May 9, 2009

12 min read


Our obsession for acquiring wealth has far less to do with our personal wants than with our refusal to have less than others.

After retiring in his mid-60s, Rabbi Benjamin Blech, a congregational rabbi and Professor at Yeshiva University, rode the roller coaster of wealth to the top and then hopelessly and frighteningly careened to the bottom.

It was the booming last years of the last century and nothing ever went wrong. Penny stocks ran up to hundred dollar valuations. Venture capital investments made him a millionaire several times over. The Internet and dot-com purchases brought him wealth beyond his wildest dreams. It wasn’t difficult for him to plan what he would do with this unexpected blessing. He would give lots to charity, take exciting trips, support his children and grandchildren, and secure the future of his entire family.

But far more quickly than the money came, it all disappeared.

The following is an exclusive excerpt from Rabbi Blech's new book, Taking Stock, which is the result of his personal odyssey. It is a book of guidance for those who have suffered financial loss and are seeking to find the way back to peace of mind and personal well-being.

The Ten Commandments summarize the most important teachings of the entire Torah. The Torah tells us that these commandments were given on two tablets, five laws on one and five on the other. The reason? They deal with two different categories of religious concern. The first five teach us about our responsibilities to God. The last five summarize our obligations with respect to our fellow human beings.

The latter begin with three warnings that encompass very serious transgressions: You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal. Following these, expressing yet a higher level of moral responsibility, comes the next commandment, "You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor," teaching us that we can even be guilty for sinful speech.

"Every time a friend succeeds, I die a little." -- Gore Vidal

It is the last commandment, though, that commentators explain is meant to bring us to the highest level of holiness. It demands not only that we control our actions and our speech, but even our thoughts. It addresses a universal human failing and obviously believes that we can overcome it: "You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his donkey, nor anything that is your neighbor’s."

These five major laws of interpersonal relationships follow an obvious and logical sequence. They’re clearly listed in ascending order of difficulty. Not to murder? Pretty easy. Adultery? Well, I’ll have to try hard. Not to steal anything, even some paper clips at the office? Very difficult. I can’t even share some juicy gossip just because it may not be totally true? You’ve got to be kidding. And you want me not to covet my neighbor’s house or his car? Now that’s really stretching it, isn’t it?

These laws, just like physical exercises, move to ever more complicated levels. That’s a good reason why they follow one after the other.

But scholars suggest another way of looking at the sequence of these commandments. Appearing on the second tablet, laws six through ten can be understood as teaching a profound idea if we study them in reverse order, from bottom to top.

To make it clearer, let’s list commandments six through ten:
6. You shall not murder.
7. You shall not commit adultery.
8. You shall not steal.
9. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
10. You shall not covet....

Looking at them from bottom up, what the Torah is teaching us in a very insightful way is how to understand the root cause of evil. How is it possible for someone to murder a fellow human being? How is it possible to justify unfaithfulness to oneself and to sleep with another’s mate?

The sequence of the commandments tells us how to get to the bottom of these seemingly incomprehensible actions. Just like the foundation of a house is at the bottom, so too is the cause of crimes against others in the list of the Ten Commandments. The root of a tree is responsible for everything that goes on above it. So, too, the "root cause" of all major sins is coveting.

Coveting is the root cause of major transgressions.

You tell yourself that you deserve it more than your neighbor. Envy motivates you to try to get what you want by bearing false witness in court. If that doesn’t work, you allow yourself to steal. If the object of your desire is your neighbor’s wife, your coveting leads to adultery. And if none of these prove possible, then the only solution for your insatiable lust is to murder.

That's why coveting concludes the Decalogue. It is both the end as well as the beginning. It is the most demanding commandment, and it concludes the list of all others because it is the key to their violation, the "foundation" of motive that can even lead to murder.

Keeping Up With The Joneses

To understand why the Dow Jones is so important to us, we have to realize its relationship to the American ideal of "keeping up with the Joneses." Our obsession for acquiring wealth has far less to do with our personal wants than with our refusal to have less than others.
That's why there is a multibillion-dollar industry in the world today whose purpose is the systematic propagation of envy, the acceptance of the new tenth commandment, which now reads, "You shall covet." The name of the industry is advertising. Its goal, as frankly admitted by B. Earl Puckett, President of Allied Stores Corporation, is this: "It is our job to make men and woman unhappy with what they have."

"I Have To Have It -- Or I'll Die"

Every few months, fashions change. What is "in" one month is "out" the other. One week you’re an outcast if you’re not wearing a certain kind of sneakers. The next week, you’re out of date and a geek if you haven’t switched to another brand. Why must you constantly have something else? Because big business needs consumers. So consumers have to be taught what they need rather than have their real needs met.

There’s no big secret which emotion Madison Avenue wants to appeal to most. Gucci was brave enough to admit it when it called a new perfume it was trying to popularize "Envy." Remarkable, isn’t it, that what the Torah has identified as the basic cause of human suffering -- the sin of envy -- has become the very feeling the age of advertising wants us to strongly embrace.

How many times a day are we told not to be happy with what we have because others have more? Thomas Clapp Patton, in his book Envy Politics, gives us the staggering figure that Americans are exposed to about 3,000 ads a day. Seventy to 90% of big-city newspapers are ads rather than news. The subliminal message is always the same: Whether you really need it or not, don’t be without what other people have.

That’s the real meaning of the common expression often heard from shopping fanatics. "If I don’t get it, I’ll die." How can the word "die" be applied to the lack of a material object? Only because if someone else can afford it and I can’t, that makes me a "nothing." And a "nothing" is as good as dead.

How Much Is Enough?

If the desire for something is based on need, then fulfillment brings contentment. If the goal, however, is to overcome the need to covet the acquisitions of others, then we are doomed to disappointment and to ever-greater dissatisfaction. There’s always somebody who has a little bit more -- enough at least to stir up within us sufficient envy to prevent us from being content with what is ours.

"See these young guys worth three billion to four billion and you think to yourself, what have I done wrong?"

The New York Times carried an interview with a man named Nelson Peltz. Investing in troubled companies in the 1980s, he appeared on the Forbes list of the richest executives for almost a decade. His net worth is now estimated at 890 million dollars. But listen to what he says in the interview: "I’m like old money these days. See these young guys worth three billion to four billion and you think to yourself, what have I done wrong?"

Never mind that Nelson Peltz will never be able to spend all of the money he has. There are people ahead of him in the race for wealth, so envy makes him a loser in his own mind.

Envy Addiction

If you need any more powerful proof of coveting irrationally controlling people, consider the countless cases of individuals addicted to the Home Shopping Network or to E-Bay. They readily admit they can’t control themselves from buying things they don’t need and don’t have the money for. These are people who no longer have space in their home to store all of what they buy. They don’t even have the time to open the boxes or unwrap them. They have to rent storage lockers for their purchases. Yet they continue buying and buying. What is involved in their own minds is their mistaken definition of self-worth. It’s as if our subconscious is telling us, "Damn the cost. Let other people know I’m as good as they are."

"Envy addicts" make sure to pass on their sickness to the next generation. From The Wall Street Journal, a huge headline blares forth the news that "Italian Firm Fashions a Look Tailor-Made For Indulgent Parents." The ad proceeds to tell us that a company named Pinco sells a line of children’s clothes that’s catching on like wildfire in America. Dresses for six-year-olds costing over $600 with $200 handbags to match hardly stay on the racks for a full day. Pinco makes clear who their target audience is: "For mothers who regard their children as fashion accessories." No, they’re not just kids with their own identities. They’re reflections of our status, our worth, and how much we can afford to be like the people whose lives we covet.

We’ve created a climate where an anonymous author on the Internet wrote that if King David were writing his 23rd Psalm today, it would more probably read like this:

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.

He leadeth me to Neiman Marcus

He giveth me energy for shopping

He restoreth my checkbook

He teacheth me to make restaurant reservations

He leadeth me past K-Mart for mine own sake

Yea, though I walk by Target

I shall not go in, for Thou art with me.

Thy fashionable clothes, they comfort me

Thou preparest diamond jewelry for me in the presence of mine enemies

Thou anointest my face with Chanel cosmetics

My cup overflows

Surely designer clothes shall follow me to the end of my days

And I will walk on Rodeo Drive forever.


The Poor Professor

He is a dear friend of mine. To maintain his privacy, I’ll call him Harry. As a college professor who recently received tenure, he makes an adequate salary, his articles have been published in a number of prestigious journals, and his life is intellectually rewarding and stimulating. He has a happy marriage, three wonderful children, and a very suitable middle-class home.

It is now 20 years after his high school graduation and he is invited to a class reunion. He decides to attend and to find out what happened to his old classmates. As he meets his old friends, he finds that he is not the most successful of his class. Some have more money than he does, even though he knows he was brighter than they were. Others have wives who seem to be more sophisticated and more beautiful than his. When they talk about their children, some are the parents of youngsters with more accomplishments than his. As he leaves, he notices how many others have better, more expensive cars.

So you lost a fortune. Are you really grieving about what you no longer have or what other people still do?

He returns home that evening with a gnawing feeling of pain inside of him that he cannot really explain. He was so happy with his life when he left the house to go to the reunion. Now he is consumed with envy. He is dissatisfied with his job, his home, his wife, his life. And what has really changed? Not one single aspect of his reality! But he is no longer content because he has violated the Tenth Commandment. Coveting is a sickness of the soul that brings with it automatic consequences of pain, bitterness and frustration.

What Are You Really Most Upset About?

Let's say you lost a lot of money. You lost your job. Your retirement fund went from a 401(k) to a 201(k). Are you really grieving about what you no longer have or what other people still do? Is it because you don’t have enough for your need or for your greed? If there were no one else to compare yourself to, would you still feel so depressed? How much of what you’re feeling isn’t the result of enormous financial decline as much as uncontrollable envy of other people who escaped the effects of the stock market crash?

Some people aren’t happy, goes a famous Yiddish proverb, unless others suffer from greater misfortunes. Be honest with yourself as to what’s really troubling you. If your prime problem is envy, heed the advice of Claudian, the fourth-century Latin poet: "He who covets is always poor."

Click here to purchase your copy of Rabbi Blech's new book, Taking Stock.

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