Each week, my Rabbi gives a moving and informative sermon. They’re always top-notch, but this week’s was also very topical for Foundry in the Forest. I asked him if he’d be willing to let me turn it into a guest post, and he was kind enough to oblige.
The holiday of Passover is coming up next week, so Jews around the world are doing spring cleaning: literally, to get rid of the bread crumbs in the cupboards, and also metaphorically to try to rid ourselves of the excess in our lives.
The sermon is long but I encourage you to read the whole thing, regardless of your faith, as the message is universal.
The Anti-Accumulation Holiday
Rabbi Jay Rosenbaum
I have made it known over the years that the most valuable lessons I have learned in life come from television. But, today, I’m not going to limit my comments to TV. I’m going to start with a television show. But, then, I’m also going to talk about an insight into the Exodus story I learned from a Muslim friend, and how it’s connected to the show.
First the show. There is a show on HBO called “Enlightened” starring Laura Dern as Amy. In one of the episodes, there is a five minute encounter between Amy’s mother, Helen, and Helen’s old friend Carol, played by Barbara Billingsley.
Helen and Carol used to be good friends. They were both married to successful husbands, and they ran in the same circles. They run into each other in the store, after not having seen each other for several years. At first, they are delighted to see each other, and they start to catch up on each other’s lives.
Carol tells Helen about her daughter who is married and has two beautiful little children. She pulls out her iPhone to show Helen the photos. Then Carol asks Helen about her children. Well, Helen has one daughter, who has a child, but she hasn’t spoken to this daughter in years.
Her other daughter, Amy has just gotten divorced from Levi. They used to be the envy of everyone in high school—the energetic, beautiful blonde that all the boys wanted to date, and the handsome, star athlete. But, things haven’t worked out for them. And, now Amy has been demoted from her job and is living with her mother, trying to figure things out.
When Helen tells Carol about her children, Carol makes a feeble attempt at sympathy, but change of facial expression and tone of voice reflect a sense of superiority laced with contempt. “You know,” she says to Helen, “my daughter was always jealous of Amy in high school. Everyone wanted to be Amy. She had it all.” And, it was clear that Carol believed she had won the race. She had children, she had grandchildren who were flourishing. And, the former prom queen had nothing. And, she was happy about it.
The whole conversation lasted no more than five minutes, but it was brilliantly done. Because it showed how a simple exchange between two women who were supposedly friends and interested in each other’s welfare, was really about an intense jockeying for power and position. No one pulled out a gun, no voice was raised even a notch. But, this was war. It wasn’t enough for Carol that she had so much to be grateful for in her life. She had to derive additional satisfaction from the fact that her friend Helen had less than she did, and so she had won.
What causes human beings to behave this way? Here I would like to turn to a story we spoke about a few weeks ago, but which I saw differently because of a discussion we had in our Muslim-Jewish dialogue group this week. We were studying the story of the manna. After our people left Egyptian slavery, and we were traveling in the desert, we were anxious about not having enough food. So, God gave us a guaranteed food supply for forty years. But, God only gave us one day’s supply of manna at a time.
And, there were rules. We were not allowed to save any manna for the next day. We were to take only as much as we needed and no more. And, the Torah tells us that no matter how much we gathered, every one of us had just enough, but no surplus. So, clearly, many of us tried to grab as much as we could, but to no avail.
Many of us tried to save the manna for the next day, but it spoiled. We were only allowed to save the manna once. That was on Friday, when God gave us a double portion, so we wouldn’t have to gather on Shabbat. But, that didn’t prevent the Jewish people from going out the next day and looking for more.
Why did God choose this particular method of feeding the Jewish people at the moment we had been released from slavery? What would have been wrong with allowing us to save up some of the manna, and relieve us of the anxiety that we wouldn’t have enough for tomorrow?
When we were studying this story in our Muslim-Jewish dialogue group, one of the Muslims, David Suissa, remembered that in the Joseph story, there was an opposite scenario. Joseph was the ultimate saver of food. He presided over the saving of food in Egypt during the years of plenty so that when the famine hit, there would be enough to feed everyone.
That sounds so sensible. But, what actually happened? Joseph controlled the entire food supply for Egypt. He rationed out food as he saw fit. Initially, people bought the food. When they ran out of money, they sold their land to the government in exchange for food. When they ran out of land, they sold themselves to Pharoah in exchange for food. Now Pharoah controlled all the land in Egypt and he had a huge slave force.
When we look at life as a zero-sum battle for scarce resources, the result will be slavery. In our fear that we will not have enough, we will want to grab as much as we can. We will horde, we will try to corner the market. And, the result of that kind of unbridled competition is always going to be that a small number of people are going to control a disproportionate share of the resources, and a huge population is going to have little or nothing. The resource could be land, money, oil, water, and even things like friendship, or sexual partners.
The Torah traces human oppression to the propensity of every human being to take more than we need. It’s why the Torah says of the king, ‘The king was not to accumulate too much gold, too many horses, and too many women.’ Because if the criterion of a successful life is having more and more and more—if the more we have, the better we are, that’s a recipe for gross inequality and mass human misery.
When the Jewish people left Egypt, the goal was to create an egalitarian society, How do you do it? You attack the source of inequality—our human tendency to want more than we need. If God had allowed the Jewish people to collect as much manna as they could, there would have been a fierce competition, with the Jewish people stepping on each other to grab as much as possible.
The result would be that a small number of people would control the majority of the food supply. They could sell it at any price they wanted. And, now, once again, you have a slave society. By forbidding the Jewish people from even saving for one day, God was reversing what went wrong in the Joseph story, where hording led to slavery.
And, the way we celebrate Passover is a reflection of this philosophy. In the month before Pesach, it’s a liability to save. You’ll end up throwing things out.
Passover is the anti-accumulation holiday. To get ready for the holiday of freedom, we have to un-save, we have to un-accumulate. We have to get rid of all the extra stuff that we don’t need. It’s a way to rid us of the insecurity that leads us to horde and take as much as we can. Because it’s this compulsion to take more than we need that leads us to be blind to what others need.
It’s no accident that the most popular song at the Seder is Dayenu, which means “We have enough.” To create a truly just society, it is essential that each of us master the ability to take what we need, and no more. Passover challenges us to ask ourselves: what do we really need to be happy and fulfilled?
And, not just in regard to material resources. There are many ways to play the hunger games. We can hunger for attention. We can hunger for applause. We can look at life as a bank account in which we have to continually pile up credits to our name. In our mussar class in the Fall, Ann Trail called them merit badges. The more badges we have, the more worthwhile we are. When that hunger to accumulate becomes obsessive, even in the most polite society, we can end up taking joy in our neighbor’s unhappiness.
Passover encourages us to live more simply, to live more modestly, not only in our physical needs, but in our emotional needs, too: to take for ourselves enough attention, enough praise, enough appreciation, but not more.
Passover encourages us to sing Dayenu, not only at the Seder, but in our lives, as well.
Who knew that the main theme of Your Money Or Your Life (having enough) has its roots in an old Jewish Passover song?
Thank you to Rabbi Rosenbaum for allowing me to publish his sermon. Happy Passover, Happy Easter, Happy Spring, no matter what you celebrate!