A curious thing happened the other day.
My son Mendy completed his rabbinic ordination after rigorous studies in South Africa, and not all of his friends were happy for him.
His former 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 influence.
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.
Yes, I 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 Jewish values.
Today, of 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 inspiration.
Indeed, it might be said that the prime ingredient of Chabad’s success was the rebbe’s vision of having rabbis build communities and bring philanthropists on board, in place of the current model, where money-men build communities and hire a rabbi 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. There is an ad in this newspaper about an event my organization is staging on September 29 in New York City, featuring President Paul Kagame of Rwanda and Professor Elie Wiesel in conversation on genocide, Syria, and the responsibility of the strong to protect the weak. 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.
But even they would agree that after experiencing Israel these young men and women require charismatic, spiritual professionals to fan the glowing ambers of identity into a lasting flame.
I fear that money is becoming too important in our community. 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 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 sukkah resonates with our generation in particular. The evanescence of property is the universal theme behind Sukkot, where 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 existence.
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 before.
This Sukkot 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.
Some 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 fund 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 socialist state.
As a capitalist I agree that expecting the government to subsidize those capable of work 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.
Sukkot forces us to focus on the transient nature of property and the fact 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 sukkah with us that lends our fleeting existence permanence and our transitory lives purpose.