Who Is Rich?

February 1, 2012
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Brent Chaim Spodek

I was recently in a store where I saw a beautiful print of a teaching from Ben Zoma, one of the sages of the Mishnah. It read, “Who is a rich man? He who is satisfied with his lot.” The calligraphy was fabulous, and I told my wife that I wanted to buy it; hanging it on the wall would remind me of what was really important in life. After pausing momentarily, she asked if purchasing a poster to remind me of the folly of consumption was, perhaps, missing the essence of the teaching. Of course. Point well taken.

Wanting, longing, and desire are all natural parts of human nature. We desire all the things we think are lacking in our life: freedom, beauty, health, friendship. Sometimes, that desire, that longing, can so fully overtake us that it is impossible to think of anything else. And yet without desire, the world would be a very different place. The ancient rabbis famously say that were it not for desire, no man would build a house, marry a wife, or beget children.1 Natural human desire is what leads us to do the incredibly hard work of human existence. If we didn’t desire the results, we would never do the work. At its best, desire spurs us on to inhabit the world and improve human life.

When it comes to “things,” however, there is a much easier way to get what we want: We simply buy them. Most of the time, when we want to live in a house, we don’t learn carpentry; we buy a house. When we want to hear music, we don’t learn to play guitar; we buy a CD. Most of what we want can be purchased, saving us tremendous time and effort. But fewer of us, then, develop the skills to facilitate our own everyday life. Similar to drugs, which allow us to experience a high without the hard work of spiritual practice, so, too, shopping allows us to satisfy our desires without the hard work of learning a skill.

Shannon Hayes, the author of Radical Homemakers: Reclaiming Domesticity from a Consumer Culture, once speculated that although cooking a chicken at home is cheaper, healthier, and tastier than eating a chicken sandwich at Burger King, people eat fast food more often than they roast a chicken; many people simply don’t know how to roast a chicken. “Mainstream Americans,” she wrote, “have lost the simple domestic skills that would enable them to live an ecologically sensible life with a modest or low income.”2

Simple ownership is certainly validated within the tradition but rarely, if ever, lauded. Humans are only praised as co-creators with God, but not as co-owners.3 We partner with God in creation when we bring something new into the world — art, an insight into spiritual practice, a new scientific process, an infant, or even a Shabbat meal. While the tradition praises human creation in powerful terms, ownership, though legitimate, is more often understood as a temporary, conditional situation. Traditional bookplates are inscribed, “The world in its fullness belongs to God and this book is from so-and-so’s collection,” as if to say one’s ownership of a book is really just a limited stewardship. More explicitly, a 16th-century rabbi, the Kli Yakar, teaches that the purpose of sabbatical legislation is to “teach us not to regard humans as absolute masters of… the land.”4 To a traditional Jew, the question is not how much stuff one owns, but whether we bring forth holiness from the stuff with which we’ve been entrusted.

Ben Zoma taught that a rich person is someone happy with his or her portion. The true impact of this teaching comes in Ben Zoma’s proof text from Psalms: “Thou shalt eat the labor of thine hands: Happy shalt thou be, and it shall be well with thee.”5

Happiness comes neither from having every desire satisfied nor from denying that desire exists. It comes from working directly with one’s hands to satisfy longing. Perhaps we’d be more contented if we found ways to cook our own food, make our own music, weave our own clothes, and know that working as a creator is a form of spiritual practice.

1 Genesis Rabba 9:7

2 Shannon Hayes, Radical Homemakers: Reclaiming Domesticity from a Consumer Culture. (Richmondville, NY: Left to Write Press, 2010), page 12.

3 Shabbat 10a: “Every judge who judges with complete fairness, even for a single hour, is given credit by Torah as though he had become a partner to the Holy One of Blessing in creation.” See also Shabbat 119b: R. Hamnuna said: “He who prays on the eve of the Sabbath and recites ‘and [the heaven and the earth] were finished,’ is given credit by Torah as though he had become a partner to the Holy One of Blessing in creation.”

4 Kli Yakar’s commentary to Exodus 23:11

5 Psalms 128:2

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Brent Chaim Spodek is the rabbi at Beacon Hebrew Alliance in Beacon, New York and a consultant to organizations working on social justice education. He can be reached at brent@emekproject.org.

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