My spouse and I are beginning the process of empty-nester downsizing -- preparing to sell our house in the Boston suburbs and move to a smaller townhouse in a more urban neighborhood. We've learned that in order to sell a house these days, you need to "stage it," which basically means making your house look like no one is really living there. We've had to give away, sell or hide a good number of our possessions. We also have to figure out what we're going to be able to take to our new home, which is significantly smaller than where we've been living for the past 10 years. This process has made me realize that, even though Gina and I are not particularly committed to material accumulation, and don't even like to shop, we seem to have acquired a whole lot of stuff.
Last August, as part of a rabbinic delegation with the American Jewish World Service, I had the opportunity to spend a week in a small village in Ghana. In the face of such extreme poverty, my vague sense of economic privilege took on an entirely new level of heart-wrenching immediacy: I have way too much. A few weeks after I got back from Ghana, the Occupy movement erupted. We live in a country of immense wealth, where a middle class person, solidly within the 99 percent, still has more than the vast majority of the world's citizens. Yet as a society we're struggling. What's gone wrong?
This week's Torah portion, Ekev, provides some interesting insights on the challenge of abundance. Moses speaks to the Israelites, preparing them to enter the promised land:
"For YHVH your God is bringing you into a good land, a land with streams and springs and fountains flowing from plain and hill; a land of wheat and barley, of vines, figs, and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and date honey. A land in which you will never eat bread in poverty, you will not lack for anything in it. ... You shall eat, and be satisfied, and bless YHVH your God for this good land you've been given" (Deuteronomy 8:7-10).
Great news! After 40 years of wandering in the desert, the Israelites are about to enter into a veritable cornucopia of material blessing. But Moses immediately goes on to warn the people that in all this abundance there lurks a danger:
"Take care lest you forget YHVH your God and fail to observe the mitzvot, the instructions and laws that I am giving you this day. When you eat and are satisfied, when you build fine houses to live in, and your herds and flocks grow large and your silver and gold increase, and all that belongs to you multiplies -- beware lest your heart becomes proud and you forget YHVH your God that brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery ... and you say to yourself, 'My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me.' Then you must remember YHVH your God, that which gives you the power to create wealth..." (ibid, 8:11-14, 17-18).
The danger here is forgetting -- forgetting where we've come from (our own experience of poverty and oppression) and forgetting that no one person, or one community, creates wealth by themselves. And this forgetting, Moses warns, will lead to calamity: "If you forget, yes forget YHVH your God, and walk after other gods, serving them and prostrating yourselves to them, I warn you that you shall certainly perish" (ibid, v.19).
From abundance, to forgetting, to serving "other gods" -- what's the connection? According to Ekev, we are called to "walk in God's ways," to do right by the poorest, most vulnerable members of society, to avoid the corruption of bribes, and to love the stranger, for we were strangers in the land of Egypt. We are instructed to walk a path of compassion and justice, and it is from this path that our material abundance threatens to leads us astray. In the language of Deuteronomy, we are then in danger of serving elohim acherim, "other gods."
An early midrash, the Sifrei, wrestles with this notion of "other gods." Presumably the Torah is talking about Canaanite idolatry. But idols aren't really gods, the rabbinic commentary notes: "They are human creations. So why are they called 'other gods?' Because they make those who serve them into 'others.'" The midrash continues with another interpretation: "Why are they called 'other gods'? For they are 'other,' alien, to those who serve them. As it is written (in Isaiah 47:6): If they cry out, it [the idol] does not answer, it cannot save them from their distress."
When we have too much stuff, we forget where we've been and what we're meant to do, and then we turn to "other gods." We seek satisfaction from that which is incapable of truly responding to us. We become alienated from ourselves, and from those around us. We suffer, and we cause others to suffer.
The danger isn't really in the stuff itself -- after all, it's just stuff. It's in all that comes with the constant pressure to accumulate, to consume. We begin to demand satisfaction from things that don't truly satisfy; and then, since we're not satisfied, we go out and get more. We begin to believe that we've really done all this ourselves, and so don't need anyone else, and don't need to care about anyone else. We become a society where the gap between the very wealthy and everyone else steadily grows, where neither Democrats or Republicans talk about justice for the poor and most vulnerable.
Remember, the Torah teaches, remember. There is a Source of all that we have, and It can be found in the earth and in labor and in all the relationships that sustain us. And remember: in return for all that we receive, something is asked of us. If we can remember that, then we will eat, and be satisfied. With just the right amount of stuff.
ON Scripture -- The Torah is a weekly Jewish scriptural commentary, produced in collaboration with Odyssey Networks and Hebrew College. Thought leaders from the United States and beyond offer their insights into the weekly Torah portion and contemporary social, political, and spiritual life.