Thank God For Poverty

They say that knowing how to manage finances greatly reduces marital tension.

Luckily for us, we were clueless.

Both growing up in homes that didn’t need to worry dramatically about money, we were quite unused to the experience of needing things and not having the ability to have them. Our understanding of budgeting was next to nil.

Being young and idealistic, unafraid and untied down, we did what any sensible couple would do. We sold all of our things, returned our wedding gifts, and moved across the world to study in Israel. It was scary and exciting and we had nothing to lose.

Except losing it all.

As we counted shekels and tried to allocate funds to buy basic things like a pot and pan, we realized we were in over our heads.  With the rent of a Jerusalem apartment and the income of an underpaid busboy, we looked at each other in accusations and irritability until we finally realized we would need to figure it out, together.

Then came Poor-vana. It happened a few times before we realized what was going on and my husband coined a phrase for it. Poor-vana is when you are worrying so much about how to pay the bills, and then, as it gets worse and worse, and your ability to tread financial water seems impossible,  you reach a place where all that is left to do is believe it will work out, reach out to anyone and anything available, pray loudly, and laugh freely.  As opposed to the days and weeks beforehand of hand-wringing , Poor-vana consists of a blissful state, walking around without money in your pocket but a heart full of trust.  We have a lot of fun and connection during our days of Poor-vana.

Even in the midst of  financial despair, I am always aware that relatively-speaking, I am still better off than some crazy percentage of the world that lives in abject poverty. Yet human misery and pain easily fills up any container.  What we are used to and how we compare our lives to deeply our sense of justice and wellbeing.

As the years go by, we have become smarter and wiser. My husband works harder and climbs higher, and the financial waters are not as turbulent. Some months there aren’t any crises at all.  Poor-vana rears its head less frequently.

Yet the question still pounds occasionally within my head: Why, Gd? Why start us off with money, and then have us lose it all and flounder for so many years, before helping us find our footing again? What’s the point of it?

It’s like the classic movie set-up: boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy wins girl back. Like the bright-eyed baal teshuva, hit with the immensity of the beauty of Yiddishkeit, only to lose that baal teshuva high, working the rest of his life to get back to that place of connection and inspiration. Why? Why is that how we must go and grow?

Why is that the dynamic of our lives? What does that give to the universe?  What does our manpower of doing it on our own, us little finite creatures in contrast to the infinite universe,  assist with anything?

I sense within this grand question a partial answer in my current psychosomatic response to my surroundings.

For now, I am rich.

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I’m not really, compared to many people around me. Those with closets filled with incredible, flowing outfits and cars and luxurious homes and money to throw around a little. I’m not really, compared to the physical possessions of greater-normal America. My husband comments on the strangeness of going back to visit his parents in St. Louis, seeing shul-goers with huge homes and lots of stuff, yet lower jobs than him, while he returns home to a small ( though bigger) NY apartment, where every penny needs to be accounted for.

I can’t afford everything I want, and I still need to scrimp and save and wait and dream for most things. We still don’t have everything we need in a home, like a dresser for example, that will have to wait, or a second bookcase to house our treasured and assorted books that have been boxed and under our beds since we moved here three years ago. I can’t send my girls to camp because of the cost, and I am raising money to get art supplies.

But honey, now I have two couches. We’ve never had two couches in the last five years. There was even a period when we didn’t have any couches at all ( my husband’s worst nightmare). We can each sit on two separate couches and chill out and talk to each other. That. Is. Huge. We don’t have lead in our walls; we live in an apartment built in the 1980’s. That is fantabulous. We have landlords that care about us and about our children’s health. Enormous.

We have a dishwasher. Let me repeat that again, so the intensity of the glory of that word and reality will melt over me in indulgent happiness. We. Have. A. Dishwasher. Oh Lord in Heaven, you have let me live and live well. I grew up with a dishwasher. I always had a dishwasher until I left for college. In those eighteen years, I don’t think I once marveled at its wonder, at its patient service to my household.

I didn’t have a dishwasher in the entirety of our marriage and children until a few months ago.  Now I understand what it means to have a diswasher. What a miracle sent from heaven a dishwasher is. I put in the soap and then quiet whirring creates a pleasurable chill to pulsate down my spine. Someone is working for me while I rest on either of our two couches. I have a servant. Abundant, rich, bliss.

Sometimes, when the finances start to squeeze on our vocal cords and breathing becomes difficult,  my husband will sigh, shake his head and mutter, “ I hate being poor” and I will stop him in his tracks- “ No.  We are not poor.” Even if we don’t have enough to pay the rent. Even if we have to beg family for money. Even if the food for the week is beans and cheese quesadillas and the children are asking, I want this, I want that!”

It’s not about the money. It’s about the sensation of having money. It’s about the belief in abundance. It’s about feeling rich.  It’s about seeing the reality that we are given.

When I have the opportunity to compare what I have now compared to what I had a few years ago, I sense that all-powerful feeling of fullness we crave: gratitude.

Our fabulous money management advisor, Rabbi Yitzchok Dubov, gave us this piece of advice: “Decide what things you need to feel rich, and then scrimp and save with the rest.” Suddenly, our purchases and our lives changed. I eliminated cleaning help in order to send my daughter to playgroup, so I would have time to work on my art. Oh how sticky is my floor, but how empowered I feel to stand and stare at my paintings, paintbrush in hand, in the stillness of my children-at-school home.

To feel rich, to feel the sense of overflowing abundance, I needed to actively work for it.  It is simply what was ordained to be the dynamics of the universe. We have, we lose, we have again, but this time, when we have, it’s so much better.  Because we’re better. Because our eyesight is refined. That girl the boy caught in the beginning, after the painful breakup?  She has become an entity in her own right, not just something for him to consume. And in that separation, she has moved up the rung of holiness, of sanctity, of preciousness., and their relationship is incomparably higher because of their friction and absence.

The answer, though, still hangs unanswered: For what, Gd? We have grown and we see Your Glory and Your gifts, but for what?  Why? Why do you need us, exactly? Why do you need for us to be able to see You and see Your gifts? Why do you need our strength and our eyesight?

The question still remains, always, in the back of my baffled mind, but my current sense of gratitude overflows any existential angst that it could produce. Life is still a mystery, but a delicious one at that.

I can handle any sort of unsolved mystery when I’m living the good, rich life.  And I can connect so much better with the Source of it all when I’m feeling the flow of abundance and nurture trickle down. So pass the Bartenura and 70% cocoa chocolate bar;  it’s going to be a long and  fabulous night.