Money – Fetishizing the Future Shabbat 119

We encounter today a story which may take some of us back to our childhood:

Joseph-who-honours-Shabbat had in his vicinity a certain gentile who owned much property. Soothsayers  warned the gentile:  ’Joseph-who-honours-Shabbat will consume all your property.’ 

So he went, sold all his property, and bought a precious stone with the proceeds, which he set in his turban.  As he was crossing a bridge the wind blew it off and cast it into the water.  A fish then swallowed it.

The fish was subsequently hauled up and brought to market on the Shabbat eve towards sunset.

‘Who will buy this fish just now?’ cried the fish sellers.

‘Go and take them to Joseph-who-honours-Shabbat,’ they were told, ‘as he is accustomed to buy in order to honour the Shabbat.’

So they took it to him.  He bought it, opened it and found the jewel therein.  He sold the jewel for thirteen roomfuls  of gold coins. 

A certain old man met him and said, ‘He who lends to Shabbat,  Shabbat repays him.’

It certainly works as a nice story for the children, but I think there’s actually a whole lot more going on here.

In the character of the gentile , (I’m not sure why it’s a gentile, and I don’t really attribute much significance to it, surely there have been many Jews who would fit this mould!), we meet a man who is deeply anxious about his property, about his money.

This manifests itself in a variety of ways.  It is significant that he consults soothsayers in order to learn the fate of his fortune – he is caught up in the future, worried about the fate of his wealth.

He does not seem to be able to enjoy the benefits and luxuries that his wealth might proffer upon him in the present, his peace of mind does not seem to have increased in proportion to the size of his bank account.  Rather, he seems to be enacting that other dictum of the sages:

‘More possessions leads to more worry.’ (Pirkei Avot 2:8)

So he engages soothsayers and, more than this, he responds to their warning with credulity.  I want to say that this is characteristic of a mind that is ill at ease, that it responds to the most unfounded and paranoid of suggestions and treats them as hard fact.  Something about its lack of centring, about its lack of rootedness, means that it lacks contact and connection with the plain realities in front of it, with the starting point of hard evidence which the simplest of minds would readily grasp.  No, it is fragile, hallucinatory, and all too susceptible to the crazy doomsday whisperings of the unsound, to the tale of his undoing which arrests him.

Perhaps he is indeed haunted by such a sensation, he may in some sense be feeling that he is coming undone, unstuck,  and that this proclamation of such by the other is only a confirmation of what he has known for a long time, of the worm-like secret which has been eating away at him over the years.  He is perhaps unable to bear the burden of plenty, to live with the inequality that his wealth creates.  Something about it separates him from his fellows, and this alienation, this exile, has become for him a torment of soul shredding proportions.

Let us now turn to his response to the soothsayer’s warnings.  He decides that the best strategy is to sell all of his property and concentrate his wealth into one precious jewel.

On one level, this would seem to only be taking him further from any capacity to enjoy his wealth, to derive actual and material benefit from it.  In his determination to prevent someone else from stealing or obtaining his property, he has in a sense stolen it from himself; he has removed from himself any advantage of his affluence.

The concentration of the wealth into the jewel seems to symbolise a process of fetishization.  The jewel is of virtually no use, but it instead embodies a magical quality for its owner.  It is his superstitious response to the otherworldly prophecies he receives; he responds to the witchcraft with some sorcery of his own.

His money is in transit: the more he tightens his grip on it, the further it slips away from him.

And yet, with all of this paranoia surrounding his money, he exposes it in its totality to the slightest act of nature, to a gust of wind which removes his turban and blows it into the water.  One almost has to read an unconsciously wilful act of neglect here; he almost couldn’t bear the tension and was somehow desiring its end.  The death drive, with its magnetic force of dissolution, seems to have overwhelmed him.

In the character of Joseph-who-honours-Shabbat we seem to encounter someone of precisely the opposite nature.  The name by which he is known, Yosef Mokir Shabbei, might also be translated as Joseph-whose-wealth-was-Shabbat.  He holds Shabbat dear, he cherishes and values something which has a powerful impact on his soul and spirit, something which is very much tangible in the here and now.  He is not distracted by the future, he is not imprisoned by worry and a sense of impending doom.  He is bound to the moment, living in intimate proximity to the source of his joy.

The jewel comes to Joseph not because he is looking to get rich, not because he has bought a lottery ticket or invested in a spirit of speculation.  His wealth arrives because he has a reputation for sparing no expense, for using every last penny he has, in order to honour Shabbat, in order to enrich the day one with every possible delight.

He comes to wealth because he has no interest in looking after his money, in worrying about its future life.  He has a healthy relationship with his property, he understands that if it is not used, if it is not put to work in enhancing the finer and more sacred aspects of life, then it becomes empty, it becomes a tormenting and divisive fetish.

We notice that the first thing he does on obtaining the jewel, presumably once Shabbat was finished, was to undo its fetishization, to release its value into an abundance of gold coins which could then be spent, which could be used to bring better things, things of real value, into the world.

The soothsayers’ wording is particularly prescient, they use the term ‘akhil’, literally ‘eat’, to describe what Joseph will do to the gentile’s wealth.  He will re-translate it into something tangible, something nourishing, something which can actually enhance a person’s health and wellbeing.

The story ends with the observation of the wise old man that one who lends to Shabbat will be repaid by Shabbat.

On one level, this speaks of the difficulty in keeping Shabbat at a basic level, in the financial and career sacrifice that it seems to demand of us.  It is a non-trivial challenge to prioritise Shabbat when other demands are in the foreground, demands which whisper to us of the security and future benefit they will bring to us and our families.  Trust in Shabbat, he promises, and you will be repaid.

On another level however, he is speaking of the shift in perspective that Shabbat might offer us.  ‘Suspend your concern for the future, release yourself from the anxious worship of financial accumulation and embrace the life of the spirit, the immediacy of your desire.  Use this pause to connect and re-root, and all manner of surprising benefits will follow in its wake.’

As we said recently, Shabbat offers us a loosening of the soul, a release from the ordinary anxieties that separate us from our truer selves.  Money, and our complicated and tortuous relationship with it, can play a big part in this alienation, in the ways in which we fail to live in the present, we fail to be present, on account  of the future.

It is the perfect seducer, it begins with the promise of answering real and palpable needs, then at some point it takes on magical qualities, promising us everything the future has to offer, provided we make a Faustian pact against the present.

Eventually we might fetishize it, we forget why we wanted it, but we only know that we must have it, that it is all that matters.

It has perhaps never been harder to untangle ourselves from this web of confusion, never has there been an age where genuine value and monetary value have been so messily interlinked and amalgamated.  The theology of the market, whose collapse we are still struggling to really understand, has profoundly and disturbingly warped our thinking.

We can only hope that the experience of Shabbat, the joy in real and present experience that it offers, can help us to re-calibrate our inner scales somewhat, and that we can return to our lives a little more attentive to the right things, a little less haunted by what the soothsayers might threaten.

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.