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Parashat Ekev 5773 — 07/24/2013

Parashat Ekev 5773 — 07/24/2013

Guard yourself lest you forget Hashem, your Gd, and do not keep His commandments and His judgments and His ordinances that I am commanding you today.  And lest you eat and grow satisfied, and build goodly houses and live [in them].  And your herds and flocks grow large and you grow [rich] in gold and silver, and everything of yours increases.  And your heart grows haughty and you forget Hashem your Gd Who took you out of the land of Egypt, the house of slavery.  Who led you in the vast and awesome desert, of snakes and serpents and scorpions, of thirst where there was no water, Who brought forth water from the flinty rock for you.  Who fed you manna in the desert, that neither you nor your ancestors knew about, in order to test you and afflict you, to benefit you in the end.  And you will say in your hearts, “My power and the strength of my hand make all this wealth for me.”  Remember Hashem your Gd – it was He Who gave you the power to create this wealth!  In order to fulfill the covenant that He swore to your ancestors like this very day.  (11-18)

Mine is the silver and mine is the gold declares Hashem  (Chaggai 2:8)

Give to Him what is His because you and yours are His.  (Pirke Avot 3:8)

You didn’t build that!  (Pres. Obama on the campaign trail, Roanoke, Virginia, 13 July, 2012)

President Obama took a bit of heat for the quoted statement.  I’m not a big fan of his, but he was dead on here, in ways that he probably never intended, or even is aware of.

The context of the statement was to point out that nobody creates in a vacuum.  If you built a business, or a factory, or anything of value, it is embedded in the social matrix in which we all live.  You depended on the education you got, or your workers got, on the infrastructure that brings raw materials to you and allows you to get goods to market, on the financial system, on government regulation, on firefighters, police, sanitation, and, all too often, on agencies to clean up the environmental mess you’ve made.  In other words, we are all in this together.  Certainly some will get more and some will get less, some will contribute more and some will contribute less.  Unfortunately we have a myth of the “self-made man,” who creates an empire out of thin air.  Too often such people are so busy crushing everyone beneath them that they don’t notice the degree to which they are dependent on others, as we have just outlined.  Equally unfortunately, when the distribution of rewards in society gets too unbalanced, the society collapses.  Read the prophetic books, Isaiah especially, to get an idea how this works.

A friend of mine was arguing about health care with a woman on Facebook.  This woman was touting her hard work at her business through which she had accumulated enough wealth to self-insure.  I suggested to my friend that she quote this lady the reminder that it is Gd Who gives us the strength, the intelligence, the talents, to make a living, or, in some cases to make a fortune.  This admonition didn’t faze my friend’s interlocutor one bit (despite her claim to being a fundamentalist, Bible-believing Christian), but it gives us a second level of insight into the notion that we cannot claim full credit for our accomplishments.  After all, we didn’t create ourselves, and we certainly didn’t give ourselves our talents and our personalities, nor did we create our entire social environment.  We may deserve some credit for our hard work we invest to develop those talents to the fullest, but the substrate that we were given comes to us from our Creator.

Furthermore, it is our experience that there are those who work very hard, yet only have modest material rewards to show for that hard work.  Others may work less hard and yet make substantially more.  Some are born into wealthy families and start off with education and connections that virtually guarantee success.  Others are born into poor families and may never have the opportunity to get the education or the capital to create what they otherwise might have been able to create.  Our Sages explain that every person has a particular rôle to play in the unfolding of Gd’s plan for the creation.  Each of us is given the specific “tools” we need to carry out that task.  For some it is wealth, for others it may be poverty.  If our tool is wealth, then, if we use our wealth properly, it is a blessing, otherwise it becomes the opposite, both for others and, more importantly, for ourselves.

Lest anyone get the wrong impression here, Judaism does not look down on wealth or the wealthy.  Ramban, in his Iggeret haRamban, written to his son as a set of ethical and spiritual guidelines, says that one is obligated to honor both the wise and the wealthy.  R. Avrohom Chaim Feuer, in his commentary on Iggeret haRamban, quotes the Talmud: Rebbi honored the wealthy, and R. Akiva honored the wealthy (Eruvin 86a).  Rebbi (the redactor of the Mishnah) was fabulously wealthy.  R. Akiva began life as a poor shepherd, but eventually became extremely wealthy as well.  But both used their wealth properly, for the good of others and of the community.  A 20th century Rabbi pointed out that the Torah doesn’t endorse socialism, except during the Sabbatical year, when all fields and trees are left fallow and their fruit that springs up naturally is free for all to eat.  This implies that the other 6 years of the Sabbatical cycle, one is free to enjoy one’s private property, subject of course to the obligatory gifts to the poor, the Kohanim and the Levites.  Besides the obvious benefits of these gifts for their recipients, giving these gifts reminds us that everything we are, or have, or produce, ultimately belongs to Gd, and we are just stewards as it were, of any resources we might have.  Therefore, when we give tithes, or any form of charity, we are, as it were, giving to Gd that which is His already.  What grief is there in that?

I think we can take the analysis a step further.  When we say (end of the first paragraph of Aleinu) Hashem, He is Gd in the heavens above, and on the earth below, there is none other, what we are really saying is that there is nothing but Gd.  Gd permeates the universe, because the universe is, ultimately, not separate from Gd.  We are all expressions of Gd.  We may appear to be different on the surface, but underlying those differences is Gd’s absolute Unity.  Any action we take, and any results of those actions, are really all expressions of Gd’s internal dynamics – internal because it is impossible for there to be anything external to Gd.

To continue the theme of Divine input vs. human input (i.e. human action) that we have been considering over the past few weeks, I think our evaluation of this question depends critically on our perspective.  From Gd’s perspective there is no human input – how could there be?  From our perspective, there is obviously human input – we experience that we choose our actions!  Gd’s evaluation will clearly never change.  Our evaluation will certainly change as we grow and our awareness expands.  As we learn to see Gd’s boundlessness infused in every grain of physical matter and energy, as we experience our own consciousness grow more and more unbounded, then we begin to see our bodies, minds, feelings and personalities as simply expressions of the infinite, while we, in our essential natures, are that infinite which transcends all activites.  Perhaps this is as close to Gd’s perspective as we can come, recognizing that we have no independent power and our hand has no strength outside of Gd.  In the final analysis we don’t build anything; all we can do is help Gd a little bit in the building of His creation.


Pirke Avot, Chapter 5

Mishnah 6

Our forefathers challenged the Holy One Blessed is He ten times in the wilderness, as it says “They tested Me ten times, and did not heed My voice.” (Bamidbar 14:22)

R. Lau points out that this Mishnah, which discusses our rebelliousness, comes right after a Mishnah that recounts all Gd’s goodness to us.  Therefore it speaks to the sin of kifui hatov, ingratitude.  The Hebrew word for “thank you,” todah, is related to the word for “acknowledge,” modeh.  The difficulty in feeling gratitude is that we have to first acknowledge our debt to our benefactor.  It’s hard enough to do this with our friends, let alone with Gd, to Whom we owe every moment of our lives, our health, our existence.  I once read that there is a saying in the Arctic: Gifts make slaves the way whips make dogs.  Gd has given us the gift of life, of consciousness, the gift of being able to be close to Him, the gift of transcendence.  If we truly understand what we have from Gd, we will gladly serve Him with all our heart, with all our soul and with all our might.