I like to think that one of the goals of these Nine Days of reflection is to reset our priorities and to redouble our efforts toward improving society. One area I have heard many talk about is the drift toward some combination of materialism and inequality. Unfortunately, one problem this has created in our community seems to be the notion of ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots,’ meaning that those who ‘have’ are considered more important or valuable than those who ‘have not.’ From my experience as a student in high school, a camper, and now a counselor, I can certainly say that there is immense social pressure inadvertently caused by this type of culture. Those with the nicest house or the newest iPhone, the most basketball jerseys or the best snacks somehow seem to have the “upper edge.” Understandably, parents do not want their child to be “left behind,” and therefore the cycle is presumably self-perpetuating. And while there is certainly nothing wrong with financial comfort and wealth, we should always be aware of our culture’s impact on the communities that we build.
Luckily, answers to some of these concerns can be found in our Jewish texts. Before any of the mitzvot of the Torah are given, the foundational text of Genesis teaches values and how to build a just society. The creation narrative makes clear that all humanity is created in the image of God and therefore deserves the same respect and sanctity given to the Creator. Hence the answer to Cain’s question “Am I my brother’s keeper?” must forever remain a resounding yes, and Genesis gives countless examples of the proper and improper ways to treat others. That is why the characters who go out of their way to stand up for others even when they are not expected to, such as Abraham and Rebecca and Lot, are rewarded or glorified. And that is why Jacob and his sons, despite being Jewish leaders, face repercussions later in life for past mistreatment of siblings.
In contrast to ethical priorities, the Bible never seems to value the aimless accumulation of wealth and materialism. The law codes make clear that giving, not having, is the mark of a true hero. The poor are to be looked after; the Torah seems to push economic justice and caring if not outright redistribution. Over and over the Torah teaches us to care for the other and build a righteous society. When the Jewish people stray from their imperative to build an ethical society, the prophets remind them what God really wants:
Of what use are your many sacrifices to Me? says the Lord. I am sated with the burnt-offerings of rams and the fat of fattened cattle; and the blood of bulls and sheep and goats I do not want…And when you spread out your hands, I will hide My eyes from you, even when you pray at length, I do not hear; your hands are full of blood. Wash, cleanse yourselves, remove your evil deeds from my sight, cease to do evil. Learn to do good, seek justice, help the oppressed, perform justice for the orphan, and fight for the widow (Isaiah 1).
These imperatives explain why this summer’s educational theme at the summer camp where I worked was “Live to Give.” The underlying message being conveyed through all these examples could not be clearer: our value as members of society ought to be based not on what we have but on what we give; our true worth comes not from our bank accounts but from our hearts. And only when these priorities are in order can we claim to be pursuing justice and building a society where the living, breathing images of God are treated just as well as God himself is treated.
As has been widely noted, the Torah does not promise rights as much as it demands obligations. In the Torah no individual is simply entitled to property or land or wealth; all possession is contingent upon performance of the mitzvot. The Shema famously teaches that prosperity is dependent on walking in the way of God. We have constant reminders throughout the Jewish calendar that this world does not belong to us. We have a weekly Shabbat when we cease to create, stop our work, and do not make a living. We are reminded that the six days of creation are designed for a higher purpose, that at least one seventh of our time must be spent living as God sees us: on an equal playing field and not engaged in material pursuits or ‘getting ahead.’ We have a Shemita every seven years to remind us that the land and debts are not guaranteed to us; they belong to God and are in our possession only on a temporary basis. We have brachot on everything we consume or receive, reminding us not to take without acknowledging from whose world we are benefitting. That equal playing field means that in the end of the day we are all ‘have-nots.’ God has.
Without this fundamental understanding, the grand experiment of ethical monotheism crumbles. Once upon a time God looked at a Judaism with a fortified Jerusalem and a beautiful Temple but devoid of morality, and decided that that Temple could not stand. Once again, Isaiah delivers God’s message to the residents of Jerusalem:
‘Why have we fasted and You did not see; we have afflicted our soul and You do not know?’
‘Because on your fast day you see to your business and oppress all your laborers! Because you fast in strife and contention, and you strike with a wicked fist! Your fasting today is not such as to make your voice heard on high. Is such the fast I desire, a day for men to starve their bodies? Is it the bowing the head like a bulrush and lying in sackcloth and ashes? Do you call that a fast, a day when the Lord is favorable? No, this is the fast I desire: to unlock fetters of wickedness, and untie the cords of the yoke to let the oppressed go free; to break off every yoke. It is to share your bread with the hungry, and to take the wretched poor into your home; when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to ignore your own kin’ (Isaiah 58).
God declares in no uncertain terms that while there is nothing inherently wrong with material greatness, when that wealth becomes a distraction, when people are preoccupied with their pursuits and anything but the ultimate goal of “living to give,” then, God decides, better not to have a Temple at all.
As we approach Tisha B’av, the lesson seems clear. As God’s ambassadors in the world, Jews have a mandate to heed the warnings of the prophets, and listen to the words of God’s Bible, and really think about the type of society we are building. Are we staying true to our mission? Are we doing the best we can do? In a world where everyone is created in the image of God and we are meant to be our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers and givers, are we too complicit in the have versus have-not culture? Because, in a society of haves and have-nots, the only source of value is the power of wealth or recognition attained for one’s own sake. Time and time again, Judaism pushes us toward a different kind of world: a world where standing up for the poor and the stranger and giving to the other are the values that make a person great; a world where ‘having’ is secondary because everything belongs to a higher power and materialism is ‘kechalom ya’uf,’ a passing dream, transitory and temporary and meant to be shared; a world where seven billion have-nots contributing to each other is so much greater than a society divided into artificial haves and have-nots could ever be.