No Holds Barred: The spiritual roots of the economic crisis

For all our high standard of living, we Americans are the unhappiest nation on earth.

shmuley boteach 224 88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
shmuley boteach 224 88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Last Tuesday President Obama and the Republicans finally agreed that everything is going to turn out just dandy. Yes, we have significant challenges, but America has weathered every storm, won two world wars, and overcame the Great Depression. Really? Did those generations watch five hours of TV a night (the average during the recession) and chatter about celebrities the rest of the time? Were their executives so greedy that even as they took government handouts they bought themselves $30,000 toilets? Did half of them divorce, and did their children lose their virginity at 14? Will all our leaders tell us only what we want to hear, or will some begin to address the rot in the American soul? History is littered with great civilizations which decayed once they became bloated and corrupt. And make no mistake about it, we have become corrupt. No, not the corruption of politicians on the take or scam artists ripping off billions, although there is that too. Rather it is the corruption of a nation addicted to extravagance that chooses fantasy over reality and mindless escape over a true effort to create a purposeful life. You don't have to be an expert to see that no one in America really knows how to fix our economy. It's come down to trial and error; throw trillions of dollars against a wall and see what sticks. Still the Dow Jones tumbles, still the recession deepens. One day we hear that only by rescuing Detroit's jet-setting auto executives and Wall Street billionaires will we stabilize our economy. The next day we're told the exact opposite, that bailing out these spendthrifts encourages the greedy and slipshod business practices that got us into this mess. The other day a 22-year-old man who has never held a job told me he bought his girlfriend a four-carat diamond ring and took her around the world. When I asked him how he could afford such extravagance, he told me he simply put it all on credit cards. The bank who issued them has now been bailed out, and so you have Americans who can scarcely afford clothes for their families picking up the tab for this man's golfball diamond. And this is the way we rescue our economy? AN OLD JEWISH aphorism says that the difference between a smart man and a wise man is that a smart man knows how to extricate himself from a situation in which a wise man would never have found himself. As the sky falls around us, we've learned is that America, for all its smarts, lacks wisdom. And this time even our smarts may not extricate us. Our current economic crisis is born of a spiritual crisis. Greed is a sickness of the soul. For all our wealth and high standard of living, we Americans are the most unhappy nation on earth, consuming three quarters of the world's anti-depressants. The modern history of our country is built on a lie that says affluence, fame, and a shopping addiction are the secrets to happiness. None of these reflect authentic American values. George Washington refused to accept pay as commander of the Continental Army. Abraham Lincoln practiced justice even though he was killed for it. Martin Luther King lived in a modest home even after winning the Nobel Peace Prize. These men understood that what made America great was its commitment to human liberty and dignity, and not only to a high standard of living. In our time there is little to counter the consummate consumer hucksters. Religion has been neutralized by becoming politicized. New-age spirituality focuses on finding inner bliss rather than fixing external problems. And the American obsession with therapy is only leading more men and women to depend on professionals to navigate their lives rather than cultivating the inner voice of conscience which is the true hallmark of a wise adult. America will only be healed if we replace the consumer itch with a whole new set of values: values which hold that money is a means to an end, and not an end in itself; values which teach that greatness comes, to paraphrase Martin Luther King, from the content of one's character rather than the content of one's bank account. Americans have to stop focusing on a career and start focusing on a calling. Find something in life that requires fixing and devote yourself to healing it. All of this must begin in childhood. We must teach our children that school grades are less important than intellectual curiosity, the kind of mental engagement that has them playing fewer video games and reading more books. We can renew America, but it won't come solely through shoring up our banks, but through shoring up our families. Rabbi Boteach has just published The Kosher Sutra: Eight Sacred Secrets to Rediscovering Desire and Reigniting Passion for Life. (HarperOne). His website is