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Combating Materialism in Behar-Bechukotai

Ethical Issues
Shavua Tov @ Schechter
Thought and Philosophy

Among the many curses found in this week’s parshiyot Behar-Bechukotai, Rabbi Prof. David Golinkin focuses on “You shall eat and not be satisfied” and the importance of combating the materialism of our time while learning to be satisfied with what is necessary.

While pointing at the timeless theme of overconsumption both in the parshiyot and today, Golinkin suggests two ways to overcome this: emphasizing the Jewish value of being satisfied with little and by pursuing spiritual goals over physical possessions.

Read the article below:

Today I’d like to talk about the connection between my iPhone 5, the weekly Torah portion of Behar-Bechukotai and combating materialism.

One of the central sections of the weekly portion of Behar-Bechukotai is the section of rebuke which is found in Vayikra, Chapter 26.

As you know, it says in the first half that if you obey G-d’s commandments he will reward you, and if you transgress G-d’s commandments, then he will punish you, and there’s a long list of punishments which will happen to the Jewish people.

I would like to concentrate on just two verses. It says in the list of blessings: “And your threshing shall reach to the vintage and the vintage shall reach to the sowing time and you shall eat your bread to the full.”

While we are told in the list of curses: “And when I had broken the staff of your bread, ten women shall bake bread in one oven and they shall return your bread by weight and you shall eat and not be satisfied.”

The second verse begs an explanation. Since the opposite of satiation is famine, the verse should have said: “you shall not eat and not be satisfied.”

Indeed, this was already noted by the classic commentators such as Ibn Ezra in the 12th century. He wrote, “A person can be hungry and can be satisfied by a small amount of food. But you shall not be satisfied by much food.”

In other words, the curse is not a lack of food but rather an inability to be satisfied.

You will eat and eat and eat and still not be satisfied. This is one of the major curses of the western world of today. We eat and eat and eat and are not satisfied. We buy and buy and buy and it is not enough.

A few examples will suffice:

We eat too much, we become overweight, we lose weight and we gain weight again.

“You shall eat and not be satisfied.”

In Israel we went from one television station, to 2 to 60 channels on cable to satellite to Netflix.

“You shall eat and not be satisfied.”

We went from a typewriter to [PC] 286, the 386, the 486, the Pentium, the portable computer, the tablet, the iPhones 1-10 – the latest model I looked up is the SE2020. And of course we went from 3G to 4G to 5G.

“You shall eat and not be satisfied.”

It was not always like this in Israel. Until the Six-Day  War, life in Israel was much more modest. I still remember the first time I met my aunt Miriam Golinkin (z”l). She came to visit us in the States in 1963. Every time she used a tissue, she would take 2-ply tissue and split it in two and use one layer of the tissue. We cannot return to that simple form of life, a more modest way of life in the land of Israel. But we must teach our children to be satisfied with what is necessary and not to buy things for the sake of buying things.

How can we teach them this message?

There are two ways of doing so:

We must emphasize the Jewish value of being satisfied with little. Which is reflected in a number of well known sources, for example, in the book of Kohelet: He who loves money cannot be satisfied with money.

And we have learned in the Tosefta in the tractate of Brachot: whoever is satisfied with his lot, it is a good omen for him. Whoever is not satisfied with his lot, it is a bad omen for him. And so we have learned in Pirkei Avot chapter 4: Who is wealthy? He who is satisfied with his lot.

We must also emphasize that there is a substitute for pursuing physical possessions  – we can pursue spiritual spiritual goals.

Not only is it permissible to run after Torah, but the more running, the better. As we have learned once again in Pirkei Avot, Chapter 2: He who increases Torah, increases life.

And so we learn in Eruvin Folio 54a: Why are the words of Torah compared to a fig tree? Just as a fig tree whenever a person feels it, he finds figs on it, so words of Torah. Whenever a person dwells on them, he finds meaning in them.

Finally there is a saying which is the exact opposite of the verse from Kohelet, which we mentioned above, it’s found in Dvarim Raba: He who loves Torah, shall not be satisfied with Torah. These then are two educational methods for combating the materialism of our time. To teach the value of being satisfied with little and to teach that increasing our knowledge of Torah is a substitute for increasing our physical possessions.

May it be G-d’s will that we be wise enough to educate in this fashion, so that we may see the fulfilment of the verse, and I quote: “And the threshing shall reach to the vintage and the vintage shall reach to the sowing time and you shall eat your bread to the full and dwell in your land in safety.”

And now you know why I still use an iPhone 5!

Shavua Tov from Schechter!

David Golinkin is President of The Schechter Institutes, Inc. and President Emeritus of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies. For twenty years he served as Chair of the Va’ad Halakhah (Law Committee) of the Rabbinical Assembly which gives halakhic guidance to the Masorti Movement in Israel. He is the founder and director of the Institute of Applied Halakhah at Schechter and also directs the Center for Women in Jewish Law. Rabbi Professor Golinkin made aliyah in 1972, earning a BA in Jewish History and two teaching certificates from The Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He received an MA in Rabbinics and a PhD in Talmud from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America where he was also ordained as Rabbi. For a complete bio click here.

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