What is Wealth? Shabbat 22-27

A theme of financial concern runs through these pages of the Talmud, made particularly explicit in the following question on 25b:

Who is rich?

We are given a variety of Rabbinic responses, and I’d like to reflect on them, and to link them to some of the surrounding passages.

First up we have Rabbi Meir’s answer:

Whoever finds peace of spirit in his wealth. 

At a first glance, this sounds very similar to Ben Zoma’s idea from Avot 4:1, that the rich person is one who rejoices in his lot.  And they are clearly coming from a similar place, they are both responding with the counter-intuitive notion that wealth is measured by one’s attitude, not by one’s possessions; by the spirit rather than the material.

That said, I think Rabbi Meir is perhaps less optimistic than Ben Zoma, perhaps slightly more conscious of the difficulty in always rejoicing in one’s lot.  He talks of one who is happy, who finds peace, Ben Zoma talks of an active imperative, of making an effort to attain happiness, that it is something which can be worked at.  Rabbi Meir is perhaps suggesting that one does need a certain level of sustenance, of financial security to be at peace in the world.  But the important thing is to remember that peace is the end point, that the wealth is a means to achieving that.

He may be suggesting that one needs to be especially conscious of the different emotions that accompany one’s differing material conditions, and to ensure that one is able to find a level of comfort wherein one’s worries actually abate and an internal sense of wellbeing comes to the fore.

When one does not achieve this, something has gone wrong, something has been missed.  There are many ways this can happen.

In some cases the anxiety which spurred one to generate the wealth, which was perhaps helpful in fuelling the work ethic, might still persist once financial success has been achieved.  It may in fact even get stronger; the challenge to attain a certain level of security might have been helpful in containing a person’s anxiety, it might have acted as a vessel for it, given it an outlet.  Without that yolk to harness it, without such an apparently urgent task to absorb one’s energies, one may find oneself quite lost, overrun with anxiety, eaten up by a mysterious restlessness, by a sense of unease and disquiet which don’t seem to have any intelligible source.

The anxiety must be worked on; one must find the level of peace to enable genuine enjoyment of one’s bounty.

In a similar manner, one may have been spurred on by envy or competition, which again might have served a certain purpose.  But if they are left untended once that purpose is served, once one has in some sense made enough, or made it onto the path towards enough, then they will again torment and undo a person.

Envy is a powerful toxin to the mind, a destructive hatred which can only bring misery and keep happiness at bay.

And being competitive, whilst less incorrigibly ruinous, and whilst more easily harnessed to constructive ends, can also be a major thorn in one’s side if it is left unchecked, if it comes to exist as an absolute force in one’s life.  If one is perpetually setting oneself up in opposition to others, if one’s sense of self is only secured through triumph and conquest, through perceived supremacy, then it is not really a sense of self at all.  It is a sense of not-other, of better-than-other, and perhaps a misplaced sense at that .

It is the mark of a being that is fleeing, searching, forever looking outwards for affirmation.  It suggest one is either unable or lacking the courage to look for that affirmation within, to learn to be intimate and comfortable with oneself.

There is another danger to prosperity, another block to it providing one with the contentment that it seems to promise.  This is the inability to have a sense of ‘enough’, to sense that one has reached a level whereby having more might be more trouble than it is worth.  ‘More’ can become a compulsion, something insatiable, something which unsettles the mind and makes peace an ever more distant prospect.

This consciousness seems to animate an earlier discussion on 22a:

Rav Yehuda said that Rav Asi said that Rav said:  It is forbidden to count money opposite the Channuka lights.

When I said this to Shmuel, he said to me:  And do the Channuka lights have such intrinsic sanctity? 

Shmuel seems to be assuming that if the Channuka lights did have sanctity, kedusha, that it would be understandable that their light would be incompatible with such a use.  Kedusha seems to be at odds with counting money, with the anxious weighing and measuring of one’s wealth.  Again, it is not the having of money that is the problem, it is the obsessing over it, it is the possibility that it does not bring one peace – nachat ruach – that it continues to torment one long after the battle is won.

The Divine Presence cannot come to rest with a person when they are forever concerned with how much they have, with how they stack up against their neighbours.  There is simply not room in such a mind, one is distracted and out of sync with peace.

The Gemara rejects Shmuel’s idea about Kedusha, and instead offers a different reasoning for the ruling:

That the mitzvot should not be disgraced in his eyes, shameful.

I think this is a more profound idea, that if one is using the mitzvah of Channuka to count his wealth, making the light of the miracle subordinate to one’s material hunger, then one has lost perspective on the meaning of the ritual, on the subtle sense of faith it embodies.

The light is the symbol of a spiritual uprising, of a battle for sanctity in the war of cultures.  It stands for our rejection of a culture which –as Nietzsche suggests – had become decadent and decayed through its wealth and success, which had thoroughly lost touch with its earliest lofty ideals.

The light is designed to bring peace to a household, to one’s soul; and if it fails to achieve that, if it becomes an instrument towards further anxiety and unease, then one has truly disgraced and shamed the mitzvah.  It has been defiled, corrupted.

So, that’s the first take on the meaning of wealth, Rabbi Meir’s view.

Rabbi Tarfon has a much more conventional take on things, one which requires considerably less thought and imagination:

Who is wealthy? – One who has a hundred vineyards and a hundred fields, and a hundred slaves to work in them.

Rabbi Tarfon was a wealthy man, but perhaps his comment is not as superficial as it might seem, perhaps he is trying to give an answer to that elusive question:  ‘Just how much is enough?’.

He is perhaps saying that there is an objective scale in play, and that one should know that at a certain point one may be overstepping a certain line and over reaching.  He might be trying to objectify greed, to give gluttony a measure.

Either way, we are probably tempted to take with a pinch of salt his famous injunction on 24b:

Rabbi Tarfon said:  One may only light with olive oil.

That’s nice if you can afford it.

I don’t want to get heavily into it, but it’s interesting that his views on wealth come shortly after a discussion on 23b about Pe’ah, the injunction to leave the corner of one’s field for the poor.  The concern there is to ensure that this remarkably progressive biblical idea is executed in a spirit of fairness, and that both landowner and pauper maintain their dignity through its enactment.

One may have a hundred fields, but with that comes greater responsibility, a greater need to be mindful of those less fortunate.

Following the opinion of Rabbi Tarfon, we hear from Rabbi Akiva:

The rich man is one who has a wife who embodies beauty in her actions.

Rabbi Akiva was more conscious than most of his dependence upon his wife, upon the faith, ambition and forbearance with which she supported him.  He sensed that all the money in the world was worthless if one didn’t have a house filled with warmth and peace, if one’s partner in life was dominated by envy and all too keen to turn against the other when things became tough.

The woman, for Rabbi Akiva, creates everything that is of value: the home, the family, the friendships and the fabric of community.  And she is also the source of specifically female wisdom and insight, of a maternal concern somewhat alien to men.

To be blessed is to live in the shadow of this, to be subsumed under its wings.

Last, and most prosaically, is the view of Rabbi Yosei:

Who is rich? – The person who has a toilet close to his table. 

Some suggest that he suffered from intestine trouble, and was expressing his needs directly.  Another view might be that he is defining wealth by utility alone, and emphasising this by reducing it to its most basic functionality.  Wealth in his eyes, is about being able to service one’s bodily needs when necessary, to conflate it into something more than that, into a measure of one’s worth or success in life, is to ask for trouble.  That path is an easy one to begin on, but it is a hard one to leave, a difficult illusion to outrun.  Better not to be seduced by it, to keep one’s eyes firmly on the toilet.

Four men, four visions of the possibilities and dangers of wealth.  In our affluent society, we might be particularly sensitive to these questions, and we might find ourselves particularly grateful for their encouragement to think about them.

Keeping Charity at Bay Shabbat 2 and 3

My first impression of Massekhet Shabbat was not a favourable one.  The opening Mishna is a dense and arcane listing of the ways in which one might transgress the prohibition against transporting objects from the private to the public domain on Shabbat.  This is already disappointing, there is no gentle transition from the Biblical or conceptual roots of Shabbat into its detailed laws, no opening musing on the spirit it creates, no encouragement to ‘taste it and see that it is good’ (Ps.19).  Rather, we are just thrown in at the deep end, and the feeling is quite disorientating:  my love for Shabbat is not finding any mirroring echo in the text.

And it seems to get worse.  The model for the prohibitions is the case of a man giving charity to a poor person.  What we are presented with is a list of all the ways in which one must not give charity.

Gone is the spirit of Isaiah 56, wherein charity and Shabbat sit side by side with each other as the embodiment of the Divine Ideal.  Here they are presented as conflicting forces, and I think we should be deeply bothered by that.

(As an aside, we should also be bothered by how easily a lot of people might learn this daf and not even notice this, how a certain approach to Talmud looks only for halakhic details, without any feel or sense for the context of their presentation.  It is too easy to not ask the right questions because we are seduced by the intellectual challenge the Talmud sets up, by the scholastic thinking with which it sometimes assaults our psyche.)

So, can we redeem this Mishna?

Let us begin with the assertion that the Rabbis assumed that we were already deeply familiar with Isaiah’s views on the subject, and with all the Biblical material which connects Shabbat with creation, rest and breathing space.  And I don’t think this is too far-fetched –  I have often been struck by how the Rabbis have Biblical verses and phrases at their fingertips, they are genuinely immersed in them; they form the backbone of their thought.

Ok, but doesn’t this just make the conflict even more perplexing, isn’t it even harder to understand why they are set up as opposites?

Perhaps we can offer the following interpretation:  In the Rabbinic worldview, there is indeed a conflict between Shabbat and charity, and at this point they wish to emphasise that they are coming down on the side of Shabbat.

There may be an ethical core which gives meaning and energy to the religious project, but that is not the same as saying that charity will always trump ritual, that doing for others is always more important than doing or creating for oneself.

We might read the Mishna as a discourse on boundaries, as an unconscious expression of the need to partition space for the self.

We have spoken lately about narcissism, of excess concern for the self, of a failure to engage with reality.

What gets less press is the opposite problem: an excess of concern for the outer world and a neglect of the self.

The self needs looking after, a functional personality requires a certain level of energy to maintain its structural integrity.  And it also needs some love, some warmth, some attention.

If  a person directs all of their love outwards, investing all of their energy and concern in charitable projects or other family members – including their children – they may end up paying a heavy psychological price.  They may be left with inner resources that are too stretched and too thin to cope with the adversity that comes their way in life, they may find that there is actually a weary emptiness at the point where their confidence and self-esteem should be.

And without this genuine inner conviction of self worth a person will not get far, they will be forever chasing the wrong shadows, living the desires of others, driven by a misplaced fantasy of what they ought to be.

To live authentically is to be guided by a genuine expression of our personality and being, by the voice of our deepest calling.  And this requires courage and a specifically inner confidence.

It’s important to note that this is a very different beast from the bombastic and loud confidence which people sometimes manifest and project in their dealings with their outer environment.  I might go so far as to call that type of confidence compensatory; it is sustained by detachment and dissociation from the doubt and perplexity which characterise the attempt to maintain full contact with the roots of one’s personality.

Shrill confidence is a mask; an obliviousness to the subtle and multi layered complexities of life.  Genuine thoughtfulness is marked by consideration, by trying to gently feel one’s way towards resolution.

And so the Mishna adopts this view, that Shabbat is about the need for spiritual rest and rejuvenation, about the need to maintain energy and attention for the self.  It is about redirecting us inwards, even if this means that our charitable instincts must be questioned and temporarily stifled.

There is an image depicted of a person bound to their home, to their private domain, and they are being instructed to diminish their interaction with what goes on outside their doors and windows.  Do not try to give to that outer world, and do not try to take from it either.  Rather, focus on your own home, put your own affairs in order and use the atmosphere of rest to ensure that your inner battery is recharged.

We read today that God rested on the seventh day.  I think we must understand this as teaching us that everyone needs rest, that every spirit would otherwise work itself towards exhaustion and dissolution.

In Kiddush we use the term ‘Vayinafash’, which is probably best translated as ‘He gave Himself Spirit’ or ‘He refreshed His Spirit’.  Rest is not simply cessation from activity, it is about giving the inner a chance to breathe, allowing it to recover and re-root.

So this very problematic Mishna might actually be teaching us something profound about what Shabbat is and what Shabbat isn’t.  Religion might be about ethics, but ethical beings require energy and soul, they must be connected to something authentic within themselves.  They can never just be automatons acting out a clear set of external instructions – that image is both conceptually flawed and pragmatically unsustainable.

On Shabbat we look to restore this connection, to give it the water and light that it needs to grow.  We relinquish some of the omnipotence that charity gives us, but in the humility of this renunciation we might just find that something new and profound is able to gestate.

Gratitude. An attitude in need of restitution. Berakhot 35

We move today into chapter six, leaving behind prayer and starting to discuss actual ‘berakhot’, the ‘blessings’ we recite before and after food.  (I don’t much like calling them ‘blessings’, I think it misses the point, so I’ll refer to them as berakhot, or to an individual berakha. I’ve always liked the link between berakha and beraikha, a spring, a source of life.  The root in Hebrew is the same, suggesting there is a link there.)

The Mishna discusses some of the berakhot we say, and the Gemara proceeds to investigate the source of this idea.  From where do we know that we should say berakhot?  What is the meaning of a berakha?

The ensuing passage is a masterpiece of Talmudic baroque, with all sorts of twists and turns and logical hairsplittings.  Verses are read in all kinds of strange ways and yet we keep track of those readings with incredible precision.

In the end though, the Talmud comes to a very simple conclusion.  There is no source, no verse, no authority which tells us to make berakhot.  Rather, it is plain common sense:

It is founded upon reason: One is forbidden to derive benefit from this world without a blessing.

This is so much more powerful than if it was given a source, if we were somehow commanded or instructed to say them.  This way it is spontaneous, voluntary, it comes about because we see that we need it, because it would be all wrong for us to enjoy the world without appreciating it.

And this is what  a berakha is.  It’s an act of appreciation.  To translate it as a ‘blessing’ is a confusion, its purpose is not to bless God.  It exists so that we may give an outlet to our deeply felt need to express praise.  Through giving voice to that, we aim to keep the sentiment alive.  Even more than that, we hope to broaden its sphere of influence, for it to colour the rest of our personality.

It is a core belief of mine that religion is about the cultivation of an attitude of gratitude.

I always find it hard to express just how important gratitude is, how different is the person who exhibits and embodies it from one who exudes either deservingness or permanent dissatisfaction.  It is a fundamentally different orientation of the soul, and the effects it has one one’s life are profound and significant.

I was recently very excited to discover that gratitude has become something of a hot topic in experimental psychological research, and that the findings have been overwhelmingly positive.  They seem to back up everything religion has taught for thousands of years about the importance of not viewing oneself as the centre of one’s world, as the source of one’s own wellbeing or good fortune.  Religion is about allowing space for otherness, about reducing one’s pride and hubris.

In his book “Thanks!”, outlining some of this research, Robert A. Emmons says the following:

Our research has led us to conclude that experiencing gratitude leads to increased feelings of connectedness, improved relationships, and even altruism… when people experience gratitude they feel more loving, more forgiving and closer to God.  Gratitude, we have found, maximizes the enjoyment of the good – our enjoyment of others, of God, of our lives.  Happiness is facilitated when we enjoy what we have been given, when we ‘want what we have’. ..

Gratitude elevates, it energizes, it inspires, it transforms.  People are moved, opened, and humbled through experiences and expressions of gratitude.  Gratitude provides life with meaning by encapsulating life itself as a gift.  (page 12)

Amen to all of that.

Gratitude is good, and a berakha is the moment wherein we pause and enact it.  And we do it both before we eat, when we are experiencing lack, and after we eat, when we experience satiety.  At both of these points there is a need to remember, to reflect on how fortunate we are that our needs are about to be met, and perhaps to reflect on how easily satisfied we are, how are troubles are minor in the greater scheme of things.

We make berakhot part of the rhythm of our life, not because we have childish or naïve beliefs, but because we have a very mature and adult understanding of just how easy it is to lose touch with gratitude.  We know that we can get carried away with how much we deserve what we have, with the sense in which we are the authors of our success.

Is there really such a problem with this idea of ‘deserving’, are we not entitled to expect something form the world?

I’m reluctant to say we shouldn’t expect anything, a ‘good enough’ upbringing leads a person to live as if they expect the world to provide a loving and nurturing environment.

But ‘deserve’, maybe that’s going too far, maybe that’s when we expect on the basis of our ego, we expect love not because the world is loving, but because we, as individuals, as egos, are special, are deserving.  We are, at that point, a little too in love with ourselves.

The corrective medicine is a chunky dose of gratitude, wherein we appreciate and continue to expect good things, but never because we deserve them, never because we are special and chosen, never because of our natural or hard earned superiority.

Gratitude is the anti-inflammatory of the ego, it helps it find the right size again, it restores it to a healthy level of operation.

“Blessed are You, God”.  In this formulation, there is a radical definition of God.  God is simply ‘you’, something other than ‘me’.

We often speak of experiencing the Divine presence, of being touched or filled by something elusive and otherly.  Maintaining a spirit of gratitude, of grace, is the sine qua non for this experience.  Being grateful keeps us open, only in that condition may we be entered by something greater than ourselves.

The Gemara hints at some of this in its alternative phrasing of the logic of berakhot:

Our Rabbis have taught: It is forbidden to a man to enjoy anything of this world without a berakha, and if one enjoys anything of this world without a berakha, he commits sacrilege. 

What is his remedy? He should consult a wise man.

What will the wise man do for him? He has already committed the offence! — Said Raba: What it means is that he should consult a wise man beforehand, so that he should teach him berakhot and he should not commit sacrilege.

Why does it require a wise man to teach berakhot, nowadays there are simple books designed to teach berakhot to children?

No, berakhot are not for children, they are for adults.  They are a brief philosophical interlude in our day, an overture to any enjoyable experience.  And it requires a wise man, or woman, to help us really see and appreciate this, to untangle the web of ego-belief that we all too often find ourselves in.

Berakhot are the hallmark of wisdom, not a remnant of the superstitious mind.

In further discussion we encounter the following verse:

Anyone who steals from his father and mother, declaring ‘It is not a sin’, he is the accomplice to a man of destruction. (Proverbs 28:24)

I think this is brilliantly insightful, and aboundingly relevant.  Ingratitude begins in the attitude towards one’s parents, towards everything they give a person in life.  If a person takes and takes from their parents, without appreciating the generosity and love that lie behind the parental giving, then they are doomed to a life of destruction.  They will never embody gratitude, they will never taste the satisfaction and fulfilment it engenders.

A spoiled child is a ruined child.  If parents fail to help their children find gratitude, if they placate them too easily and thoughtlessly, they are condemning their child to a life of disappointment and dissatisfaction, to a gnawing emptiness of depressing persistence.

Perhaps we come to appreciate our parents much later in life, perhaps when we become parents ourselves.  The important thing is that we should get there, that we do not remain petulant children, forever feeling that we deserve and should have more.

The Gemara then meanders into other topics, which I believe are still connected to the theme of gratitude.

In one debate, we hear opposing voices regarding the optimal balance between Torah study and earning a livelihood.  Abaye concludes it with the following:

Many have followed the advice of Rabbi Yishmael, [who advocates a healthy balance,] and it has worked well; others have followed Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai [who prioritises Torah exclusively]and it has not been successful.

Might it be that not being engaged in work, in the gathering of the harvest, in the production of value, severely restricts a person’s capacity for gratitude, their awareness that nothing comes easily.  And if so, might this upset the balance needed for proper Torah study, for finding the spirit that sheds light on the tradition?

(I note that this doesn’t sit well with  my explanation of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai on 28a.  We’ll have to keep an eye on him!)

As a final point, we are told that, of late, people have been engaged in the avoidance of their taxes, of their ‘tithe obligations’.

This too is the fallout from a prevailing mood of ingratitude; when Atlas believes exclusively in his own powers, it is no surprise that he shrugs at the fate of others.

If what I have is well and truly mine, then charity makes no sense, it becomes a completely voluntary act; indeed my philanthropy then only enhances my own sense of merit, and I actually deserve what I have all the more.

If I am fortunate and blessed, then it makes sense for me not to hold on to my possessions too tightly, to give naturally wherever and however possible.

Gratitude is both the engine and the achievement of religious life.  When we engage with berakhot we try to keep its spirit alive.

May we be blessed to make meaningful berakhot, for it is us, not Him, who are deeply in need of them.