A person is known by how they use, or abuse, their leisure time.
By SHMULEY BOTEACH
Last Friday night at our Sabbath table I was asked by one of our esteemed guests, Governor Jon Corzine of New Jersey, what I thought of Bergen County's Blue Laws. Roughly stated, the Blue Laws here in one of America's largest shopping mall meccas mandate that the "physical, intellectual and moral good of the community requires a periodic day of rest." All stores, with rare exceptions, are closed on Sunday, America's Sabbath.
I told the governor, a man of sincerity and humility, that the consensus among economists is that the American economic collapse came about through greed, reckless spending and reckless borrowing. What better way to remedy it than to give our citizens a day for saving rather than splurging, suffused with peace rather than clogged with traffic, a day to fill our inner emptiness not through impulse buying but through prayer at church, bike-riding with the kids, or lunching with friends.
At this my friend of 18 years, Mayor Cory Booker of Newark, a rising political star, interjected. "But Shmuley, then Bergen County's retailers lose revenue because of all the shoppers who are going to go elsewhere to buy what they need."
It's rare that I disagree with Cory. But here I countered: "President Bush thought that the answer to 9/11 was to encourage, not sacrifice, but shopping (his exact words, on September 20, 2001, were 'Get down to Disney World in Florida. Take your families and enjoy life, the way we want it to be enjoyed.') He is a religious man, but he forgot to remind us to rediscover our spiritual center."
Of all the remedies to American consumer insatiability that so undermined our national character and finances over the past few years, none would be as effective, nor as direct, as simply rediscovering our lost Sabbath. Last year I launched a national drive called "Turn Friday Night into Family Night" for every American family to create a weekly family dinner. Public service announcements featuring celebrities and politicians are already airing on TV, courtesy of the Discovery networks, and thousands of families have signed up (FridayIsFamily.com).
But beyond a weekly family feast, we need a national Sabbath.
AS A KID growing up in Miami, I often went to the mall with my friends on Sundays. It was weird, standing around looking for things to do, at best grabbing a movie. Thankfully, I was never fully bitten by the shopping bug, and I am still bored whenever I go shopping, as every self-respecting man ought to be. Not because I'm less materialistic than the next guy but, having discovered the joys of biking near the Thames when I lived in Oxford, or taking long walks in the woods by our home in New Jersey, I see shopping as a mediocre substitute.
As a parent I have learned that one of the best gifts I can give my children is a love for the outdoors rather than being indoors at a department store where nothing is free.
Every human being begins life experiencing an inner emptiness. The steps taken to fill that void constitute the single greatest determinant of character. The notion that a person's truest self is revealed in the way he spends his 'play' time is anticipated in the Talmud (Eruvin 65b), which declares that a man's character can be tested in three ways: be'kiso, be'koso, u've'kaaso, what he spends his money on, what he says when he is intoxicated, and what provokes him to anger.
But there is a further opinion: Af Be'sahako - also in his play. A person is known by how they use, or abuse, their leisure time. Victor Frankl says in Man's Search for Meaning: "There is a kind of depression which afflicts people who become aware of the lack of content in their lives when the rush of the busy week is over and the void within becomes manifest. Such widespread phenomena as alcoholism and juvenile delinquency are not understandable unless we recognize the existential vacuum underlying themâ€¦. Sometimes the frustrated will to meaning is vicariously compensated for by a will to power, including the most primitive form of the will to power, the will to money." Or, in the case of modern America, the will to spend money. In this, Frankl was prophetic. Studies show that the number one cure for depression in America is to go shopping.
SUMMING UP the negative consequences of inactivity and how this can lead to toxic greed, the ancient rabbis declared: "When there is nothing to do, you do what you ought not do." How sad that a country with a heritage as noble as the United States' has been reduced to finding meaning through material acquisition.
I recognize, of course, that an economy needs people to consume, and that stores need people to shop. But given the wasteful ways that have not only eviscerated our national treasury but also made Americans into caricatures of material indulgence, a spiritual renaissance is called for.
I believe in the tension of the weekdays. Inner pressure leads to external action and internal unease motivates us to maximize our professional achievement. But I believe equally that if that tension and effort is not balanced by a day of peace and communal sharing, our lives will fall into a state of toxic imbalance. We will lurch from being a country of great wealth to a country staring bankruptcy in the eye. And not just financial bankruptcy, but the far more insidious personal bankruptcy of empty lives, devoid of purpose and meaning.
No wonder then that all work and no play makes Johnnie a dull (and broke) boy.
Rabbi Boteach launches his newest book, The Blessing of Enough: Becoming Materially Satisfied and Spiritually Hungry, on June 1. Twitter: RabbiShmuley
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