Does Religion have Anything to Teach in an Economic Downturn?
(Genesis 33:1-11 I Kings 3:1-14)
There it was, at the bottom of the front page of the New York Times, with the promise of a fuller article on page A21, a small photo of my youth group friend, accompanied by the distressing and damning words: “Charged in Pension Fund Fraud”. In the large photo on page A21, except that his brown hair was now white, he looked remarkably like he had in the early 1970s when we last saw each other, when he went off to Columbia University for college and later law school, and I went off to Boston, and then California. The accusations in the article, “charged with myriad counts…bribery, grand larceny, money laundering and fraud”, were mixed up with my memories of our temple youth group activities together—organizing High Holy Day services in the park for unaffiliated Jews, where we advertised-- “All dressed up and no place to pray?” attending anti-war rallies, meeting every Friday night for Shabbat services, followed by ice cream at Friendly’s, studying weekly with our rabbi…I thought, as well, of his trademark line that I always attribute to him and regularly offer in either political settings or in cars -- “When in doubt, go left.” This quick witted, brilliant, boundlessly energetic guy I looked up to as a teen was pictured in custody, on the way to his arraignment, a police officer to his right and photographers swarming all around him.i
How did he get from there to here? With all the values that were inculcated in that tight-knit group of young people, all idealistic and determined to better the world, how did my friend get to a point where he could be indicted-- the quest for money looming larger than his integrity, more important than his community, more powerful than his always articulately and passionately argued ideals? I don’t know what turns my friend’s life took in the years that we journeyed from idealistic teens to experienced adults. But I see how far too many people, whether they have gone so far as to have broken the law or only strayed from the ideals of their youth, have let money, and the quest for money overwhelm all other desires.
It is all too clear that wealth is the paramount virtue our culture lives by. “We want this wealth more than we want anything else,” says Jacob Needleman in his book, Money and the Meaning of Life. “We want this wealth more than we want anything else.”ii The Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, Jonathan Sacks, tells a Hasidic story about the pervasiveness of wealth: One day a Hasid came to his rabbi; he was rich, but a miser. The rabbi took him by the hand and led him to the window. “Look out there,” he said. And the rich man looked into the street. “What do you see?” asked the rabbi. “People,” answered the rich man. Again the rabbi took him by the hand and this time led him to the mirror. “What do you see now?” he asked. “Now I see myself,” answered the rich man.
The rich man’s rabbi said: “Behold – in the window there is glass, and in the mirror there is glass. But the glass of the mirror is covered with a little silver, and no sooner is the silver added than you cease to see others but see only yourself.”iii Rabbi Sacks comments: “That is what happens when silver covers glass. Instead of seeing the world, you see only yourself. The idea that human happiness can be exhaustively accounted for in terms of things we can buy, exchange and replace is one of the great corrosive acids which eats away the girders on which societies rest; and by the time we have discovered this, it is already too late.”
“When everything that matters can be bought and sold, when commitments can be broken because they are no longer to our advantage, when shopping becomes salvation and advertising slogans become our litany, when our worth is measured by how much we earn and spend, then the market is destroying the very virtues on which in the long run it depends….When markets seem to hold out the promise of uninterrupted growth in our satisfaction of desires, the voice of our great religious traditions needs to be heard, warning us of the gods that devour their own children, and of the temples that stand today as relics of civilizations that once seemed invincible.”iv So writes Rabbi Sacks in Morals and Markets.
In our culture, as Jacob Needleman reminds us, money can be like a drug—used rightly, money allows us to live, eat, drink, protect ourselves, help our families and friends, maintain our health, and accomplish certain aims…It can be an instrument of love, hate, challenge, and tenderness. But used wrongly, money prevents relationship, prevents exchange; Money is good at solving problems, it is bad at opening questions.v
Yet, here we are today in a time of economic instability and anxiety. Those questions need to be asked. We watch the numbers of unemployed in our midst grow exponentially--its reach growing to take in our friends, our family and our co-workers, and in some cases, ourselves. We see our retirement accounts go from “401K’s” to “101K’s.” We tighten our belts and scrutinize our budgets. And as we listen to the confusing cascade of information and potential solutions, “money and the meaning of life” becomes not just a clever book title, but also a challenge containing a question that begs to be asked.
How can we keep money from being the sole meaning in our lives and our culture? How do we recover meaning that is not tethered to money? How can we live large even as we downsize? How do we loosen our heart even as we tighten our belt? The economic downturn has had and will continue to have a range of impacts on our lives, from those who will now have to wait longer to retire, to those who can’t find positions, to those in danger of losing their home. I would never suggest that the attitude we take toward money and the meaning of life addresses all points on that spectrum. For those who are destitute, for those who are on the edge, for those who are truly struggling, what is called for is not advice, but bread; not words, but shelter. But for many of us here today, it is appropriate to explore the balance between financial anxiety and emotional wellbeing. For many of us here today, it is possible to be rich in relationships, commitments and values, even as we face a smaller bank account or encroaching uncertainty.
I have no illusions about the pervasiveness and power of financial collapse. As a teenager, the small diaper service that my father founded and ran, that had afforded us annually leased Cadillacs, sleep-away camp and horseback riding, went bankrupt. I watched my father, a gregarious, optimistic man shutter his factory and agonize over having to lay off his employees, one by one, until, valiantly trying to keep a shred of livelihood even for himself, he turned my mother’s white Chevrolet Impala into a delivery truck. Moving from behind a desk to behind the wheel, he picked up dirty diapers, transported them to a friend’s factory for laundering and brought the clean ones back to his customers. Eventually, even that failed. Ultimately, the Impala aired out and my father moved out of state, living with friends while he tried his hand at new jobs. I sought scholarships for college while my mother sold our three-bedroom house in the New York suburbs and our family moved into a small apartment in Florida. Although our digs were smaller, our sense of gratitude was large. There were friends who took my family in and relatives who helped my dad to find work. He had grown up poor; he knew that there was no shame in poverty; he never downsized his spirit. And whether he lived like a king, or he lived like a pauper, like the biblical Jacob, my father lived by this certainty: Ki chanani Elohim, v’chi yesh li kol”, “God has been gracious to me. I have all I need.”. (Genesis 33:9:11) Throughout his life, whenever the occasion called for a toast, my dad offered one in Portuguese that he had learned while stationed as a soldier in Brazil: “Health, wealth, love, and time to enjoy it.” He lived out that motto and those words are now engraved on his tombstone.
Some of you know that I participated in a conference in China last autumn and spent some time in Shanghai. My grandfather was in the import-export business in New York, and he traveled frequently to China. That is how he came to be imprisoned in a Japanese internment camp in Shanghai during World War II. His was a generation that spoke little of personal hardship, and now there is no one left to ask, so, my curiosity piqued by the trip, I did some research about the camps. What I learned was that many of his fellow internees were well-to-do expatriates. They had lived in large houses in the international section of Shanghai and were accustomed to having household help for cooking and driving. They were the ones who had the most difficulty adapting to the cramped surroundings and limited rations of the camps. The internees were responsible for everything from cleaning to food preparation, from labor to education. In this setting, the previously well off internees struggled to manage without money or power. Those who handled the experience with grit and grace were the tradespeople, whose skills were essential to bringing health, labor and organization into the camps. Their worth was not determined by their wealth. They could discern and carry out what was necessary to create quality of life even in the most limited conditions.
Whether in internment camps, or in poor communities in the States during those years, a spirit of community was stronger than a yearning for money. In Canton, Ohio during the Great Depression, a man who had once been down and out, personally and anonymously offered modest assistance to those who were facing a grim Christmas. Using the pseudonym B. Virdot, he solicited requests and responded to letters with small checks to 150 families—families like an unemployed steelworker with tuberculosis and a son in the hospital, the wife of an out-of-work insurance salesman who was hiding from her husband that she had just pawned her engagement ring for $5, a once prominent businessman, who, at 65, was destitute, a woman three years behind in taxes and out of credit at the grocery store who wrote, “Even if you don’t think we’re worthy of help, I hope you receive a great blessing for your kindness.” Ted Gup grew up knowing the story of Canton’s benefactor. 75 years later, when his mother Virginia gave him an old black suitcase filled with cancelled checks, he learned that the mystery benefactor was his grandfather, Samuel J. Stone. The pseudonym “B. Virdot” was created from his three daughters’ names—Barbara, Virginia and Dorothy. Stone had fled anti-Semitism in Romania as a teen, and he had overcome poverty in the ghettos of Pittsburgh. He felt that his good fortune carried with it a responsibility, especially when so many around him had so little. His grandson wrote, “Like many in his generation, my grandfather believed in hard work, and disdained handouts…But he could never ignore the brutal reality of times when work was simply not to be had and self-reliance reached its limits. He sought no credit for acts of conscience. He saw them as the debt we owe one another and ourselves.”vi
Some analysts have suggested that the difference between Wall Street and Main Street is this very notion of reciprocity and of community. The purpose of the Wall Street economy, they say, is devoted solely to the use of money to make money. But the Main Street economy is composed of local businesses and individuals like Samuel Stone, who work within a framework of community values to meet community needs.vii Those who have lost their way have gotten entangled in the idea that the only purpose of money is to make more money; that the most important purpose of life is to acquire wealth and the only definition of happiness has dollar signs attached to it. But the Main Street model reminds us that money, like other instruments, is one of the ways to connect us, to create community, to make manifest Dr. King’s famous line that “We are all tied together in a single garment of destiny.”
King Solomon is known in the Bible as a wise ruler. He built the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. He is best known for the story of two women who came to him, each claiming to be the mother of one boy. Uncertain who was telling the truth, Solomon ordered the child to be cut in half, whereupon one of the women fell on the ground, relinquishing her claim to the boy in order for him to live. Through this test, Solomon was able to discern that she was indeed, the child’s mother. When Solomon was a young man, new to the throne, the Eternal appeared to him in a dream by night and said, “Ask, what shall I grant you?’ Solomon responded, “Grant, then, Your servant, an understanding mind to judge Your people, to distinguish between good and bad.” (I Kings 3:9) Solomon might have asked for riches. He might have asked for vengeance upon his enemies. Rather, he asked for judgment. He sought an understanding heart.
For many of us in this economic downturn, an understanding heart is more essential than a robust bank account. Such a heart leads us to say, with Jacob, “God has been gracious to me. I have all I need.” In this moment, when what we have in our savings account may be dwindling, let us look again at what we can grow. So much that brings us pleasure has little to do with money. My favorite undergraduate professor, Bill McDonald, used to say, “Adolescents come to college with a very limited view of pleasure. They think the only pleasures are sex and beer. It’s my job to expand their notion of pleasure.” For forty years, he has taught his students the pleasure of a good opera, the extravagant joy of being engrossed in a good book, the communal connection and depth created by conversations about ideas. Those were lessons I learned well in college and they have stood me in good stead throughout my life. (He’s still trying to teach me about wine-tasting…)
What brings you pleasure that isn’t contingent upon wealth? What creates meaning that isn’t about money? Let me name a few: A hike to a beautiful setting. Gardening. A conversation with a dear friend. A meal prepared and enjoyed with others. A day at the food pantry—remembering and fulfilling our responsibilities toward those with less. Laughter. A fabulous film. Hugs. Knitting with beautiful yarn. A long awaited kiss.
In Judaism, there is a tradition of offering 100 blessings a day. There are blessings for the sunset, blessings for the ocean, for a person we haven’t seen in a long time, for bread, wine, fruit that grows on trees, for a crowd. And there’s an all-purpose blessing for arriving at a special time. There is so much that brings blessing. We need only--as my father’s toast says-- to take the time to enjoy it. It is not hard to live large while downsizing. It is not impossible to open our hearts even as we tighten our budgets. The great British philanthropist and communal leader, Sir Moses Montifiore used to say, “We are worth what we are willing to share with others.”
In this time of economic uncertainty, let us remember what is certain. Let us remember our true worth. Let us, like Solomon, seek a wise and understanding heart. Like the biblical Jacob reconciling with his brother, let us look at our lives and our struggles, and have the wisdom and understanding to say, “ki chanani elohim, v’ci yesh li kol” “God has been gracious to me. I have all I need.” (Genesis 33:9:11) May we discern our blessings with an understanding heart, and may God be gracious to us all. I wish you all health, wealth, love, and time to enjoy it. Cheers!
i New York Times, March 20, 2009
ii Jacob Needleman, Money and the Meaning of Life, p. 22
iii Louis I. Newman, ed. A Hasidic Anthology (Schocken Books, 1963) p.425.
iv Jonathan Sacks, Morals and Markets, p. 24
v Needleman, p. 115-116
vi Ted Gup, “Hard Times, A Helping Hand”, New York Times Op-Ed December 22, 2008
vii Gar Alperovitz and Lew Daly, “Justice and Injustice: Ancient Wisdom and the Modern Knowledge Economy” Tikkun Magazine, March/April 2009