individual perspectives on time extensively affect decision making processes. He autobiographically expressed that for many years, he focused on the future and succeeding, sacrificing todays for tomorrows. Later in life, he realized that he needed to add a focus on himself and enjoyment of life. It helped him become more productive and happier. One might see it as him also increasing his sense of self:

And it resonated for me. I grew up as a poor kid in the South Bronx ghetto, a Sicilian family — everyone lived in the past and present. I’m here as a future-oriented person who went over the top, who did all these sacrifices because teachers intervened, and made me future oriented. Told me don’t eat that marshmallow, because if you wait you’re going to get two of them, until I learned to balance out. I’ve added present-hedonism…so, at 76 years old, I am more energetic than ever, more productive, and I’m happier than I have ever been.

How and on what one spends money might is a large discussion that it is sometimes easier to close than to open. There are many factors involved, including sociocultural religious ideals. It might be worthwhile to give specific thought as to how you spend money on clothing. Perhaps yours will not only “proclaim the man,” but appropriately and tastefully serve “as honor and glory” for a formidable and glorious self that is within.

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