God: The personal essayist

Writing about oneself with thoroughgoing honesty is one of the hardest skills to acquire in the realm of creative non-fiction and the personal essay. It is all too easy for the writer to rationalize his thoughts and actions in the process of narrating his life, and then to draw inaccurate generalizations from those rationalizations. Sam Polk’s article, entitled “For The Love Of Money,” in the Sunday Review section of last week’s New York Times, is an example of this tendency. Polk opens his story quite bluntly with his declaration that, “In my last year on Wall Street my bonus was $3.6 million… I wanted more money for exactly the same reason an alcoholic needs another drink: I was addicted.” He then recounts for us his woes as the child of a violent-tempered father whose life-long schemes for getting rich never panned out, yet who succeeded in making his son feel weak and disempowered. In his quest to cover for “the parts of myself that felt damaged and inadequate”, Polk engaged in serious drug use, then transitioned to the obsessive pursuit of obscene amounts of money, in the form of traders’ annual bonuses that are the avaricious stuff of legend. They of course are one key element of Wall Street’s avarice that have promoted middle class melt down, economic crisis and severe inequality in America. Through his twenties until he finally left Wall Street in 2010, Polk amassed more money in a year than his mother earned her entire life doing what he admits his hedge fund endeavors never did: help others. By his own account, Polk began his climb out of the money addiction hole when he experienced a sort of epiphany that hedge fund managers are driven insane, as it were, by the junkie-like addiction to money.

I am all for confession as part of a person’s hard won decisions to repent and make personal change. I laud Polk for leaving his addictions behind, making his life over, and starting a nonprofit that helps the poor, to whose hurt he admits having contributed. However, I am troubled by his self-serving claim that the excesses of Wall Street are driven by addiction, as if abusive financial elites were merely hapless victims of a terrible illness. Though he throws a bone to good old fashioned greed and power lust, Polk turns Wall Street’s evils into the subject of testimony for a 12 step meeting, rather than call them what they are. Further, Polk’s lament that no “Wealth Addicts Anonymous” exists and that recovering wealth addicts should pool their resources and help “to make a real contribution to the world,” misses the point. Wall Street has not merely grown a “toxic culture that encourages the grandiosity of people who are desperately trying to feel powerful.” It has perpetuated an age old power elite that happily and freely runs amok due to freedoms handed to it by weak government oversight and by loop-holed regulations. The engine driving this mess in America is our severely hobbled body of campaign finance law, which keeps politicians and money people in each others’ pockets.

The Torah makes clear that only law can prevent the abuses and injustices that trample the poor and disenfranchised. Law derives its vitality from the God of justice, its Author. However, even God’s insistence upon justice can be easily skirted by those obsessed with power, who find ways to subvert the law’s spirit, or who violate it brazenly. That is why God speaks so forcefully, personally and honestly in the Torah, when talking about the neediest in society. I suggest we imagine God as a passionate activist and personal essayist with a powerful story to tell about God’s relationship with the disenfranchised, one which began in Egypt when God heard and responded to the cries of the oppressed Israelites. Exodus 22:20-26 is one example of this story:

You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. You shall not ill-treat any widow or orphan. If you do mistreat them, I will heed their outcry as soon as they cry out to Me, and My anger shall blaze forth, and I will put you to the sword, and your own wives shall become widows and your children orphans. If you lend money to My people, to the poor among you, do not act toward them a s a creditor; exact no interest from them. If you take your neighbor’s garment in pledge, you must return it to him before sun sets; it is his only clothing, the sole covering for his skin. In what else shall he sleep? Therefore, if he cries out to Me, I will pay heed, for I am compassionate.

I imagine God writing here in a potent personal voice: “I have always loved you, Israel, but I love the poor and oppressed among you the most. All My divine life, I have tried to protect them, though not always successfully. Know that when you hurt them, you hurt Me, I hear their cries, I feel their pain, and I get so angry in their behalf that I respond to you with fury. I am not interested in your excuses for why you behaved so badly towards them. I only care that you treat them justly, for I am about passion and compassion.”

How amazing to find this deeply personal, emotional outcry of God’s in the midst of a rather dry, impersonal collection of case law. God the activist has written for us, as it were, a mini personal essay that refuses to whitewash the story of God’s relationship with humanity, that presents God as a passionate lover of people, and that calls us the readers to follow God’s compassionate lead. God’s story is a cautionary tale for us. Where the rule of law can force us to behave justly, it must do so. Where law’s reach is not long enough to impose such coercion, God demands that we make no excuses for ourselves, and that we choose to act justly and compassionately, thus making God’s story our story.

About the Author
Dan Ornstein is rabbi at Congregation Ohav Shalom and a writer living in Albany, NY. He is the author of the forthcoming book, Cain v. Abel: A Jewish Courtroom Drama, which will be published by the Jewish Publication Society in 2019.
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