Like many, I keep a stack of “must read” books, journals and articles. I finally got around to reading a special issue of the CCAR Journal: The Reform Jewish Quarterly, dedicated to Jewish Perspectives on Finances and the Marketplace (Spring 2010). Ably edited by Rabbi Karyn D. Kedar, senior rabbi of Congregation B’nai Jehoshua Beth Elohim (Deerfield, IL), the journal issue offers a Jewish take on current topics including bankruptcy, lending, tzedakah and social policy.
In her Introduction, Rabbi Karyn Kedar writes eloquently about money, the acquisition of material wealth and when is enough enough? Her words, so beautifully written, have remained with me as I speak with people whose lives have changed drastically during this economic depression.
Rabbi Kedar challenges us:
Prosperity comes from hard work, though hard work does not guarantee prosperity. Wealth comes from a good job, though a good job does not guarantee wealth. Riches come from success, though success does not necessarily make us rich. The equation simply does not work consistently. Be smart, work hard, play the political game, be honest and loyal and savvy, and you still may lose your ﬁnancial footing. We have lost our focus when we think that the endgame is acquisition of material wealth.
Rebalancing is not just a portfolio strategy; it is also a religious concept. Rebalance. How much of our focus is on the stuff of life and how much on the substance? How much time is spent earning and acquiring and how much time is spent giving and loving? How much thinking is spent ﬁguring out ﬁnances and how much thinking is spent ﬁguring out relationships? How open are our wallets; how open are our hearts?
We learn from the prophet Isaiah (1:6–10): Their land is filled with silver and gold; there is no end to their treasures. Their land is also filled with idols; they worship the work of their own hands. Enter into the rock; and hide in the dust . . . majesty is in the greatness of God.
Enter into the rock, says the prophet. Go into the cave that hides the treasures of life, and then hide in the dust for the earth reveals its secrets. True greatness is eternal. Wealth has both tangible and intangible indicators. Love and generosity carry us through the tough times. Nobody stands at your grave and reads the details of your portfolio. Life is judged by giving, loving, faith, and the ability to rebalance when we have lost our focus.
Our attitude about money is so rarely about money. It is more complicated than our bank statements, checkbooks, and portfolios. Money provides for us those things that sustain our living. Beyond that, money is a symbol. It can be a symbol for power, for love, for graciousness, for worthiness. When we enter the symbolic world of money we must do so with a great deal of caution and self-awareness. I believe that it all comes down to a spiritual and psychological attitude toward abundance and scarcity. Do you believe that ultimately, at the core of the universe, there is enough? Or do you believe that there will never be enough? Enough what? Enough love. This simple equation is perhaps the most complicated correlation we have. When there is enough, when we believe in the soul of our soul that we are supported, and have faith in something larger than what we can perceive, and when we can tap in to the love that abounds in the world, then we live abundantly.
And when we live abundantly, then all things fall into place, including our attitude toward money. When we are young we are led to believe that our legacy lies in our successes and our failures. And so life becomes a game, a sort of tally, of victory and failures. We keep score of triumphant moments and try to minimize, leverage, and rebrand the not-so successful moments. All the while we hope and often pray that the endgame will be to our advantage and we will be proclaimed a great success.
But that is only partially true. Our most abiding legacy lies within the strength of our character. And it may just be an ironic twist of fate that character is best built and measured when we experience failure. Not that success is without its test of courage and integrity. But when we fail—and we all do—we experience a profound moment of loss that is layered and nuanced. In failure we may lose the game we are playing, our work, our livelihood, a relationship, a power struggle. And even more crippling, we may lose conﬁdence, a positive self-image, optimism, stability, or good cheer, which knocks us off balance, off our mark.
Herein lies the test of character: in the effort to regain composure, balance, direction, our footing. How we react, respond, and rebound is a measure of our inner strength, our character, our fortitude, our inner vision of what is possible despite the outer collapse of what was. It is in the motion of regaining balance that the strength of our character is formed and forged and molded. This current ﬁnancial crisis, for many, has been the ultimate test of character. And this crisis, ﬁnancial and otherwise, can also be a great teacher.
Pirkei Avot teaches: V’eizeh hu asher? HaSamei-ach b’Chelko. Who is rich? The one who is satisfied with his/her portion. As we struggle to climb out of the economic pit, may we remember that there is never “enough”, that the Jones’ always will have more, but that love and character and integrity will last a lifetime.