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The Con in Consumerism: A Purim Quest into Ourselves

03/07/2012 11:14 am ET | Updated May 07, 2012

Our first glimpse into the Purim story is a telling one. Filled to the brim with every possible hedonistic delight and fancy, we arrive at the tail end of an 180 day party for dignitaries, armies and princes capped by a seven day feast for all members of the land. Achashverosh, ruler of 127 provinces, is at the helm of this lavish display of riches and "the splendorous beauty of his majesty" (Esther 1:4). No expense was spared. Dazzling marble pillars and floors, furniture adorned in gold and silver, endless drink and servants to fulfill whatever guests desired.

Whereas we might look askance at the waste and frivolity these parties encouraged, or perhaps a wistful longing or excitement, Achashverosh evinces a familiar need to present ourselves well, an inner pride outwardly manifested via physical display. Achashverosh held a beauty pageant to gauge who his next wife would be. The negative means to which this culture manipulated people shows how stressing physical appearance creates unrealizable goals of wealth and power. Today, shows like "The Bachelor" mimic that spousal selection process. It goes deeper than reality television. Material items often fuel an insatiable impulse.

Take the term "retail therapy." A study presented at the Society for Social and Personality Psychology Conference ("Misery is Not Miserly", Cynthia E. Cryder, et al) posits that the "yay me, focusing on me" factor consumerism creates is what alleviates sadness. We purchase more things to raise ourselves up. One new shirt begets the desire for another. Averah goreret averah -- one wrongdoing leads to another wrongdoing (Pirkei Avot 4:2). I could say the same for myself and gooey chocolate chip cookies. Just one measly portion doesn't seem enough. Sometimes I turn into the Cookie Monster, guzzling cookie after cookie. We all have this inside us; how it manifests is up to us. When do we cross the line into materialism or even gluttony? When does having more cease to add appreciably to human satisfaction?

Our measuring of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) counts family breakdown and disease as economic boons. A divorce means two houses and lawyer fees, and diseases leads to hospital fees, all of which add up to productivity for our economy. What do these measurements reflect about our values as a society? Robert F. Kennedy, in an address to the University of Kansas in 1968, reflected on this system of measurement:

"Too much and too long, we seem to have surrendered community excellence and community values in the mere accumulation of material things. Our gross national product ... if we should judge America by that -- counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for those who break them. It counts the destruction of our redwoods and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl."

Since Shushan times, our earnings have increased, material goods are cheaper than ever before, and we have far surpassed Achashverosh technologically. These changes have skyrocketed our consumption to unimaginable levels. From the 1950s on, the world's intake of meat, steel, wood, copper and energy has doubled, car ownership has quadrupled, plastic use has increased five fold, and air travel multiplied by 32 times (statistics published in "American Forests" '91).

Our religion holds the values of integrity of character, good work, strong friendship and family relationships, and community in high regard. We work to be better individuals and a stronger collective. These are social, psychological and spiritual needs that can only be attained with care, effort and time. In discussing the shortcomings of GDP as an indicator of our nation's progress, Robert Kennedy highlighted what is fundamentally missing from this measurement, citing educational proficiency, good health, our courage, wit and strength of our marriages. The values Kennedy puts forth as important indicators of America's economic state are somewhat incalculable and suggest an alternative to consumer spending. It's interesting to note that a number of alternatives to GDP have been suggested: the Index of Sustainable Economic Welfare, which factors in both pollution and income distribution, and the Genuine Progress Indicator, which tries to determine if economic growth has improved a country's welfare. Alternative efforts try to supplement or supplant traditional income-based measures with happiness-based measures. These include the Happy Planet Index, a Gross National Happiness measure and work on National Well-Being Accounts.

Drawing back the curtain of our Purim texts for a moment, we unearth a tremendous emphasis of the traits mentioned above. The Vilna Gaon, in his interpretation of the megillah, calls our attention to the passage "V'kabel Hayehudim ... la'asot" -- "and the Jews took to do that which they had begun" (Esther 9:23). The Vilna Gaon points out the grammatical inaccuracy of this sentence as V'kabel is singular while Hayehudim is plural. What do we make of this? The Vilna Gaon goes on to teach, "that the Jews acted as one," in complete solidarity (Perush HaGra on Esther 9:23).

We see Esther's explicit acknowledgement of this collective power when she asks Mordechai to: "Go, gather all the Jews of Shushan and fast for me" (4:16). Why couldn't Mordechai merely tell the Jews to fast? Why did they need to be gathered? Esther too saw deliverance from their dire situation only when Am Yisrael was brought together, "as one nation, with one heart." Even (especially!) during times of despair, we see the power of the collective, where each voice heard in unison, bringing about social change.

"He (Mordecai) instructed them to observe them as days of feasting and gladness, and sending delicacies to one another, and gifts to the poor" (Esther 9:22). Consider these basic mitzvot (commandments) of Purim: They are all activities that foster the traits of fellowship and giving. Especially in times of gladness, we are commanded to consider those less fortunate. We are compelled to think about a friendship we may have let go astray or a recent argument we may have had, and to reach out and give that person mishloach manot (gift baskets of food and drink). Think about it: Purim helps create a sense of common identity and community. As a whole and as individuals we cultivate deeper sources of fulfillment. This Purim, let us cultivate a deeper awareness of our personal measures of success, and celebrate them together.

This column is a part of 'Ve-Nahafoch Hu: Making Your Way Through an Upside-Down World,' a social justice Purim Supplement published by Uri L'Tzedek. Ve-Nahafoch Hu ("and the opposite occurred," Esther 9:1) is when the Jews of Shushan were saved at the last moment, resulting in a day of celebrations and expressions of gratitude. But Purim is not only a day of feasting and merrymaking; it is so much more. The Book of Esther as well as its mitzvot (commandments) and minhagim (customs) touch on many of the compelling issues of our time including the death penalty, consumerism, theories of ethics and responsibility, alcoholism, poverty and economic injustice, structures of political organization, and taxes. The conversations are brought together in Ve-Nahafoch Hu, which can be downloaded here.