A curious thing happened the other day. My son Mendy completed his
rabbinic ordination after rigorous studies at an elite Chabad seminary in South
Africa, and not all of his friends were happy for him.
classmates, who are today studying to be movie directors, thought he would aim
higher and choose a career in media. Others, headed to finance, were sure he
would choose a more lucrative vocation. Still others, planning to go into
politics, thought he would pursue something with real power and
Welcome to a new era in the Jewish community, where money has
so overtaken our professions that even doctors and lawyers are seen as failures
compared to hedge-fund managers and private-equity executives.
realize that money has always been important, and not just in the Jewish
community. But there was a time – not all that long ago – when rabbis were the
heads of the community, due to the qualifications conferred upon them by
immersion in Jewish texts and commitment to Jewish values.
course, philanthropists call the shots. In many synagogues, rabbis have been
neutered by boards who determine their contracts, rendering them harmless and
colorless, bereft of opinion and conviction, and therefore of
Indeed, it might be said that the prime ingredient of
Chabad’s success was the rebbe’s vision of having rabbis build communities and
bringing philanthropists on board, in place of the current model, where
money-men build communities and hire rabbis they can control.
To be sure,
some philanthropists are eminently qualified to give the community direction,
focused as they are on deepening Jewish tradition and identity among our youth.
On September 29 in New York City, our organization, This World: The Jewish
Values Network, is staging an event on genocide, Syria, and the responsibility
of the strong to protect the weak, featuring President Paul Kagame of Rwanda and
Professor Elie Wiesel in conversation. The event will feature Sheldon Adelson
and Michael Steinhardt, and not just because they are the most generous of
communal philanthropists but because, through Birthright, both have reached
hundreds of thousands of Jewish youth whom the rabbis did not.
they would agree that after experiencing Israel these young men and women
require charismatic, spiritual professionals to fan the glowing embers of
identity into a lasting flame.
I fear that money is becoming too
important in our community, with the influence of rabbis being largely
marginalized. Bar mitzvahs are elaborate to the point that they eclipse
spiritual content. Weddings are expensive to the extent that young couples can
hardly afford the life that follows. And our best and our brightest are headed
to Goldman Sachs rather than to rabbinical seminaries. Small wonder, then, that
so many of us complain that on the High Holy Days the rabbi’s sermon puts us
into a coma.
Here is where the Festival of Tabernacles and the
impermanence of the succah resonates with our generation in particular. The
evanescence of property is the universal lesson theme behind Succot, when God
evicts us from our fancy homes and forces us to live in temporary huts, lest we
grow so dependent on material comforts that they come to define our
Displacing us from our comfort zone seems to be the consistent
theme behind the High Holy Days and Succot. On Rosh Hashana we are deprived of
the surety of our very lives. As the “Unetaneh Tokef” prayer captures so
powerfully, the day determines “who will live and who will die; who will die at
his predestined time and who before his time.” Then, on Yom Kippur we are
deprived of food and sustenance.
Finally, on Succot we’re dispossessed of
our very homes. But amid the depravation there is peace.
Last month, my
wife and I climbed Mount Kilimanjaro and lived in a tent in freezing conditions
for a week. We could not shower. Our sleeping bags were on the stony ground.
There was something painful but also liberating in detaching ourselves from the
modern amenities that have come to imprison us all. For the first time in years
my mind felt unencumbered. I came to know myself deeper and better than
This Succot coincides with the fifth anniversary of the Wall
Street meltdown, where people discovered that that the bricks and mortar of
their homes are so ephemeral that they can be repossessed by a bank over a
delinquency of just a few thousand dollars.
The message: there is nothing
lasting in life save for a man’s convictions and a woman’s beliefs.
in America today see capitalism as a heartless expression of gluttony, and
investment bankers as leeches who have sucked the blood out of the financial
system to pay for their Ferraris.
Others argue that capitalism is the
very engine of economic prosperity and view the Wall Street protestors as
envious anarchists who would transform the United States into a bankrupt
As a capitalist I agree that expecting the government to
subsidize those capable of working creates an undignified dependency. “Man is
born to work,” the Bible declares. But as a rabbi I know that materialism is
monolithic, slowly suffocating our souls and hardening our hearts. Bear Stearns,
Lehman and Merrill Lynch collapsed not because their employees didn’t work hard
enough, but because of the decadence of their values.
Succot forces us to
focus on the transient nature of property and teaches that we dare never allow
material possessions to give our lives meaning. Life ought never be reduced to
the vulgar acquisition of things.
Rather, it is the family that moves
into the succah with us that lends our fleeting existence permanence and our
transitory lives purpose. And it is the rabbis who inspire us to be more
committed to our religious beliefs that give us something higher to live for
than mere material acquisition.
The author, a rabbi, will shortly publish
Tickets for the Kagame-Wiesel event, which he is moderating,
can be booked on www.shmuley.com. Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.