Mike Feder: Good evening, this is Mike Feder and welcome to another edition of Toward a Meaningful Life with Simon Jacobson. We are here live in the studio. This evening’s topic is “Money and Materialism: Vice or Virtue.”
Let’s just plunge right in and start with the initial question which will set up a lot of the questions that come up.
Can you tell me, in your opinion, what is materialism and what is money, and can you explain how it fits, or if it fits into a spiritual life?
I know you’re not the professor of economics, but do your best!
Rabbi Simon Jacobson: Well, that’s not what we’re going to discuss, I hope. I will say that I don’t think there’s a person in this world who doesn’t know what money is, and therefore, by extension, what materialism is. I include you as well in that category.
I don’t know if people know what it is, but they know that they need it.
So therefore I think it’s something that I wouldn’t say is close to everybody’s heart, but clearly, part of everyone’s life—as much a part as the air we breathe and the food we eat and our shelter. Because essentially (except for air, thank G-d) all those things need to be bought.
Feder: We’re not there yet.
Jacobson: As a matter of fact, it says in Jewish mystical books that there are three basic human needs: food, clothing and shelter. And the interesting thing is, the more necessary something is to our lives, the easier and more accessible it is, and the cheaper it is.
The air we breathe, we need every moment, so it’s free. The food we eat we don’t eat every moment, but we eat it every day, so it’s cheaper. We wear clothing every day, but we don’t need to buy it every day, so it’s a little more expensive. And shelter, which is either a home that you rent or buy, and if you buy it, it’s either once in a lifetime or rarely, so it’s much more expensive.
So it’s interesting that as you climb the ladder of needs, the more immediate the need and the constant renewal of the need, the cheaper it is.
And this is the way it’s set up. I don’t think any government has tried to tax air rights.
Feder: They haven’t done it yet.
Jacobson: Right. They did start charging for water and sewers.
Feder: I was just reading in the paper today that some British company bought half of Connecticut’s water supply. What’s next? Maybe Disney will own the air.
Jacobson: But to go to our actual topic: you know, money, you can’t live with it, you can’t live without it. And I say with it because you see what money does to people, the corruption, the competitiveness, the jealousy, the divisiveness. And if anything is a symbol of materialism, money is that symbol, because money clearly distinguishes between us: my money is not your money.
You want something from me, you have to pay me for it. I want something from you, I have to pay you. Either in object, time, or energy.
Jacobson: People are open which has its virtues. And they’re talking about this one who had this abusive childhood (and really bad stuff) and there’s sexual abuse, and then someone just asked the other, “You know, tell me, how is your 401K doing, your investments?” And the women froze up, like he had asked her the most intimate secrets. She just finished talking about the most private parts of her life, her relationships, and her neuroses, and her parents, but to ask her about her money?!
And the article is about that: how the money thing among people is such a secret, which just testifies and demonstrates how much (I don’t know if it’s guilt) “my money is me.”
Feder: I was just going to say, why would people want to protect that more than anything else?
Jacobson: So my explanation would be based on a book called the Tanya, a book written by Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi in the 18th century, close to 250 years ago. He wrote this classical work called the Tanya which means “to study.” To study, to learn. And he writes in chapter 37 there—and we invite our listeners, if they are interested, to come to our website and write us for a translation of this section—he talks about the power of charity.
In order to understand charity, particularly monetary charity, you have to explain the soul of money. What is the power, the spirit of money. He put it in a very interesting way. He calls money soul energy, in Hebrew, chayei nafshi, life energy.
But if you’re able to symbolize or capture in some manifest way our value, the value of your time, of your energy, of your creativity, of your connections…in this world the only way to measure it is with money. You want my connections, here’s what I charge for it. You want my time, here’s what I charge for it.
So money has become a symbol of our life value. So although all of us will say, “I’m worth much more than that,” but we’re talking in the commercial world, if you want my time, that’s how I charge. You know, I’ll come to you and say, you know, Mike, I need your time and you’ll say to me, “My life is invaluable, you’re going to have to pay me a million dollars an hour.”
So you have to find some type of estimate. So you look at other people your age or with your experience, and you figure out the high range/low range, and essentially it’s the issue of economics, which is supply and demand. It depends on how much you want it. It depends on how much people are willing to pay for it. There are many variables. But when it comes right down to it, there is a dollar figure on your intangible. Because how do you measure experience? How do you measure a doctor’s seniority, experience of forty years when he goes into surgery?
It’s impossible to measure, because experience is unmeasurable.
So money is used as a measure. And I’m speaking now in a healthy way. I’m not getting into the dirty side of money, and all the other issues, but let’s just analyze it. That is why he explains why people are so attached to money. Because money is for them that type of symbol and if you’re able to translate a soul energy/life energy on paper, this is what it looks like, there’s a dollar figure.
Now, of course, this gets completely distorted once you’re making money just to make money and it becomes a rat race on its own and it’s not just in that pure sense, I need your service so here’s what I’m paying for it. That’s a very nice collaboration. And we’ll discuss that.
But I want to just touch upon that point, because that lies at the heart of the issue, that money is the symbol of a person’s life energy. And the more you can charge or the more you make, in a sense, is reflective of your power and experience. The distortion is that it’s not necessary the case. There are people with a lot of money and no experience and no particular expertise—they just happen to be born into a family that left them a very nice inheritance.
There are people that at one point their money did reflect their hard work and experience. So there are two ends of the spectrum which is why it’s hard to just make generalities.
Feder: Before you move on to deepening the response to that…I mentioned before the word “materialism.” Materialism briefly, in my mind, is owning things: houses, property, furniture, cars, and people amass these things; people seem to have a hunger for it. So I wanted you to include this, not just money…
The question is, is it absolutely necessary natural or inherent in human nature, as it appears to be, that people desire or want “things” to a certain greater or lesser extent. It seems like it’s something the world over in history.
Jacobson: Great questions and we should address them all. Let me take it to the next level, so to speak, and incorporate it into what I was leading up to. Don’t forget, all this leads up to how this fits in with your spiritual life, which is, the bottom line.
So money is a symbol of the self in many people’s minds. Or at least a big part of yourself. The self that contributing, that’s ambitious, that’s productive, you know, your mark in this world.
Feder: That’s the positive side.
Jacobson: How people value you for the mark that you make in this world. In that sense, money is the best symbol of materialism in general. And let me give you the “meaningful life” formula.
Feder: Like one of the health shows on the air here, right? (Laughing)
Jacobson: We’ll call it the formula for this week. If we keep doing this throughout our shows, slowly we can build up a whole series of formulas that can help people. But I actually don’t mean it so facetiously, I mean it, there are formulas, and not every one is simple, but there are formulas, and this one goes like this.
Feder: Ooh. I like that. I like that formula.
Jacobson: What I mean by that is, why does materialism divide? Because let’s define matter in most raw, scientific fashion. Matter occupies time and space. I don’t know if that’s a scientific formula but we can all agree that matter occupies time and space. Either more time or less time; more space or less space. But if it doesn’t occupy time and space we can’t call it “matter,” at least not in our world.
When something occupies time and space it immediately precludes something else occupying that same space. Two people can’t sit in the same seat. Two people can’t share the same piece of food. If they do, one is going to have less, let’s put it that way.
Feder: There’s just so much to go around.
Jacobson: Right. And by definition, material objects are either owned, or traded, or sold.
Feder: Or stolen!
Jacobson: Okay, good. Exactly. But two people can’t share the exact same thing.
Feder: I’m sorry. Also given sometimes, a gift.
Jacobson: That’s good, we’ve covered every transaction possible! So two people can’t sit in the same seat, I’ll use that as an example to drive the point home. If I want to give you my seat, I have to stand up. The same is also true conceptually. If I want to share my food with you, I have to give some of it up, I have to eat less. If I want to share money with you, I have to have less. If I give you $50 or my $100, I am $50 poorer.
That’s the world of materialism. Money is the quintessential symbol of that because it’s straight, tangible, bank accounts, you need to have the boundaries.
There are other things, like sitting in the subway and standing up for an older person. Many people do that, but they won’t part with their money. So money is powerful in the way it capture the essence of the divisiveness that results from “I’m different than you are.”
Now, spirituality, on the other hand, going to the other end of the formula, unites. The fact is, we see that people love each other. And when people love each other, they don’t see that separation. If I’m giving part of my food to my child or someone I love, I don’t see it as, “Okay, now I only have half.” What I get in return for giving it is far greater than what I would have gotten from that bite of food.
The same is true with money. If you really are a charitable, giving person—some people do count every penny they give and they give begrudgingly or for a tax write-off and they really don’t care, but there are people who are gracious. And when they give to someone, like giving to your child in a way, they don’t start counting and saying, “I’m poorer now.” I mean, there are parents who make calculations and frankly, it repulsed me when I read a study—you’ll find this funny— that adults begin to return to society their economic investment at around age 34.
Feder: What’s been invested in them?
Jacobson: Yes. How much their birth way, how much the prenatal care and the doctor care, the Pampers, the food, the milk…
Feder: This is a disgusting statistical review!
Jacobson: The hours spent, education…I’m not saying it to criticize, I’m just making a point. The point is, so let’s say the amount of two million dollars is spent until age 20. Then, at age 20, with the education and everything else we’ve gotten—there’s an investment here—you begin to learn enough (you’ve gone to school but you’re still not that experienced) so you begin to repay your school debts, college loans, and then at around age 34 or 35, in the best scenario, you begin to produce more than the two million dollars that it cost to get you here.
Feder: So it’s a person as an economic calculation and a unit…
Jacobson: But this just demonstrates how money takes over and spirit just completely is destroyed.
What about the joy and gratification, the years of hope and health, that the child brought into the parents’ life. You can’t add that into the calculation, because it’s not worth anything financially.
Feder: There’s a really silly country Western song that I play sometimes on my other program on the other station. This girl goes to her mother and she says, “I did the lawn and I did the laundry and I mowed the grass,” and she says, “and this one is 36 cents and this one is a dollar.” And the mother sings back to her, “For the nine months I carried you inside of me: no charge. For all the love I gave you: no charge.” Like she’s saying, the cost of my love is no charge. It’s corny but it’s a powerful sort of message.
Jacobson: So spirituality unites and materialism divides. Because spirituality teaches us that value is not just how much you make. Sometimes what you give is more valuable than what you take.
Feder: Can we conclude then, or should we, is it too much of a jump to say that materialism is bad and spiritualism is good?
Jacobson: No. I would never conclude that.
Feder: Well, uniting and dividing…
Jacobson: Okay. Mike, that’s great. People may think we pre-scripted this but your question is right on target and directly relevant to understanding this.
Look, this is process. It’s a process of understanding. You know, studying Torah, for me, and in general spirituality, is a journey. You learn about things in a deeper way and then you learn to apply them into your life. Your question is very legitimate. Divisiveness, unity. One is evil, one is good.
Feder: Sounds that way to me.
Jacobson: But let me add one final point regarding the spirituality and materialism. Value. What we value. Valuing spirit doesn’t just mean valuing religion. You’re talking about valuing things that are transcendent by nature, things that are not tangible. You cannot measure love, the love of a parent to a child or of two people, in dollars and cents.
But we do know this. That a person who loves another will spend millions to save that person’s life. So we see that there are times that it’s beyond money, it’s invaluable.
So we have this dichotomy in our lives. On the one hand, we clearly need money and we clearly need the materialism that divides. On the other hand, any thinking person or any person with some type of dignity or conscience knows that there’s more to life than money and materialism.
Feder: So you wouldn’t even go so far as to call it a necessary evil, materialism.
Jacobson: I wouldn’t, no. Because I come from the school of thought that G-d created materialism and put our spirits into a material world or into a material body. So there has to be a purpose for it. And once you realize the purpose, than materialism can be converted into an ally. If you don’t realize that purpose, then yes, it can be a major destructive force in our lives.
Feder: So you’re saying that it’s the same as the metaphor that people use for tools—you can pick up a screwdriver and you could fix a medicine cabinet or you can stab somebody with it…
Jacobson: Precisely. Atomic energy, technology, can be a tool to destroy and depersonalize—like they say in computers: garbage in, garbage out. Computers don’t make people wise or sensitive. Computers just speed things up.
Feder: Let me ask you this question. You know, this is all following one after another, like a tennis match that’s going on here.
You know, it occurred to me when I was thinking about this subject in advance
Jacobson: It’s like a volley that doesn’t end…
Feder: Yes, that’s our lives, right? And no one wins!
Jacobson: No. We all win.
Feder: See, that’s unity. That’s a spiritual remark.
So it occurred to me that you’re saying that materialism and spiritualism work in harmony and you have to convert one into the other. But when you look at the lives of great spiritual leaders, or great religious leaders, it’s universally understood, and it seems to be practiced by these people, that they do anything from ignore to spurn to condemn to denounce materialism.
We don’t expect, and we would denounce our religious and spiritual leaders for being rich. Now, why is that? Because I think this fits into what you are saying—almost contradicts it a little bit.
The people we hold the highest spiritually, we expect them to be the least material.
Jacobson: Questions are right on target and I appreciate the flow, the volley. So here’s my return.
Based on what I’ve said, one can argue that perhaps asceticism, or at least a limited form of asceticism is the optimum lifestyle. Because we see, if we go back to the discussion on materialism, that if materialism was simply the value of people’s worth and their life’s contributions, that’s fine. But we see what it does to people: the corruption, the jealousy, the disproportionate distribution of wealth. So it’s not so pure. So I’m intensifying the argument for materialism being an evil, and then I’ll give you my return.
Seemingly, you see that money can be a major corruptive force—like the line goes, “Everyone’s for sale”
Feder: Everyone has their price.
Jacobson: It’s just a question of what the price is, right? So seemingly, based on that, our aspiration should be the most spiritual life possible with the least amount of immersion in materialism. A very legitimate question that elaborated upon extensively in Jewish thought.
As a matter of fact, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, our forefathers in the bible, chose to be shepherds precisely for this reason. Why? Because shepherds need to make a living, to be able to provide for themselves, but they chose a livelihood which is not Wall St. They chose sheep, the most docile of all creatures, sheep graze in the meadows, while the shepherds can meditate: look at heaven, earth, nature. They’re in nature.
So they chose it not by accident, but because it was the most conducive to the most spiritual kind of life, as much as one can accomplish in the material world.
So this seems to be a great virtue: choosing a quiet, peaceful life and getting away from the corruption (sheep can never corrupt because they’re very pure and they do what they have to do all day. They’re not malicious or sly…)
Feder: I don’t think we’re reaching a lot of sheepherders in this area, so obviously you’re arriving at a better conclusion—I sense it coming…
Jacobson: So there’s virtue in that. Yet, this is what the Torah teaches. Joseph, the son of Jacob, was the first in the bible who actually went into the business world. He was an accountant. Not by his own will. After he was sold into slavery by his brothers, he ended up in Egypt and ended up as Potipher’s—as the bible says—accountant.
Then, after the dream story and all that, he ends up as the viceroy of Egypt, dealing and handling and trading in grain at the time of the famine. Now he began as a shepherd when he was young, but now he became a real businessman.
And the thinking goes, and this is a fascinating concept, that in some ways he was greater than his father, grandfather and great-grandfather, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Do you know why? Because while he was in the business world, he maintained the integrity of a spiritual person. They, in a sense, cut themselves off, escaped. And he did not compromise, even though he was there.
Feder: It sounds a little like a rationalization, so if you could hone in on that, it would be really helpful.
Jacobson: I’m going to elaborate. The reason, in Judaism, asceticism is considered completely unacceptable, is that G-d put a spirit into a body and into this material world for a purpose. And the purpose is that the soul should refine, educate and direct our material pursuits—our immersion in materialism—our money and our belongings, and sanctify them.
But that tension is relieved in three ways. One is escapism into the spiritual (going to the top of the mountain—leaving the material world), or the other extreme is indulgence (total immersion into the material world and forget about the world) and the third, which is the most difficult balance, is integration. How do you do that? By spiritualizing and sanctifying your material life, you relieve the tension between matter and spirit.
So in a sense, let’s look at the soul in the body as a teacher and a student.
Without direction, without discipline, the student can go anywhere. Same with a parent and a child. The soul is the wise one, the one with the emotions, the one that has the spiritual direction
Feder: The teacher.
Feder: So complete and utter extreme, asceticism is a total waste of a soul’s time.
Jacobson: Exactly. What’s the point of coming into this world and then cutting yourself off. It’s similar to a form of—I know this is extreme—spiritual suicide. You’ve been put here for a purpose.
Now there’s a long discussion about how the soul goes through pain when it comes into this world, because it’s leading a very pure and innocent world, and suddenly it sees this material world of objects, selfishness, it’s a completely foreign and alien environment. This is constantly given as an analogy in all the spiritual, mystical books
Feder: But it must live here.
Jacobson: It’s forced to. As a matter of fact, as the Talmud, the Mishnah, says, “Al korkach ata chai” I force you, I coerce you to come into this world and live. And we’ve used the analogy before, that the soul is like a flame, and the body is like a wick. The flame is always aspiring, always yearning to leave. It wants to go back up.
Feder: I understand that!
Jacobson: So the spirit that’s inside of us is always reaching upward. So in a sense, this paradox is necessary, that on one hand spirit should always lift, and the body is tugging downward, and the goal is that the spirit should prevail on the body, and not the body on the spirit.
Not that our spirits become slaves and servants to the body, but that the body becomes a vehicle to the soul.
Imagine the hammer tells your hand where to go. You hand has to inform the hammer where to go.
So the body, materialism is a vehicle, which has many challenges, to the extreme of corruption and everything we’ve spoken about. But the objective is for you to sanctify your material corner of this world. An example is one I used earlier when quoting the Tanya: taking your money and giving some of it to charity means that you sanctify the rest of the money that remains with you.
Feder: Let’s just take a little break to identify ourselves. You’re listening to Toward a Meaningful Life with Simon Jacobson, and I’m Mike Feder. This is WEVD 1050 AM in New York. We are here every week from 6-7pm on Sunday evening.
Rabbi Jacobson is the director of the Meaningful Life Center in Brooklyn out of which a lot of things flow, and one of the main things that we talk about, that’s a blueprint for the program is the Rabbi’s book, Toward a Meaningful Life, published by William Morrow. Virtually every subject that we cover on this show, no matter how specific, general, or newsworthy, is covered in this book.
Jacobson: As a matter of fact, the topic that we’re covering today, some of the elements of what we’re talking about today and maybe others things we haven’t covered, can be found in Toward a Meaningful Life in the chapters “Wealth and Charity,” and “Work and Productivity.”
Feder: And the book is still available in hardcover. In fact, you’re bound on a tour in the near future, right, that has to do with the book?
Jacobson: Yes, I’ll be going to Australia, down under, and bring warm regards from New York. But in addition, there are many people who read the transcripts of the radio shows in other countries as well because the web is virtually international.
Feder: Let me give you some of the ways in which you can send us questions on the various topics you are listening to, anything that you have to direct towards us. The most important thing is the telephone number: 1-800-3MEANING or 1-800-363-2646. You can also email us at email@example.com. You can always write to us at The Meaningful Life Center, 788 Eastern Parkway, Suite 303, Brooklyn, NY 11225.
I’d like to also tell you that we have a new website where you can download transcripts of this program, and previous and future programs. It’s www.meaningfullife.com.
So those are the “material” details that we want to share with you today.
Jacobson: I want to add that we encourage people to write or call us because I feel that this show is everyone’s, but just ours
Feder: And we’re interested in personal stories that people have about their lives.
Jacobson: And there aren’t that many platforms in life where you can bring your most personal, spiritual, psychological, religious issues and questions and faith. We guarantee that your questions will be respected no matter how irreverent, and addressed. One guarantee is that we will address everything in some way.
I also feel very gratified, and also very thankful to Mike, to be part of such an opportunity to be a springboard or clearinghouse for people from all backgrounds—and I appreciate all the questions, arguments, rebuttals, and debates…
Feder: So please contact us.
Let’s plunge back into money and materialism…
Jacobson: Back to money and materialism!
Feder: Where else can we go? We’re surrounded by it. This is one subject that is constant now when you pick up the newspaper. For example, the New York Times business section over the last ten years, went from being one small section in that paper, to being the largest section in the paper and it’s there every day.
Jacobson: What more do you need than the Wall St. Journal?
Feder: I was coming out of my apartment building the other day. Every week there are more Wall St. Journals sitting there waiting for tenants to pick up than any other newspaper. So this is what’s going on. In the Daily News yesterday you read, “$300 million lottery in New York.” There going to make gambling legal all over the place. Today in the New York Times, Albany legislators meet regularly, day and night, with lobbyists who give them money. I mean, virtually the entire place is corrupt.
Another article in the paper today, “Mexican Babies for Sale” on Long Island. What am I saying, I’m saying real heavily that it seems as if (Freud wrote this book, Civilization and its Discontents) he said there is a race between love and death. That’s the way he put it. It seems as if there’s always been a race between altruism, spiritualism, and materialism. And it sure looks to me like we are rapidly and badly losing this race. And maybe I don’t want to be negative, but I’m just reading—I’m just saying what I see in the papers.
What are we supposed to do about this? We’re surrounded, we’re overwhelmed with this.
Jacobson: I see it somewhat differently, but I think your view is legitimate, and I’m sure reflects that is many of our listeners, but I think it’s good to present different views. Everything can be seen in different ways, Mike. Frankly, I see it a little differently because I deal with people on the spiritual end of things and I see the hunger, the desperation of people who have succeeded in that world, and there’s a real void, almost like a childish search (childish in a good way—an innocent search) for more.
Let me just give you my thoughts on this whole thing. Based on what we discussed earlier, it’s clear that a person without spiritual values needs to have an alternative for value. So it’s a very clear proportion. If you’re not going to find value in transcendental intangibles, then what I described earlier, the way you’re going to measure your life energy, you have only money to measure it.
What I was discussing was how do you balance the two. But if a person doesn’t have the spiritual side, they only have the other side, then you’re dealing with the problems and potential problems that you’re describing.
And I must tell you, it’s not a question of you and I bemoaning all these newspaper articles, and what people will do for money—the corruption, bribery, and cheating and whatever you can get away with. I think a person who is lacking spiritual values is doing themselves the greatest disservice. They are starving the single most important resource you have. It’s like someone not taking any Vitamin A, or any iron or calcium. A part of your body must have that vitamin, that mineral, that food. Soul must have nourishment. If not, you will hear from the soul. It may take ten years, it may take twenty years. It may take ten broken relationships and three divorces and children who are completely…
Feder: or a depression or a breakdown
Jacobson: Whatever. But your soul will have its day. Not to get back at you, it’s just hungry.
Feder: It seems a truism about gamblers, talking about materialism. That people who pile up stuff or gamble, the soul has it’s way—what it does is it destroys you, so that you have to start all over again, like you’re reborn.
Jacobson: And in a way that may be the greatest gift, because sometimes people don’t change until they hit rock bottom. When you have nothing, you have nothing to lose, isn’t that what they say?
So the point being that we have to wise about it. It’s not so easy. Because when things are going well, and you’re on that high—the stock market is going up, investments look good—but when the storm hits, the trees that stand—you don’t see it when it’s tranquil weather, you see it when the storm hits, when there’s trauma or loss, when problems set in…
Now I want to bless everyone listening to us and everyone in this world that they shouldn’t have any problems, and no traumas, but life is life. And how you plant your roots before the storms strike, that’s how your tree will stand.
This isn’t a threat and this isn’t some type of guilt trip…
Feder: It’s just the way it is.
Jacobson: Right, and also, what we can do for ourselves. So there are two extremes here. I was talking about no asceticism; where you have to recognize the need for the material and the need to sanctify it.
Because remember, we could look at it the other way also. If a soul separates itself from the body as much as possible, the body will come back to haunt the soul. I have my needs, too. Not necessarily unhealthy needs. Because the soul does function with the body as partners in this world.
Feder: One reason I mention all of these things that we’re surrounded with here—when you walk through the city, you’re surrounded by so much of this that it’s an imbalance. You’re talking about shepherds off in the hills, and you can’t just separate yourself and be a total ascetic, and yet, what I’m talking about is a gross imbalance of materialism from day to night in the city.
So my earlier question is, how do you walk through the “valley of the shadow” of materialism? How do you walk through it and find even a space inside or outside to deal with what bombards you at every moment?
Jacobson: Good question. I was speaking about someone who is gravitating toward a spiritual life and denying the body. So there, the Baal Shem Tov teaches—a very fundamental idea in Jewish thought—when you see the burden of materialism, and you may receive it as your enemy, you are commanded to go an assist it, but not deprive yourself. You must use materialism as a catalyst for spiritual growth and not experience separation or asceticism or escapism. You have to elevate the material.
That’s one side of it.
Now the other side, which of course is much more prevalent and much more problematic: The immersion in materialism, the constant bombardment and exposure, simply because of all of our needs, and also due to the fact of a lack of spiritual education where you’re very grounded.
I once heard an analogy for this. You make a circle, and how do you make a circle on a piece of paper. You take a compass, you stick a needle into the paper, and you steadily go around. What happens if that needle is not steady? Or you don’t have a center that’s steady? Jagged, broken. It may never end up being a circle. It may end up being a square. That spiritual center is your spiritual values. Your mission statement. Your focus. Your higher vision.
Materialism is the circle. You need it, but it needs to be grounded. And if you don’t have the proper spiritual grounding, it will be everywhere. So you may make millions of dollars, but you’ll have no focus, no direction.
So the question is a very good and legitimate one… and here’s the other extreme. Let’s use Noah, from the bible, as an example.
Noah was living in a very corrupt time, and money was part of that corruption as well, as it always is. If there’s corruption, there’s always some money around.
What did Balzac say? That behind every great fortune, there’s a great crime?
Feder: Absolutely. That’s what Mario Puzo used to begin the “Godfather” off.
Jacobson: So Noah is relatively a righteous person in that generation and G-d says, “Build an ark.” The ark is symbolic, not just of protecting himself against the floodwaters, it’s also insulating himself from materialism. Because the floodwaters are a symbol of the raging waters of the material world.
Feder: And what happens when it gets unleashed and goes too far unchecked.
Jacobson: Unchecked it floods you. You’re totally underneath it. And before you realize it, you’re drowning and you become like all the other sharks…no pun intended…sharks under the water.
And you started out very idealistically, but suddenly, you’re there. You know, people in middle age, they suddenly grow up and realize that. They wake up one day. Middle age is getting younger and younger as we know.
So Noah builds an ark. And there is an interesting thing. Do you know what the ark is called in the bible? There are many words in Hebrew it could be called. The ark is called “teva.” Teva in Hebrew also means “words.” G-d says, you protect yourself from the floodwaters, you create for yourself a spiritual oasis with words, with holy words—words of prayer, words of study, Divine words. I’m not saying you should G-d forbid commit suicide, don’t go to heaven, don’t go up to a mountain. You stay in that world, but build yourself an ark, and that ark will float on the material world, will float on the raging waters.
The ark, the teva, is representative of the words of Torah and prayer. Words. Now words, Mike, in this sense means knowledge. Spiritual words. Obviously not Wall St. Journal words about the Dow Jones Industrial, because then you’re back to the water.
Feder: Talk is cheap!
Jacobson: I think the Wall St. Journal has a line that goes, “Money talks, we translate.” But to go back to Noah, so he builds an ark that is symbolic of our selves. Do you know how you sanctify the material world? You must create an oasis. You must have some time off. Every day some study, every day some prayer. Even ten or fifteen minutes. As a matter of fact, in the middle of the day, at lunch hour, do something of that nature. That creates a little ark.
We’re not discussing escaping, because escaping is usually a sign of desperation. It’s not working so you just run for your life. But here we’re talking about a balance. That oasis becomes your ark. And when you re-enter the material world, here’s what happens. Noah doesn’t want to leave the ark after 40 days and 40 nights. He says, “It’s very peaceful here. I like this synagogue. I like this campus, oasis, this womb.” And G-d has to command him by saying, “Tzai min hateva,” “Leave the words, leave the ark.” Not never to return. But I don’t want you here all the time. Now the water has subsided. You go back out, and you bring what you learned inside here and you bring it out there. Because you have the power.
You see, here’s a very crucial point. If materialism is a challenge for spirituality, to the point that you need to escape, then materialism wins, even if you escape.
Feder: It drove you too far.
Jacobson: Right. It means the spirit really can’t withstand the power of materialism. G-d says the materialism is not inherently evil.
Jacobson: And it’s up to you to tap it. And you can elevate it. And this goes down to the principle which really requires more of a theology course, that G-d is neither spirit nor matter. And when you reach a place of true transcendence, G-d is not more soul than He is body, and He is not more body than He is soul.
There’s a place that’s beyond both, and can therefore integrate both. That’s enough…suffice it to say, if people want more information, they’ll write and they’ll ask, and we’ll talk about it on other shows.
So the key here is to have this balance. You must create a womb, an ark, words that create that type of insulation. But at the same time, you need to know when to go back out and keep the dance going.
Feder: If you are blessed with a lot of material goods, if you have a lot of money, do you have a moral responsibility to be giving it to charity? Let me go even further than that and ask my question in a more specific way.
Somebody has a lot of money, take Bill Gates as an extreme example, the guy has 80 billion dollars. Would you say that people have not only a moral, but perhaps there should even be a legal requirement that a huge portion of what people make, if they make a lot, has to be given to people who have little? I mean, in America there’s no absolute force that makes you do that.
It seems to me there almost should be.
Jacobson: In my chapter on “Charity and Wealth,” I cite Torah sources that say that it is incumbent upon a person, according to Jewish law, to tithe; to give a tenth of one’s earnings to charity. Some go beyond that and give a fifth, which is 20%. When it comes to real spiritual yearning, you can give even more than that. So there is a law of that nature.
Whether the government should impose such a law, then you’re getting into an area that is…
Feder: Well, then you’re talking about capitalism vs. socialism in a way, right?
Jacobson: Yes. Instead of taxes, charity, which in a sense is why there are tax deductions. If you would know the elaborate schemes possible to save on your taxes through charity, I find it, in a way, very admirable of the founding fathers—not of the people giving (it’s an incentive for them…why give it to the government?)—who were basically saying, if you’re giving it to a good cause, you don’t have to give it to us.
That is, I believe, a very noble part of this country. That the government said that; you know, instead of paying us, pay a hospital, give it to a school.
And hospitals, and universities, schools and libraries have benefited from this. So bottom line, with charity, it doesn’t really matter what the intention or incentive was of the giver. Things have been built, poor people have been helped.
Now obviously the sky’s the limit and there’s always more, and I know people who would give even if there was no tax deduction.
Feder: President Reagen had this thing once called the “trickle-down” theory, which was just a rich man’s excuse that people would get little scraps maybe after the rich people got through having what they have.
It seems to me that if you look at the history of the 20th century in this country, Roosevelt and that whole revolution when he came in after the Depression, it was all based on the fact that unfortunately there are people who will not give what they should give, and they will cheat the government. If we’re all paying taxes, and we’re paying as much as we should be, shouldn’t there be a requirement that we should be forced to support people (in a way we do, almost, as if we were in Roosevelt’s era)? I mean, our taxes do go for welfare and things like that—that’s forced charity in a way.
Jacobson: This is complicated because, on the other hand, there’s also government subsidies, the government supports many charitable works. I would generally say that the United States, overall, is a very charitable country.
Feder: Compared to some others…
Jacobson: But also compared to history. The amount that they have given for foreign aid and the help of many countries—I’m not saying that everything is great here, everything can always be better—but I don’t know the amounts of money…how much money is given for hunger, for helping other nations: billions and billions of dollars? You read about it. Where’s that money coming from? Ultimately it’s coming from the taxpayers.
So in a way, whether we like it or not, Americans are paying for governments and often completely ballooned expenses which are not monitored properly, but part of that money is clearly going toward humanitarian causes. Of course there’s abuse and corruption, I’m sure, on the individual level. But the individual thrust is, I think, quite admirable.
I don’t know if the Roman Empire was doing that, or the Spanish Empire…
Feder: But what you’ve been saying today is that you’re appealing—and that’s why this radio program is here—you’re appealing directly to people to take responsibility in their own lives for their own feelings about this…not to rely on governments and institutions to do what’s correct.
Jacobson: No of course, obviously. Personal virtue and personal giving is critical. You just mentioned it and I just wanted to throw it into the pot that interestingly, that’s an element that’s very uplifting because it is some type of collective consciousness going on here. It didn’t have to be that way.
The people in this country could have voted in a government that says, we don’t want to do that. Those millions going out there, we want it back into our pockets. So there’s something to be said about it, it involves more of a discussion.
Feder: It didn’t have to be done. In other words, it’s almost like collective altruism.
Jacobson: Yes. Collected altruism, also forced. You know, it’s like saying, despite our selfish nature, this is the way we want this country to run.
Feder: You know, we only have a few minutes left and I wanted to repeat once again that you are listening to WEVD and the program is Toward a Meaningful Life with Simon Jacobson. This is Mike Feder. We are here every Sunday night from 6-7 pm and tonight’s program is underwritten—most charitably underwritten I should say—by Mr. Robert Klein and we thank him very much. And this is bringing goodness and spirituality to other people.
Jacobson: And if you know Robert, you know that he’s a model, a paragon, of virtue and kindness and selflessly gives, and may he be blessed with much materialism.
Feder: So that he can give more charity!
Jacobson: Right. That G-d gives you materialism in order that you can make the material matter into spirit.
Feder: After my father died, people leave things when they die, they leave material objects, it could be a pocket knife, it could be a farm, a piece of furniture. You must have seen this in your own life, that people will get into violent arguments that could last years over the objects that people leave behind.
It just fascinates me. I’m not sure that there’s a question, but it’s a comment that you’ve seen before that objects and materialism become infused with the personality and the memory and the very essence of the person who is no longer around.
Jacobson: That’s an interesting factor as well. If it’s a relic, or an object that reminds us of something beautiful, of some powerful connection, and makes us better people, then great. But if it’s an object that divides us, and creates discord and hate among families, then what are you saying. That a great, beautiful object that my father or mother owned, that brought so much beauty and unity into our home, is becoming a force of disunity, then I wonder whether it’s the object or the person.
Feder: They could leave a treasured bible behind.
Jacobson: Exactly. And if that creates discord, then what’s happening is, you’re using a healthy item and you’re contaminating it with your selfishness. I don’t mean you, Mike, I mean any person. And rather, I think the attachment to material objects is not necessarily driven by altruistic or beautiful causes, it’s because “I want it. And I don’t want you to have it.”
And sometimes “I’d rather that if I don’t have it, you won’t have it, no one will have it.”
Feder: So in our last two minutes. People are going to be waking up tomorrow morning and they’re going to be going to bed tonight. In the next 24 hours, what would you tell people that they can do in terms with dealing with this materialistic world we’re wallowing in…
Jacobson: Wallowing is a good word, because that’s the story I want to tell. There was a student who was a great student of one of the Chassidic Rebbes, and then he got married and went into business. The business he went into was galoshes manufacturing.
And in those days, in the shtetl, he made a killing, because the streets are unpaved, and galoshes saved many shoes. He became very wealthy as his business grew and he diversified, and only became more wealthy.
Years later he came back to the great Rebbe, and his Rebbe looked at him and saw immediately where his head was. You know, this was a great student, who had once been a scholar, who had spiritual values and ideals.
And he smiled at his student and he said, “You know, I’ve seen feet in galoshes, but I’ve never seen a head in galoshes.”
In other words, his head was completely immersed in the galoshes; in more than one way.
So we have to look at ourselves the same way. Many people put their heads into their galoshes. You have to put your feet in galoshes. Not to live with asceticism. You need to be grounded. You need to make a living, and may G-d bless everyone with a lot of wealth, a lot of materialism.
But never forget where your head belongs. It belongs in a higher place.
And you do that through designating some time every day—even if it’s just 15 minutes —to study, in the afternoon, lunch hour.