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Staying Afloat

Ha'azinu (Deuteronomy 32 )

by Rabbi Shaul Rosenblatt

This week's portion says that the Jewish people "became fat and kicked out" - i.e. rebelled against God.

It is symptomatic of human nature that when things go well for us, we lose perspective on God. There may be no atheists in a fox hole, but there are plenty on luxury yachts. Or to employ a different metaphor, bear markets are almost invariably better for us spiritually than bull markets. Material success and spirituality are a very difficult combination. And that's a shame, because there is no technical reason why the two can't go together.

Even for the greatest of people, we find that success has so often been their downfall. Look at someone like my namesake, King Shaul. He was the most humble and pious of all men - until he became king. Or Korach, who the Oral Tradition explains had potential to be greater than Moses; he was undone by his wealth. Even King Solomon, the wisest of all men, struggled to maintain perspective on his success.

And look at the Jewish people throughout history. The times we have flourished spiritually have been times of persecution - be it the great Rabbis of the Roman era, the incredible creativity that came from Medieval Jewry in Western Europe, or during the pogroms and expulsions of Eastern Europe. On the other hand, times of wealth and success for the Jewish people have been times during which we have assimilated - be it the Golden Age in Spain, Western Europe at the beginning of the 20th century, or even our own generation.

Why does success lead us to "kick out"? Because the more we achieve, the less we feel the need for God in our lives. If I have a big house to keep me warm, food in the fridge to feed my family, money in the bank for my security, and good doctors and hospitals to keep me healthy, so where is the need for God? It's just so easy to send Him trudging off to the join the ranks of the unemployed - ready to be swiftly recalled when the banking system fails or a child is sick and the doctors say there's nothing they can do.

God wants to be a part of our lives, so there are really only two ways this can go. Either we strive to remember the source of our success when it happens - and strive really hard, because it's so unnatural for us to see God as its source. Or, if we only call God back when there is a crisis, then maybe there will need to be more crises. And that's exactly what the Torah says next: "I shall gather evil against them, I shall use up all my arrows on them, etc..."

So what's the solution? If we want our success to be lasting, we need only to be grateful. Gratitude protects what we have. The more we enjoy, the more we appreciate, the more we are thankful, the more likely we are to hold onto the blessings we've been granted. In other words, if you invite God onto your luxury yacht, it's far more likely to stay afloat.

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