Parashat Yitro: Humility is golden

The gods of gold and silver must not push aside the God of modesty and morality.

Bernard Madoff 248 88  (photo credit: AP)
Bernard Madoff 248 88
(photo credit: AP)
The highlight of this week's portion is the Ten Commandments - which, even 4,000 years later, remain the most exalted prescription for human morality ever written. Immediately following these majestic exhortations comes a seemingly superfluous postscript - but one which is startlingly relevant for today: "Thou shalt not make, alongside me, gods of gold or silver for yourselves" (Ex. 20:19). Idolatry may be properly defined as making any ideal an end in itself, other than the Lord of love and compassion, patience and morality (Ex. 34:6). And God is a "jealous god"; the quest for gold and silver as an absolute goal cannot coexist with fealty to the God of love and morality, even if the "two-timer" prays three times a day. In today's market society "it's not a question of enough, pal, because it's never enough" - as financier Gordon Gekko explains in Oliver Stone's memorable movie Wall Street; - "Greed is good," he declares. And the movie expresses our zeitgeist, in which a powerful few are able to manipulate banking and investment systems not only to feed their own greed but to fuel the greed of an entire society - including observant and traditional Jews - in a desperate rush to ride the golden calf. Let me recount a lesson in economics I received in the eighth grade at the Yeshiva of Brooklyn. Our principal, Rav Menahem Manus Mandel, posed the following question: Who is wealthier, the man with $100 or the man with $200? "The man with $200," we replied in unison. "Not necessarily," explained the rabbi. "You must remember that wealth must be measured not by the amount an individual has, but rather by the amount he thinks he lacks. Most people want to double whatever they have; hence, the person with $100 wants $200 - and so he is missing $100. But the person with $200 wants $400 - so he is missing $200. Doesn't this mean that the person with $100 is wealthier, because he requires less to have what he thinks he needs?" Rav Mandel's point was a lesson about greed, which is defined by Merriam-Webster as "a selfish and excessive desire for more of something (such as money) than is needed." Our present market collapse and banking/mortgage crisis, with the resultant fear of foreclosure on homes and losses of pension and endowment funds, must teach us that greed is not good, and that the 10th commandment, "Thou shalt not covet," is right on target. Greed ultimately leads to the "Madoffian" loss of morality because its ever-growing demands shut out the "still, small voice" of the God of lovingkindness and "Thou shalt not steal." And it is not sufficient to merely ensure compliance with the letter of the law; it is specifically the spirit of the law which leads to proper Divine service. The Kotzker Rebbe is said to have remarked: "The 'mitnagdim' are idolaters, since they slavishly serve the Code of Jewish Law; we 'hassidim,' on the other hand, serve the God of love and truth." If our community had only concentrated more on the modesty of our prophets, then monetary profits would not have come to control our markets. Indeed, Jewish "worship" of the "letter of the law" - as opposed to its spirit - is exemplified by the recent Agriprocessors slaughterhouse scandal, which should have served as a warning flag. No one questioned the strict halachic compliance to which the plant owners adhered; the problem involved the illegal workers who were hired, the inhumane manner in which they were treated, and the callous treatment of the animals before they were slaughtered. In the aftermath of this outrage, one of the most respected leaders of a well-known kashrut-certification agency declared that kashrut means adhering to specific ritual standards regarding the piece of meat itself, period. Which workers you hire and how they are treated is a separate issue, he said, which must be policed by the government. But that completely misses the point which informs the laws of kashrut - the fact that the prohibition of eating meat and milk together is a reflection of sensitivity and consideration: "Thou shalt not seethe a kid in its mother's milk," (Ex. 23:19) and that the biblical source for the soaking and salting of meat is "Thou shalt not eat the blood, for the blood is the soul of the animal." The Bible is clearly concerned about training us to be sensitive to the ethical ambiguity of eating meat. And the Bible is clearly concerned about training us to be ethically sensitive to all living creatures, most of all to our fellow human beings. My favorite story about Rav Yisrael Salanter (1800-1870), founder of the Jewish Ethicist Mussar Movement, relates to his Friday evening meal as the guest of a Kovno baker. Eager to impress the honored visitor with his piety, the baker bellowed to his wife (whom he addressed improperly with the appellation "Yiddene" or "Jewish woman") that she must immediately cover the hallot (braided Sabbath loaves). The woman, embarrassed in the presence of Rav Salanter, shamefacedly covered the loaves, an act which she had planned to do anyway. Rav Yisrael turned to his self-satisfied host. "Do you perchance know why we cover the loaves?" he asked. "Of course, learned rabbi," answered the baker. "Usually we make the first blessing over the bread, which then frees us from making other blessings over other foods. However, the Sabbath meals are an exception, since the blessing to sanctify the wine must precede the blessing over the bread. Since the hallot would probably expect to be blessed first, we cover them to avoid their embarrassment when we bless the wine first." "Why do your ears not hear what your mouth is saying?" responded the rabbi. "Do you really believe that Jewish law thinks a piece of dough has feelings? No, Jewish law is training you to be sensitive to the feelings of the halla so you will be sensitive to the feelings of your wife!" We Jewish educators, rabbis and leaders of Jewish institutions must not overlook the true values of our traditions, the teachings of our prophets. "What is good and what does the Lord require of you? Act justly, love kindness, and walk modestly (not opulently) with your God" (Micah 6:8). We dare not honor the millionaire of the day while we overlook the educator of the year, or give fulsome praise at obscenely gaudy bar-mitzva and bat-mitzva celebrations where the matching color schemes of the dresses and flower arrangements and the deafening band crowd out the religious meaning of the rite of passage. The gods of gold and silver must not push aside the God of modesty and morality. Only when the term "religious Jew" becomes synonymous with "ethical human being" will we be able to fulfill our mission as "a holy people and kingdom of priests - teachers to the world" (Exodus 19:6); only then will be a "light unto the nations." The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.