Causes of the Collapse

11/28/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

It's a measure of how far the American family has fallen that Barack Obama's visit to his ailing grandmother received little media attention. After all, it was impressive that a man who may make history by becoming the first black President in about a week took two days off to travel to Hawaii to be with his grandma on what could be his last chance to see her.

The idea for this column came to me while sitting in law offices in New York where a young woman said that she was going to miss her mother's marriage because she was working on a huge case. When I asked her, "Don't you think your mother's wedding is more important," she said, "Well, she's been married a few times and I have to get this work done." Others around the room began to chime in. A male attorney said, "I had to miss my grandmother's funeral because I couldn't get off of a case." A forty-something woman added, "I really wanted to attend my sister's wedding. But it was in England, and I couldn't take the time off either."

How important was their work that they couldn't put family first? More important than becoming President of the United States? And yes, I know the naysayers will chime in that Obama wasn't sincere, that he visited his grandma to score brownie points with voters. And yet, this country seems so divided on Obama that those who love him would have forgiven him had he not flown ten hours from Indiana to Honolulu, and those who dislike him would find ulterior motives for whatever he did. And besides, doing the right thing is important whether or not you do it for the right reasons.

But America doesn't want to hear about family right now. It wants to hear about money. What happened to our economy? What happened to our retirement accounts? Who is responsible for the financial disaster? We know the answer. What happened to our money is that we got greedy. And we got greedy because we have precious little love in our lives. What we have are a lot of are things. But since things aren't satisfying, we'll never have enough. We'll have all the money in the world and it still won't be enough.

American voraciousness is what caused the economic collapse. We have gone from being citizens to 'consumers,' as if our very raison d'être is to devour. We and our children are becoming larger and more obese. Even when we eat we rarely feel full up. Three meals a day and we're still hungry. We are now governed by the reptilian brain where size alone governs our tastes. Bigger TV's, bigger portions at restaurants, bigger people. Supersize me!

CNN is currently broadcasting a segment called "Culprits of Collapse," naming the ten individuals most responsible for the financial meltdown. You probably won't be surprised to hear that many were heads of banks where they were making tens of millions, even hundreds of millions of dollars, a year. Still, they had to push their banks to make billions more so that they could reap larger and larger crumbs from the pie. And their corporations gave and gave until there was nothing left to give, and it all came crumbling down.

America is currently operating on an inner emptiness that has finally been exposed. We can fix the banks. But they will collapse again. Because we're going to keep on borrowing money we don't have, to buy things we don't need, to fill a gap that can only be filled with a calling rather than a career, a sense of purpose rather than a shopping spree, and a spiritual center rather than greater material indulgence.

In last week's Torah portion of Bereishis we read the most famous story of the entire Bible, how G-d placed a man and a woman who didn't even have a shirt on their backs in a Garden. They have no material possession, but they have natural beauty and they have each other. As far as they're concerned, they're in paradise. But along comes the serpent who ruins the party by getting Eve to focus not on what she has but what she lacks. 'How can you be happy when there is still one tree from which you cannot partake, one fruit which you cannot consume, one pleasure which you cannot indulge?" The serpent injects the toxic poison of insatiability into Eve and Adam and ever since then human beings have committed the crime of not focusing on their blessings, but on what they're missing. And in the course of neglecting their blessings, they begin to lose them. Enter the financial crisis in America. Oh how we wish we could even go back just a few months to a time when our retirement accounts were pretty full, even as they seemed utterly empty to us.

Sadly, religion in America seems incapable of rising to the challenge of giving people inner contentment and pulling them away from insatiable materialism. Joel Osteen continues to give his weekly sermons on how faith in G-d will get us a promotion and make us rich. Evangelical leaders are now running around California to pass a ban on gay marriage. And Rabbis continue to debate whether or not Obama is good for the Jews. New Rome is collapsing and religious leaders continue to fiddle.

And so the serpent continues to slither, crawling on his belly to infect more and more people with a feeling that their wives aren't pretty enough, their children aren't performing well enough in school, and their jobs aren't prestigious enough. And an antidote to the hydra's poison seems nowhere on the horizon.

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach broadcasts a daily national radio show on "Oprah and Friends." His upcoming book, "The Kosher Sutra," will be published in January.