Saturday, August 7, 2010

Money, Money, Money: A Reflection on Parshat Re'eh

What is money?  A good economy textbook definition would be "a medium that we use to exchange for goods and services."  How does that medium function in secular, American life?  Sadly enough, we are taught the money buys us happiness.  The ultimate, ideal goal with money is to either accrue mass amounts of it in order to acquire power and affluence, or if you cannot aim for that goal, at least you can buy happiness by "buying a lot of stuff."  According to this axiom, the amount of material goods you owe translates into happiness.  The more television sets you have, the more cars you have, the happier you are, or at least that's what has been instilled in many Americans. 

This makes money the ends to happiness.  Even from a secular standpoint, we inevitably run into the issues of selfishness and avarice that this mentality causes.  At the very least, we will ignore [interacting with] others in order to pursue our selfish goals, and at the most, we will do whatever we have to do to others, even if that comes down to murder, G-d forbid, to acquire it.  This leads to a problem from a religious standpoint: idolatry.  Although we think of idolatry as bowing down to statues and images, that really is a narrow definition.  In its broadest terms, idolatry is not viewing G-d, but rather something else, as the ends.  In this case, the "Almighty Dollar" has become the center of worship.  Constantly bombarded with advertisements that tell us we are not good enough human beings unless we buy such-and-such a product, the rampant materialism in this country turns the average American from being a human being to merely becoming a soulless consumer in the rat-race we call life.

A clarification I would like to make at this time is this: please do not confuse my societal criticism of America's misguided obsession with materials along with a call for deprivation of any sort of materialism.  Although some Jewish sects have had aesthetic practices, Judaism, by large, is against aestheticism.  Other world religions, mainly Christianity, Buddhism, and Hinduism, all have vows of poverty (i.e., not owning money) as a spiritual ideal.

I am glad that Judaism doesn't follow neither American secular culture nor that of other world religions when it comes to money.  Judaism is teaches that money is a means in which elevate ourselves unto which we can behave as creatures "created in His image."  Upon looking at Parsha Re'eh, mainly the passage in Deuteronomy 15:7-11 (Artscroll translation), we can see that religious imperative spelled out:

"If there shall be a destitute person among you, any of your brethren in any of your cities, in your Land that Hashem, your G-d, gives you, you shall not harden your heart or close your hand against your destitute brother.  Rather, you shall open you hand to him: you shall lend him his requirement, whatever is lacking to him.  Beware lest there be a lawless thought in your heart, saying, "The seventh year approaches, the remission year," and you will look malevolently upon your destitute brother and refuse to give to him--then he man appeal against you to Hashem, and it will be a sin upon you.  You shall surely give him, and let your heart not feel bad when you give him, for in return for this matter, Hashem, your G-d, will bless you in all your deeds and in your every undertaking.  For destitute people will not cease to exist within the Land, therefore I command you, saying, "You shall surely open your hand to your brother, your poor, and to your destitute in your Land." 

Although the rabbis throughout time have had plenty to say on the topic, I will touch upon a couple of points that merit emphasis.  The first point is that you actually have to care about your destitute brother, and this based on the repetition of the possessive adjective in the second person (i.e., "your"/ךָ-) we see in verse 11.  Although you might find some individuals in the secular who have genuine altruism not caused by religion, this sort of behavior is rather exceptional since the secular world provides no incentive to actually care about the plight of another person, let alone a poor person.  This repeition is supposed to teach us that the plight of the poor is indeed our problem, and that we are supposed to display empathy towards the poor.

The other point I would like to bring up and with which I would like to conclude, is in Verse 7, where we are not supposed to neither harden our hearts nor close our hands.  This dictum is actually aimed towards two sorts of givers.  According to Rashi, the former is the kind of person who thinks about giving and convinces himself not to give, whereas the latter is one who is callous about the whole process.

Although we live in a world with rampant materialism, I ask everyone, both Jew and non-Jew, to challenge themselves to neither harden our hearts nor close our hands to the poor.  May we refine ourselves to help alleviate the plight of the poor whenever we have the opportunity.

שבוע טוב!

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