Today is Black Friday, the one-day shopping binge that introduces the holiday shopping season. It is the day that American retailers count on to put their balance sheets "into the black." It marks the beginning of a month of American conspicuous consumption when advertisements and low sale prices are designed to lure buyers into spending more than they can afford. It is the season of our affluence.
Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan, the 19th and 20th century rabbinic scholar known as the Chofetz Chaim, taught that Torah demands that a Jew take the "Middle Way" with regard to wealth—a path that allows one to enjoy it without becoming consumed by it. In his work, S'fat Tamim (chapter 5), he writes:
Given the uncertainty of our times, a person, especially one who is wealthy, should remember to seek the middle way regarding personal spending habits. Even if God has given you great wealth, you should not adorn yourself with ostentatious finery. To do so would damage your soul by enticing you into arrogance and energizing your dark desires. Also, it would incite jealousy in those who are less fortunate.
Today's North American Jewish community is the wealthiest and most prosperous Jewish community in all of our people's history. We are, in fact, among the most affluent ethnic groups in the most affluent civilization the world has ever known. While not every Jew is rich (and we should remind others and ourselves of this regularly), we have, as a people, succeeded through the application of our ambition, ingenuity, intelligence and hard work. There is cause for us to congratulate ourselves.
Yet, there is also a danger that goes with our wealth. We are in danger of falling into the trap described in the book of Deuteronomy, which warns:
When you have eaten your fill, and have built fine houses to live in, and your herds and flocks have multiplied, and your silver and gold have increased, and everything you owned has prospered, beware against your heart growing haughty and against forgetting Adonai your God…You may say to yourselves, "My own power and the might of my own hand have won this wealth for me." Remember that it was Adonai your God who gives you the power to get wealth… (Deuteronomy 8:12-18)
If we become convinced that we deserve the wealth we enjoy, and if we begin to regard ourselves to be superior to those who do not enjoy the comforts we have, we will have committed the sin of idolatry, in which we make ourselves the objects of our veneration. To avoid that self-destructive tendency, our tradition teaches us to follow a different way, a middle way.
The middle way means that we should take pleasure in the pleasures that life offers, but not to allow them to blind us to the needs of others. The middle way teaches us to find comfort in life, but not to indulge in our comfort to the point that we believe it to be our right and due. The middle way teaches us to give our children the things that will give them the security they need to grow into healthy adults and the tools they need to be successful themselves, but not to poison their souls with the belief that they are entitled to every luxury.
As we enter into our society's season of ostentation, take some time to think about the way you treat yourself, the way that you show gratitude, and the way you acknowledge the true source of your life's gifts. Find the middle way that guides yourself and your family to real happiness and fulfillment.
Other Posts on This Topic:
Naso: Two Ways of Seeking God's Face
Toledot: Wealth and Happiness