Lists. Some of us love them and some of us hate them. We joke that it is good that Leviticus, the grand biblical book of lists, is read in the summertime when no one goes to shul anyway. And yet we could not live without lists: invitation lists, packing lists, shopping lists, laundry lists, to-do lists, top ten, ingredients, deposits, check lists, medical chart, punch list…
In my reading about homes in New England, I stumbled across whole books that were simply estate lists, that is, documents that listed the contents of a person’s possessions (their land, home and all that was in it) at the time of death.
And what was so remarkable about that is that for the most part, the list ran to 2-3 pages.
That’s it. After a lifetime of living, producing, consuming, accumulating, most of these good folks who lived what would have been considered comfortable lives had very few possessions.
Which put in high relief for me the mishnah which tells us that in addition to the statutory pilgrimages, people would go to the Temple for four reasons: (1) to mourn a death (2) to ask God for the recovery of a loved one who was ill (3) to be readmitted to their community after being cast out and (4) if they lost something.
In the context of the deep and wrenching sense of loss and the aching desire for wholeness that the other three situations evoke, I was always struck with how mundane and perhaps even crass the fourth reason was. Temple as Lost and Found? Temple as the place where you would stand and declare: “I lost my keys - if you find them please return them to…”
But of course, I was assuming possessions were a dime a dozen. I imagine that for some of us, the contents of our coat closet would fill at least half a dozen pages. Never mind the stuff we need to store off-site in those rental storage units.
When you read the inventories of New England households, however, you realize how precious, and indeed how distinctive, each item was. Each item was made by hand and had the unique markings of the peculiar ways the user handled it. Chips and dents and craftsmen’s markings. No factory-built sameness.
When my in-laws moved to Israel 30+ years ago, they took with them much of their American life, including their furniture. They were a modest family living a modest life in a modest home. And yet when they got to Beer Sheva, they realized that their modest American life and modest American holdings were massive in contrast to the modest southern Israeli life.
All of which is to say, we have so much stuff. Too much stuff. Imagine if our possessions had to all be listed in an estate account. How many pages would that take? How long would it take to assemble the list? Imagine if that list were to be published - for estate accounts are most often public documents. What would it say about us?
And the biggest kicker is: it is hard to say that we are richer or happier today for all of our possessions than they were in American colonial times, or in the times of ancient Israel.