Material Things

What is the role that material things should play in our lives? What is their place in our spiritual make up? In “The Sabbath” by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel he articulates a paradigm for how humans relate to their surroundings. This paradigm is expressed through the concepts of space and time.

Space for Heschel is what he calls technological civilization. For Heschel, “Technical civilization stems primarily from the desire of [humans] to subdue and manage the forces of nature” (The Sabbath, 3 -4). By subduing and managing the forces of nature, Heschel makes the claim that a human’s main drive is to make nature subservient to humanity. However, in making nature subservient to people, a person becomes disconnected from nature, and, by extension, distanced from their own souls. It is as if the more a person learns how to manipulate nature the farther away from nature that person becomes.

Heschel sees civilization’s use of space for control, rather than using space as a means for connection of the spirit, as a misuse of the material world. “Technical civilization is the product of labor, of man’s exertion of power for the sake of gain, for the sake of producing goods.” (Sabbath , 27). For Heschel he wants nothing more than for space to be for the servicing of the soul and not for the purpose of accumulation of material goods to feed the ego.

So how do we make the accumulation of things a spiritual exercise? The trick lies in changing the focus of the material. If I buy something, or master something for myself, this will lead to fleeting satisfaction. However, if I master something or acquire something, in the service of connecting to or helping others, (or even dare I say God) this allows the material world to create lasting satisfaction.