Certain situations are obviously dangerous. Wars and plagues are evidently situations to avoid; poverty and oppression are curses. Yet some situations have hidden dangers. Affluence and security, both great blessings that we are fortunate to enjoy in the United States and especially in the Bay Area, have hidden risks. The blessings can quickly become curses if we are not careful.
God says to the Israelites: When you come into this Promised Land, be careful to remember who you are. As you celebrate abundance, bring a basket of first fruits to the Temple. With those fruits in hand, recall the time when Abraham “was a wandering Aramean.” Recall that you enjoy the blessings of abundance and comfort, because Hashem brought you out of the Land of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm.
It is when we sit in safety that we are at risk of forgetting the values and faith that brought blessing. Moments of danger and crisis bring communities together. In such dangerous moments we need one another to survive. Further, those frightening scenarios inspire faith because we realize that our lives are outside our control. So we turn to God, looking for comfort at difficult moments.
By contrast, in comfort and security, we no longer struggle to survive each day. We feel ourselves to be self-sufficient. Our immediate need for community is less because we have the means and ability to provide for ourselves and our family. Comfort can create materialism as we begin to judge our selves and our status by what we own rather than who we are. Then our blessings become curses and our wealth turns to ash in our mouths as we lose a sense of who we are.
I am reading The Price of Privilege by Madeline Levine. This book chronicles the rising incidence of depression, food disorders, drug use, and self-mutilation among teens. According to Levine, over 22% of teens living in affluence (meaning family income greater than $75K/ year) suffer from depression. These children are protected and cared for, but nothing is asked in return. They are bored and boring because they lack the sense of self to discover their own passions. They are motivated by grades rather than learning. One key statistic she cites: over 50% of college students now state that their primary reason for going to college is to make more money, a startling focus on materialism from previous generations that were more interested in learning and building lasting relationships.
Do not make of the Torah a spade to dig with, says Pirkei Avot. Learning loved for its own sake transforms our soul. Learning acquired to make money is only as valuable as your next paycheck. A person’s learning can never be taken away; money and material items are as ephemeral as the grass. When students see learning as only one more spade with which to dig, they never develop the internal passion for Shakespeare or Physics or Judaic studies.
Affluence and security in and of themselves are wonderful blessings. It is marvelous to enjoy the wealth with which we are blessed. But that wealth becomes a curse when we are defined by it. That affluence becomes a strait jacket when we cannot see past it. Ki Tavo – when you come into that promised land remember who you are. It is the most dangerous moment for faith today in safe and successful America because we may forget who we are and allow ourselves to become only what we own.
As we hear the Shofar blasts signaling Rosh Hashanah, let us be reminded that our lives do have meaning beyond what we acquire. We remember being in Exile, whether in the Desert 3000 years ago or the poverty and oppression from which we escaped 50-100 years ago. We are indeed fortunate and blessed, capable of using the blessings we have been granted to make the world a better place for our presence in it. This act of memory, this challenge for the future, enables us to enjoy as blessings our security and comfort.
Rabbi David Booth