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Vayakhel-Pekudei: Trust and Self-Interest

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Whom Can We Trust?

Trust is all over the news these days. Do we trust our financial institutions? Can we trust our fund managers? What about our banks, corporations and insurance firms, AIG included? Higher up: Can we trust our government? Can countries trust each other? Will the United States remain a trusted superpower? And finally – the holy economic grail itself: Can we trust our economic system: Capitalism?

With all the financial abuse of the last decade – obscene bonuses, fraud at the highest levels of business leadership, corporate benefits delivered by lawmakers who received financial contributions from these very corporations – trust has been eroded on every rung of our economic structure.

The fact is: money corrupts. Money is the epitome of self-interest. Self-interest – something no one is immune to – causes bias. And bias “blinds the eyes of the wise and distorts the tongue of the righteous.” It is now very apparent that the economic meltdown was caused by greed, which led to bad lending practices, easy credit and quick money. For every mistake we are aware of, how many are we not aware of? What new revelations will the future bring?

If you think about it, the meltdown was inevitable. If personal gain and self-interest are the driving forces of capitalism, how much does it take to shift from personal gain to greed and to cutting corners for profit? And how far away is that from outright fraud and theft to enrich oneself at the expense of others? And once the greed and fraud reach a critical mass, what power can contain the rippling damage?

The conventional answer, of course, is that laws and regulation keep us honest. But what happens when the regulators fail, as they have so blatantly in the last few years? And what about lawmakers being handsomely rewarded by corporations who stand to gain from the way the laws are written? And who regulates the regulators?

Some say that we must demand total disclosure. But then, how do you prevent abuse of our cherished privacy? And can you really trust those that are enforcing transparency? How many elected officials are themselves corrupt, or become so once they have gained power, influence and money dangling before their eyes?

You get the idea. The fact remains that man-made systems will always be flawed. Let’s be honest: Despite all our checks and balances, given the right circumstances, self-interest can bring the house down. We may not like to entertain the thought, but once trust has been breached, promises broken and security betrayed, how much does it take to destroy the fragile structures that keep things together, tenuous as they are in the first place?

Of course, it all comes down to the biggest question of all: Can we trust people? Can we trust each other? Can we trust ourselves?

A recently divorced man shared with me his tragic life. After years of trying, challenged by a fractured childhood, he finally thought that he had found his soulmate, only to discover that she too betrayed him in ways I would prefer not to mention. He told me, “since my abusive father left my mother, I trusted no one. After hard work I finally allowed my guard down and trusted someone with my heart and soul. Sadder than my divorce is the fact that I will never trust again…”   How sad. And how about the child they had together – and millions of others – what type of trust can a growing adult have when all expectations and bonds were betrayed in childhood?

Sure, we have naïve, innocent, inexperienced people trusting others, until… Until they too get hurt, and then they lose their trust.

It’s one thing to find a trusting child or a trusting adult who has not been hurt. But can we find, savvy, seasoned, experienced people – people who have seen the cruelty of the world, who have witnessed the crimes and abuses humans are capable of – and still maintain their trust in humanity, their trust in other people?

Usually, once we have been wounded and especially repeatedly, we turn skeptical if not outright cynical. How many people do you know (or it may even be yourself) – that have their defenses up all the time? And understandably so: How can you develop trust when you grew up in a volatile home and an insecure environment, where every moment was a guessing game, not knowing whether your parents would be showering you with love or with scorn? Or you discovered at your workplace, that as much as you sincerely try, there are those co-workers or superiors that will do anything to undermine you. Or you have come to learn that we live in a world of backstabbing, insecure, selfish, small-minded people who can turn on you in an instant, when they feel their self-interest being threatened. And sometimes worse: Even with nothing to lose, some people will resent another’s success. In Yiddish this type of person is called a “nisht farginer.” I don’t know if there is an equivalent word in English, but it’s essentially begrudging another’s success for no reason at all. I guess, it makes some people feel less of a failure when others fail as well.

Which ever way you analyze it, trust has become a very precious and rare commodity. I wonder how much trust would trade for on today’s commodity markets?

That’s the bad news. Before we get too depressed, enter this week’s Torah portion, which gives us a royal dose of trust.

In this chapter – actually a composite of two chapters, Vayakhel and Pekudei – we conclude the book of Exodus with the construction of the Divine Sanctuary. G-d entrusts the human race to use their gold, silver and copper (and other physical materials) to build a Temple where the Divine presence will dwell. G-d’s trust in us is so complete and profound that He confers on us, mere mortals, the power to “build Me a sanctuary and I will dwell amongst you” – manifesting the Divine in each person’s life.

Various spiritual schools of thought debate the question whether we fickle mortals can in any way ever hope to reach the omnipotent and the immortal, without shedding our corporeal garments. Some argue that finite creatures can merely be servants to the Divine but can never hope to unite with G-d. Even King Solomon, the builder of the First Temple in Jerusalem, wondered:

“Heavens and heavens of heavens cannot contain You. How can this [earthly] building [contain you]?!”

One would think that the best way to manifest a Divine presence in our lives is through detaching from our material investments and involvements. We achieve nirvana by insulating ourselves from physical distractions and the corrupt influences of a selfish world, via meditation and other spiritual exercises conducive to a sublime experience.

And yet, the Temple was specifically crafted from physical materials – gold, silver and copper – items of value that have the potential to corrupt! Why tempt people by having them build a sanctuary with money?!

The answer lies in the entire purpose of the Temple: “I will dwell amongst you.” It is no great feat to build a sanctuary in heaven, where there is no avarice nor self-indulge nce, no temptations nor distractions. The ultimate triumph is to create a sacred space “amongst you” – in a world of selfish materialism, out of untamed crude materials of this world, which are driven by their needs. Transforming this dark world into a Divine environment is the entire purpose of existence and the objective of the Holy Temple.

And indeed, G-d did take a great risk in entrusting us humans to transform matter into spirit, by building this Divine edifice out of our raw gold, silver and other basic materials.

Here we have the ultimate model for trust: G-d’s trust and confidence in us mortal, corruptible human beings to rise above our petty temptations and immediate needs and fulfill our higher calling. Would you trust other people with such a monumental task? But G-d does trust us.

The question is: How do we repay this trust? Even more fundamentally: How is G-d so sure that He can trust us? With history serving witness to mans’ capacity at duplicity and betrayal, what hope is there that we can transcend our innate self-interest driven tendencies?

In our own hearts we know how little we can trust ourselves. How we can compromise another when push comes to shove and our personal interests are at stake. If we can’t trust ourselves how much can we really trust others? Our distrust of others will always be in direct proportion to our distrust of ourselves. If you know that you can undermine another, you inevitably will feel that the other can do the same or more to you.

So how do we emancipate ourselves from this vicious cycle?

The answer, my friends, can be found in a very unlikely place. The antidote to the distrust inherent in a society driven by self-interest can be found, of all places, on USA currency.

Etched on every coin and bill of this country are the words “In God We Trust.” I am not sure who coined this line, but its message is uncannily prescient: Trust lies at the heart of our free economy. But how can we establish trust when people can’t be trusted? The money we carry tells us that the only way is to trust not in man but in G-d.

As we witness the flaws which have virtually destroyed the fabric of trust so vital to a free economy, we learn that as long as we remain arrogant in our own self-worship, claiming that we can be trusted – “trust me, trust me” – there is no basis for true trust. Yes, we can appoint regulators, write and enforce laws, remove inept leaders, yell and scream, but there will always remain a fundamental flaw in our systems: Left to their own accord, some people will cheat and lie to get ahead, especially if they feel that they won’t get caught.

There is but one way to infuse trust into man-made structures: By introducing something that is not man-made – In God We Trust. Trusting a force greater than ourselves – and that this force “created all people equal” – is the foundation of a just society, where people can trust each other, because they answer to a higher authority.

Humans left to their own resources cannot be trusted due to the inherent bias built into our own subjectivity and self-interest. But when a man humbly realizes that he is here not to serve himself, but to build of his belongings a Divine Sanctuary for a higher cause, then we have fertile ground for trusting each other.

One who trusts in G-d is someone we can trust. One who rises above self-interest and places their trust in a Higher Power is someone we can trust. Moses was trusted because he trusted in G-d, not in himself. He therefore humbly gives a detailed accounting in this week’s Torah portion regarding all the monies he collected to build the Temple.

Think of it this way: Two competent fund managers approach you to invest with them. One is brimming with confidence and tells you to trust him with your money; he even proves himself with steady returns over decades. The other humbly tells you that he will do his best to make your money grow, but ultimately it is in G-d that we trust to bless us in our ventures. Whom would you trust more?

We’re not discussing one who is mouthing slogans and paying lip service to G-d. We also are not referring to one who cheats other people and then prays to G-d and is nice to his family. Trust in G-d means a trust that permeates a person’s behavior even when he is in the world of business and finance.

That doesn’t mean that the people we trust are perfect. What it means is that they are accountable. Trust is based not on perfection but on accountability.

Obviously, trusting G-d cannot be regulated or imposed on anyone; it has to be a choice that people make. And there of course lies the challenge: Can people be trusted to make that choice?

G-d for one does trust us in that way. By creating us and giving us this choice He cast His vote of confidence in the human race. Now the question is whether we will live up to this expectation and confidence.

Perhaps our current economic meltdown is an unprecedented opportunity to give us all pause to think about the meaning of trust. And to learn the most vital lesson of all: The foundation of all trust is trust in G-d.

The concept of Divine Providence tells us that every answer we need in life is there right before our eyes. In this economic crisis – with people anxious about their money – all you need to do is look at the money you are so concerned about, and read the words:

In God – not in man – We Trust.

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15 Responses to “Vayakhel-Pekudei: Trust and Self-Interest”

  1. Choni Davidowitz

    Speaking of investments, the Rebbe said that the surest and safest place to invest private and public money is Eretz Yisrael.
    How many Chabad/Lubavitch followers have heeded this advice?

    March 20th, 2009 at 12:30 am

  2. Esther Sarah Evans

    bH
    Your article really has a solid foundation. I just wish my disillusion will be repaired. What does that mean?

    When I was still chutz leAretz I thought that perhaps only a few Reform rabbonim and a few of the Chilonim did not believe in HaShem. Gradually I am coming to the conclusion that even many of us Orthodox and our Rabbonim do not really believe and trust in HaShem. Why do I think that ?

    If we really believed in HaShem, if we really trusted Him, we would not be wasting time trying to make deals with terrorists, but we would be doing our level best to convince everyone here beAretz at least and especially the family of Gilad Shalit, that if we all keep just 2 Shabbosim, HaShem will not only free Gilad Shalit, but He will help us with all our other Bayot as well. Maybe this request to all of us has to come from Noam Shalit and his wife. If they would say, Look, we have tried everything. Now we want to turn to HaShem big time. Please, please help us in this. There can be no risk, only gain, I think that even the most hard-boiled atheist would be moved to go along with this. If the Rabbonim offered to help people by staging Shabbatons with food, etc., all the better. We have been so eager to grasp at the impossibly naive and costly solutions; why not try the cheap one with the One and Only on whom we can rely???

    Our refusal to budge in this direction up to now creates the suspicion that we are giving only lip service, that we do not really believe in and trust in HaShem. This makes me feel very sick, very scared. Every time I hear the words, Mah leassot ? I begin to seethe. Mah zot omeret – mah leassot? As if we were the ones (the only ones), who can do something, as if HaShem would not even exist. This is tantamount to Chillul HaShem. We believe so much in our own shadows, that we watch all the time, that we cannot even see the light radiating from the Emes of HaShem.

    This tragicomedy is not funny; it has cost lives, it is costing lives, it will, chas vaSholem, cost more lives. If we would but jump over that shadow we like so much to watch, we could prompt HaShem to save the whole wide world.
    Shabbat Shalom umevorakh.
    Gut Shabbos.

    March 20th, 2009 at 12:33 am

  3. Tina

    Yes Dennis Prager has mentioned this many times and written articles about it, the guiding principles on our American money.

    March 20th, 2009 at 3:06 am

  4. Patricia Grossman

    Well constructed article and so much easier to read in the new page layout! Beautiful.

    If ever it gets to a politically correct point that the government removes those words from our coins…well, I guess it will be In G-d We Trust again. You so clearly explained Divine Providence.

    March 20th, 2009 at 3:36 am

  5. Catherine

    Dear Rabbi-
    There is another way to think about this. I have spent a long time in the money world. Fortunately, I still trust, despite abuse. I trust because I believe in G-d, as you preach. But this issue is extremely complex and I hope to shed some light on a different angle. We need your brilliant mind to work this out and set a path and direction in as many ways as possible, in my humble opinion and heartfelt desire.

    Money is energy. It is meant to be shared and spread. It is meant to be honored, like many forces on earth brought to us by G-d. Like everything, money has 2 aspects. It can be constructive, it can be destructive. It can even be both at once. In some peoples parlance, it can be good and bad. I prefer constructive and destructive because good and bad have so much judgment that comes with the terms. We humans have a choice to take the power in the energy of money and use it for constructive purposes. That is why you remind us to give to charity regularly.

    These times serve as a great example of your teachings. G-d is one, we are one, we are all connected. We see that when there is pervasive corruption and greed and lack of truth, we all lose. We see that without standards and checks and balances, the unwind affects everyone. No country is avoiding the affects of the economic conditions. No company is unaffected. No family is untouched by what is happening. This affects everyone around the world.

    G-d is one and we are all connected and interconnected and interdependent. So if someone thinks they can hurt someone else and be unaffected, they see now that they really hurt themselves. Self-interest does not work. It takes everyone down together.

    But the kabals still think they can take care of their own rather than taking care full stop and living by certain basic values.

    The world needs some simple values. For me, I like the 10 commandments. I also like Hillels love thy neighbor as thyself. Perhaps you can suggest others.

    You are spot on — truth is key. But truth is tricky because of self-deception. I suspect Madoff believed he helped all those charities and justified the deception that way.

    When you say, in G-d we trust it means so many things to you. But it also means different things to different people. How do you ground it?

    Catherine

    March 20th, 2009 at 10:31 am

  6. Douglas Burns

    Human nature has lots of good aspects. People can be kind and unselfish and we hear stories about such people. On the converse, I dont think I really have to delineate mans bad qualities. Nastiness, bitterness, untruthfulness, lack of honesty in dealings, jealousy, infidelity and many other negative ones. Perhaps the worst is greed, and that engine is run on a gasoline called money. Mans behavior respecting money is simpy beyond belief. Much of what we are seeing now is nothing more than what has always gone on; now, it comes on the screen due to bad economic times. I dont have the solution to changing human nature. But I do know that the sentiments expressed here are good ones, and people should strive for faith, humility, and appreciation of things instead of greed.

    March 20th, 2009 at 11:15 am

  7. Rabbi Craig Wyckoff

    I liked your article this week and yes Moses did keep an accounting of all that was given, but unlike some of our greedy investment brokers of today when Moses had enough he commanded the people to stop giving.We are taught that each of us is born with a yetzer tov-good inclination,and a yetzer harah-evil inclination.I like to think of the good inclination as that spark of Gd that is contained in all of us.We spend our lives in constant struggle to let the good side prevail. At Sinai we accepted Gds offer and the Ten Commandments and our lives of Tikkun Olam(repairing the world)began.You talk of greed -it is born of the ego and vanity that make up the Yetzer Hara in each of us. True Tikkun Olam comes in the work we each do to overcome our own personal ego and vanity. It comes when we live our lives as examples. when you focus on Gd or as you said trust in Gd, it is hard to be disillusioned by the ills of society.It is funny how most people focus on the bad that happens in the world.Just look around you and you will see the good.It is everywhere-in the sounds of a baby,in the sunrise or sunset,in the wind as it blows the leaves of a tree. `Rabbi Craig

    March 20th, 2009 at 11:58 am

  8. Ben

    The first part of this article, which provides critical analysis of current situation, is well written. The second part which deals with solution seems exceedingly weak.
    The suggestion that we should trust men, who fear God, is impossible to implement, because it is impossible to see what is in the heart of a man/woman. It is clear from recent scandals involving Rabbis on kosher meat plant in Iowa and Catholic Priests in churches around this land, that we can not trust outside appearance and self definition of a person. So, who is that God fearing man that you suggest we can trust? We are back to square one. Your article identifies the problem, but provides no real solution.

    March 22nd, 2009 at 4:45 pm

  9. Cassandra Lee

    The material temple is the physical body. The elements of Gold, Silver and Copper are the three lower bodies – The mind is the silver element. The Copper is the physical body, and the Gold is the heart. The broken shard is the Soul that G-D placed in each of us in our hidden heart. I will dwell amongst you, and G-D does through that implantation. G-D trusted us to transform those lower bodies of matter into spiritual awareness – A State of Higher Consciousness. A Soul consciousness that would guide the human persona.
    At Sinai G-ds offer was accepted and the Ten Commandments and Tikkun Olam began – Repairing the Manifest World ( must be a commandment on the first set of tablets Mose broke). True Tikkun Olam comes in the work we each do as individualls to overcome our own personal ego, vanity, and lower desires. If instead groups came together instead of remaining separative for doing this work of raising the whole worlds consciousness together as one humanity. The world could be tranformed sooner rather then later. As we know there are many levels of meaning in Torah, and at this time in time perhaps we need to dig deeper to find them.

    March 15th, 2012 at 11:11 pm

  10. ENRIQUE Y ANETTE

    THE BEGINNING OF THE ESSAY IDENTIFIES THE PROBLEM. THE SECOND PART DOES NOT COMPLETELY SOLVE IT. LET´S TRY TO FIND A DEEPER AND BETTER SOLUTION

    SHABBAT SHALOM

    March 16th, 2012 at 10:54 am

  11. Shellie Boulais

    Thank you for the clarity on our America meltdown….please, reiterate! If G-d gives us free will, why do we not allow others the same courtesy? My personal prayer is that no matter what I never give up on people. Please G-d, let me love others as you LOVE me!, that is my personal prayer. Thank you for your messages…I love them.

    March 17th, 2012 at 4:52 am

  12. Ispirit

    The article contains the phrase on US currency In G-d We Trust but the problem lies in which G-d trust is being put into. Unfortunately, the G-d being spoken of is the G-d of Economy. You also mention G-ds trust in man. This was lost with the loss of both the ark and the temple. So how can one trust when he himself can not be trusted?

    March 17th, 2012 at 6:57 am

  13. Amy

    The governing power in the nature of man is the power of choice or the will. The power of choice is yours to exersize. You cant change your heart or of yourself give your affections to God. But, you can choose to serve Him and choose to give Him your will. The will that is given to God becomes Gods will manifest in human.

    March 17th, 2012 at 8:12 pm

  14. Henry Brown

    I have followed your teachings since before your blessed father passed. Introduced my NYC living daughter to your center. The message seems very tense and the solution is not societal, religious, communal but PERSONAL. There has NEVER been a universal trust, nor a universal truth.
    Perhaps a realization that we are responsible to create our own peace. We are responsible to evaluate trust. And ONLY each of us is able to do this, then the peace that we create in ourself can permiate ito the world.
    God bless you and continue you wonderful messages.
    Chanoch

    March 18th, 2012 at 1:23 pm

  15. Palladio

    By Trusting G-d we will find the way to comprehend one another in this world.
    I will highly recommend the movie Thrive… for there is one key element on gaining the hope in the world we live in and learning to trust in G-d.

    March 21st, 2012 at 8:25 pm

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