> Holidays > Sukkot > Themes & Insights

Your Money or Your Life

May 9, 2009 | by Rabbi Benjamin Blech

As a generation blessed with abundant wealth, Sukkot ensures that we keep our priorities straight.

Trivia experts recognize it immediately as the line that resulted in the longest recorded laugh in radio history. Jews understand it as the underlying theme of Sukkot, the ancient festival of the harvest.

"Your money or your life" was the choice given to Jack Benny, famous for playing the role of a miserly character on his then nationally famous show, by a mugger who accosted him. When Benny didn't respond, the mugger repeated his question. After a long silence followed by a third demand for an answer, Benny replied, "I'm thinking, I'm thinking" – and the studio audience exploded with lengthy laughter that has not had a parallel since.

How humorous to imagine that anyone can actually require time to consider which one – money or life – is the more appropriate response.

And how tragic to realize that all too many people, when confronted with the very same decision, make the wrong choice and pick money over everything else that gives real meaning to their lives.

On the simplest level, the irony of life is that in our youth we give up our health for the sake of wealth so that in our old age we can use our wealth to try to recapture our health.

But the reality is even more heartbreaking. God, in His infinite goodness, grants us days in which we can grow spiritually, help to perfect the world, make our lives filled with meaning and purpose so that we gain a measure of immortality from our limited stay on earth. And how do we opt to spend our time? By chasing after the illusion of success that we mistakenly confuse with the accumulation of material goods, as if the slogan of the Seventies that "He who dies with the most toys wins" was sacred truth instead of sarcasm.

We leave our comfortable attachment to "stuff," in exchange for closeness with God's ultimate security.

In Biblical times, there was one season that permitted farmers to feel themselves wealthy. Harvest time was when the granaries were full, tables were laden, food was abundant. Perhaps precisely then, Jews might mistake their money for their life. So that is when God decreed that we observe the holiday of Sukkot, to leave the comfort of our homes, the luxury of our dwellings, the attachment to our "stuff" and our "things" in order to exchange them for the closeness with our family and the nearness to the Almighty under whose heavens we find the ultimate security and meaning for our lives.

That is why Sukkot is the holiday that speaks most powerfully to our generation. We, as perhaps never before in history, are blessed with an abundant harvest of material advantage. And we need to reflect on how we have skewed our priorities.

Just a few weeks ago Fortune Magazine came out with their annual listing of the world's wealthiest people. Although Microsoft's Bill Gates still heads the list, the Waltons comprise the richest family on earth. How instructive, then, to learn what the last words of the founder of Walmart, the legendary Sam Walton, were as he knew he was approaching his end. As he was lying on his deathbed, he struggled to get out his last three words on earth. He had given his life for his business. In that area, he succeeded beyond anyone's wildest dreams. Yet, it was at a price. He hardly spent any time with his wife, his children, and his grandchildren. He didn't allow himself the moments of loving interaction, of cuddling a grandchild on his lap, of playing and laughing and rejoicing with his loved ones. His final three words? "I blew it!" He had the billions, but by his own admission he failed.

Of course Einstein was smarter. "Try not," he said, "to become a man of success. Try rather to become a person of values." And that, even for Einstein, wasn't relative – but an absolute truth that in all probability he absorbed from his Judaic heritage.

The Mexican Fisherman and Us

Sukkot wants us to understand the message that is so powerfully summed up in the story of the Mexican fisherman. Listen to this story and see if it relates at all to you.

An American investment banker was at the pier of a small coastal Mexican village when a small boat with just one fisherman docked. Inside the small boat were several large yellow-finned tuna. The banker complimented the Mexican on the quality of his fish and asked how long it took to catch them.

The Mexican replied, "Only a little while."

The banker then asked why he didn't stay out longer and catch more fish. The Mexican said he had enough to support his family's immediate needs.

The banker was puzzled and then asked, "But what do you do with the rest of your time?"

The Mexican fisherman said, "I sleep late, swim a little, play with my children, take a siesta with my wife Maria, stroll into the village each evening where I sip wine and play guitar with my amigos. I have a full and busy life, Senor."

The banker scoffed, "I am a Harvard MBA and could help you. You should spend more time fishing and with the proceeds buy a bigger boat. With the proceeds from the bigger boat you could buy several boats. Eventually you'll have a fleet of fishing boats. Instead of selling your catch to a middle man, you would sell directly to the processor, eventually opening your own cannery. You would control the product, processing and distribution. You would need to leave this small coastal fishing village and move to Mexico City, then Los Angeles, and eventually to New York City where you will run your expanding enterprise."

The Mexican fisherman asked, "But, Senor, how long will this all take?"

To which the banker replied, "Five to ten years."

"But what then, Senor?"

The banker laughed and said, "That's the best part. When the time is right, you would announce an IPO and sell your company's stock to the public and become very rich. You would be worth millions!"

"Millions, Senor? Then what?"

The banker said, "Then you would retire, move to a small coastal fishing village, take siesta with your wife, play with your kids, stroll to the village in the evenings where you would sip wine and play your guitar with your amigos."

Yes, then, after wasting your years in the pursuit of money you might finally realize those very dreams that could have been yours without it!

So on this Sukkot, the Festival of the Harvest, perhaps we can gain the wisdom of Solomon who said it all in his book Ecclesiastes that we read on this holiday: Vanity of vanities, all is vanity... The end of the matter, when all is heard: Fear the Lord and His commandments observe.

It's no wonder that the holiday when we leave our homes and our attachment to the material to sit with our loved ones under the heavens is called "Zman Simchateinu – the Season of our Rejoicing."


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