Your Money or Your Life?
I’m stuck between two generations, my parents’ who emigrated from Europe and had $98 between them on their honeymoon and now their grandchildren’s who have every iPhone app and life enhancing accessory that the merchandising world has to offer. My family is just a microcosm of how so many Jewish families have evolved. Parents have become so obsessed with giving their children what they didn’t have growing up that they forgot to give them what they did have: appreciation for things, a work ethic, respect and sense of responsibility toward the greater Jewish community and mankind. I cannot help but cry over the suicide of 46-year-old Mark Madoff who was found hanged yesterday by a dog’s leash attached to a ceiling pipe. The American dream has turned into a nightmare for many because of greed and a disconnect between what Judaism really has to say about money and how a new generation never inherited the right lessons along with their trust funds. To start, there is nothing wrong with making money. In fact, the Jewish view of wealth is set forth in the first chapter of the Bible in a description of the Garden of Eden wherein it is said that the “gold of this land is good.” Materialism and wealth is validated from the onset. Even God promises Abraham great riches and many of the patriarchs and prophets were wealthy. But, money was always supposed to be a means to an end, not the end. It was never meant to be worshiped by Jews, but used to make this world a better place. The giving of charity is fundamental to the entire structure of Judaism: “You shall not harden your heart nor shut your hand to your needy brother.” It is also taught that he who turns his eyes from alms-giving is as if he worshiped idols...for if one values his money more than human lives, then he has undoubtedly turned his money into a god. Still, it’s so hard not to get caught up in this world of plenty. This time of year is a perfect example. As we walk through the malls during the holiday season massive amount of “stuff” cries out to us “buy me, buy me.” We feel as if our own self-worth and happiness are measured by what we have instead of who we are. Our lives have become more ornamented than over-decorated Christmas trees as we smother our organic true selves with superficiality. It is thus no surprise that the moral spine of a nation would snap just as an overburdened branch. In this week’s Bible portion we read how Joseph brings his brothers to Egypt where they could enjoy all its riches and survive the famine. But he does not let them live in its capital fearing they’d become tainted by the rampant idol worship there. He didn’t want them, especially their children, giving up God for gold. For life is not about living off the fat of the land, it’s about nurturing and cultivating the ground we walk on. Will your children reap in joy what you have planted? There is a Talmudic story of a man who was passing along a road when he saw an old man planting a carob tree. “How long before that tree bears fruit?” asked the passerby. “Seventy years,” replied the old man. “Will you be alive in seventy years to enjoy the fruit?” the traveler asked. To that the old man answered, “When I was born, this world was filled with carob trees planted by my ancestors. And likewise will I plant trees for my children.” My dear friends, what proverbial fruit are you planting for your children's future? Will those fruit hang from the Tree of Life? Madoff was the quintessential idol worshiper. Money and assets, boats and houses, fine dining and status, were more important to him than people and human lives. These status symbols meant to raise him above everyone helped dig his own son’s grave. The desolate and fatal field that he tilled should prove to us all how poor a fertilizer gold truly is.