I Want What I Want

I’ve always been intrigued at what drives people to do what they do.

I remember learning already in business school that according to market theory, greed and fear is what drives the market to be irrational.

So when people exhibit boundless greed, prices tend to rise insanely out of proportion to their underlying value, as Former Federal Reserve Chief, Alan Greenspan in the late 1990’s called the dot-com bubble, “irrational exuberance”.

Similarly, when people become consumed with fear, it can cause them to sell at ridiculously low(er) prices relative to the inherent value of the assets leading to dangerous economic times like the Great Depression of 1929 or the more recent Financial Recession of 2008.

In AISH synagogue today, Rabbi Stephen Baars gave us great insight into the greed side of the equation that I wanted to share with you.

There are four types of greed/jealousy and these are anchored in the Tanach as follows:

  • I want what I’m missing – I may have everything, but “if only I had {fill in the blank} then I would be happy.”  For example, in Megillat Esther, the evil Haman had power, riches, a loving wife and many children, but if only that Jew, Mordechai would bow down to him then he would be happy.
  • I want what I had – This is where you desire what you used to have even though when you had it, you didn’t want it.  For example, upon hearing the evil report of the 10 of 12 spies that came back from reconnaissance of the Land of Israel, the Israelites desired to go back to Egypt, even though when they were there, they couldn’t wait until Hashem redeemed them and brought them out from slavery there.
  • I want what you have – I see what you have, that I don’t have, and I want it.  For example, in the story of Joseph, after the baker tells Joseph his dream that Joseph interprets for him as portending his release from prison, the butler similarly proceeds to tell Joseph his dream hoping that he will get the same favorable interpretation, but instead Joseph foretells the butler of his execution in three-days time.  Interestingly, when we want what someone else has, it often leads to our death or destruction, because that thing that we see from someone else is meant for them and not for us from Hashem.
  • I want you to not have what you have – I don’t want what you have, rather I just don’t want you to have it.  For example, In the story of Cain and Abel, Cain could have brought similar sacrifices to Abel that would be pleasing to G-d so he could also find favor in Hashem’s eyes,  but rather he murdered Abel, so that he would no longer have G-d’s favor from those sacrifices anymore.

Interestingly, greed of all sort drives us to want, and want, and want even though most of us have so much already.

Remember the Occupy Wall Street movement that disparaged those at the top 1%–well many of us are in the top 1% and we don’t even realize it.  According to Investopedia, if you earn over $32,400 annually, that puts you in the top 1% globally for income. Similarly, if you have total assets (including your home) of $770,000 or greater, you are in the top 1% globally for wealth. If you consider, the more than 100 billion people that have ever been born in this world, you are even higher than the top 1%, because what we have today in riches, longevity, and overall quality of life exceeds all previous generations.

The key with strong motivators like desire/greed is for us to use them for the good, instead of being controlled by them. Like all things, desire can be used for good or evil.  Of course, we can become prisoners of desire, lust, greed, and jealousy where they can make us want endlessly more, be forever unhappy with our lot, and make too often terrible choices and do horrible things. Yet, used constructively and morally, desire and want can make us learn more, help others more, innovate more, develop better technologies and cures, and improve our world and ourselves.

Rabbi Baars said that it’s a funny thing that people want to be animals and do what they want, while animals would want to be people and have the limitations of love placed on them by Hashem that we as humans have.  So this is our choice: we can be slaves to our egos, emotions, and desires, or we can seek to control them and be better than mere animals.  We have a soul, a conscience, and the Torah, so the choice should be clear even if not always easy.

About the Author
Andy Blumenthal is business and technology leader who writes frequently about Jewish life, culture, and security. All opinions are his own.
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