I’ve been thinking lately about the divisions cropping up among friends and neighbors in this economic recession. One person finds herself bringing home a solid paycheck in a field barely touched by the difficulties of our time. Another, equally well educated and hardworking, finds himself out of work after years of effort and apparent success. I am only a rabbi, not an economic analyst, but I cannot help worrying about the self-doubt that many who have lost their jobs are expressing in private.
We live in a country with a myth of the self-made man: The person who comes from low social status but achieves much through perseverance and work. The self-made man is not the product of lucky breaks. He or she makes his or her own destiny. This concept is inspiring when you are born into difficult circumstances. In our current time we should reject this, for its corollary is that the man (or woman) who does not work hard is responsible for his or her own economic fate. We know better. In this interdependent world we cannot be completely self-made.
The 11th-century commentator Ibn Ezra understood this when he wrote on this week’s parasha, Yitro. In explaining the last of the Ten Commandments, prohibiting envy, he teaches that our financial success is dependent not on our own abilities and knowledge, but on what God allots to us. Envy of our neighbors’ possessions is then a denial of God.
Even those of us who do not understand this to mean that God literally decides our financial fate appreciate the reminder that there are elements of our success not in our hands. There is a greater message here, too: What we have is but a gift from God. We must do our part to be proper custodians of the resources God has granted us, but ultimately we are not guaranteed any particular reward, even if we put in 70-hour workweeks and do our very best. It is also no shame then when circumstances beyond our control put us in personal economic difficulties. We are not self-made men and women, but God-made men and women. God made us to strive to be our best but to be interdependent as well. We can only go so far in lifting ourselves up by our own bootstraps. How much better then when we link arms and lift each other up? It is foolish pride to say, “I alone am responsible” when we achieve wealth and comfort, and foolish pride to say, “I alone am to blame” when we suffer financially or otherwise.
As a congregational rabbi this keeps me up nights. I worry about those Jews in our synagogues who are considering dropping their affiliation because money is tight. I worry about all families who need the spiritual and emotional stability that a synagogue community offers in such a time. Every synagogue I know of in this area is ready and willing to confidentially adjust the dues of families in need. I worry about the older adults whose incomes are stretched to the limit but have never had to ask for special treatment.
I worry about the young children whose families will delay beginning their Jewish education instead of asking for tuition assistance. Those early years of Jewish education in nursery school or younger grades are critical to a strong Jewish identity. It pains me when a father of a current bar mitzvah student tells how his own family could not afford for him to become a bar mitzvah decades ago. I don’t want that repeated 30 years from now. We may not be able to afford all the amazing programs and opportunities we have had in the Jewish community in recent years, but we certainly cannot afford to lose the next generation of Jews.
Let us set aside envy. Let us not get caught up in comparing ourselves with others. Let us accept realities. And let us allow God to give us what we truly need: self-acceptance and a Jewish community to lift us up when we are down.