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The Robot Within

May 8, 2009 | by Rabbi Yaakov Salomon

One small blessing in the economic downturn.

I know nothing about economics.

I couldn't tell you why a stock goes up, or down, or sideways.

But what strikes me as most astonishing in this financial tsunami is that everyone seems to be as unenlightened as I am. No one is able to explain how we got into this mess or, more importantly, how to get out of it. Even Alan Greenspan surfaced before Congress and left with egg on his face.

So we are each left to our own lonely devices, interpretations, and solutions. I do not pretend to have it all figured it. But I will share my personal tidbit of illumination. Who knows? Maybe it can help.

My Shop-Rite Epiphany

I was driving to the supermarket. It wasn't going to be one of those "fill up the trunk" excursions at the Mega Market; it was just a quick grab of some "essentials" at the local Mom 'n Pop store. But for some reason, I made a left rather than a right, and I ended up in front of Shop-Rite.

It was clear that God had guided me there because I found a parking space with a broken meter right in front of the store.

It was clear that God had guided me there because I found a parking space with a broken meter right in front of the store. In New York this never happens. It had been quite a while since I had visited this place. You know how it works. Your life gets so busy and frazzled, always on the run, that you never "have time" to go the extra three minutes to the BIG store, with the BIG lines (and the lower prices). Instead, you pay through the roof, go home and complain.

I grabbed a wagon and began my journey. Whole wheat bread (the only brand we like) was on sale -- two for $5. I snatched four big loaves. We needed tissues real badly. There must have 428 different brands, sizes, colors, strengths, and box designs. At first I got dizzy, so I just reached over to our usual, trusty, pricey variety and tossed two boxes in the wagon. But I soon recovered and began examining the "off' brands. You know what? They didn't seem half bad. No, there was no aloe, but they were half the price! I breathed deeply, checked around me for friends and neighbors and threw a few into the wagon. Nobody died.

A strange glow came over me as I approached the garbage bag and aluminum foil division. A distinct lilt could be detected in my step. Soon the tissues had friendly associates. Baggies of every size we needed rattled the metal wagon walls. You guessed it -- half price -- some of them LESS than half price.

Now I was flying. Dishwasher detergent, Diet Snapple (my favorite flavor...$5 off!), pasta, marinara sauce, fancy chips -- a dollar less than the regular Wise brand, farina, solid white tuna, fake Honey Combs cereal (can't tell the difference), jam, and even shampoo (price too low to reveal).

Whew! In a matter of 35 minutes, I had bolted from the shackles of unconscious, convenience shopping to a new world of intelligent and prudent savings.

But no sooner than I could say, "Gimme those cheap fries," the ultimate test arrived -- mustard. The friendly yellow bottles, with the cheery French's and Gulden's greetings were calling out to me. I could actually hear them.

"Yaakov, be reasonable. We're only a dollar more!"

"Don't fool around with mustard. You'll ruin the pastrami!"

"Yaakov, don't forget your old friends!"

They had made a point. Mustard is a cheap item. The savings wasn't more than a dollar. It's probably not worth it.

I paused and considered the options. I held the French's in one hand and the
cut-rate, bargain variety in the other. This is getting silly, I thought. It's not even worth the time.

I took one last look and gently returned the French's back to its home on the shelf. And there, in my chariot of parsimony, sitting proud and tall on top of my ever-thrifty shampoo, was my soon-to-be acquired, understated, inferiorly designed, poverty-laden 16 oz. Shop-Rite mustard!

Free Will Connoisseur

Could buying off-brand merchandise and foodstuffs be the solution to the financial meltdown? Of course not. This voyage carried with it a far weightier message than that.

It seems to me that so much of what we do is habitual and robotic. We get so used to doing things the way we always have that we forget that life is all about choices.

  • Stain on the suit? Send it to the cleaners.
  • Child misbehaves? Yell at him.
  • Marital problems? File for divorce.
  • Nothing to do? Turn on the TV.
  • Need mustard? Get the French's

Believe me; I have nothing against French's mustard. By all means, buy it if you wish.

And I am not suggesting that stained suits shouldn't end up at the cleaners, or that no one should watch TV.

But that day in Shop-Rite, I was reminded of something simple, yet so fundamental. When God gave us free will -- Mankind's crowning gift -- He meant for us to use it. We probably make thousands of decisions every day. Most of them are simple and really require no more than a split second response; but not all of them. Some of them (and mustard is not one of them) call for informed, if not lengthy, and serious consideration.

Genuine free will is essential to our existence. The fact is that every moment we're alive we're challenged to use our free will to choose between life and death, reality or escapism. Whether we are aware of it or not, we are in constant conflict between those two choices. And how we resolve that conflict is where our greatness lies. Our greatness is found in using our free will to live, fight and accomplish -- rather than run away.

Deep down, we all want to be great; we all want to change the world. It's just that we don't always feel like putting in the effort. So, we distract ourselves and escape from whom we really are and what we want to achieve. And when we escape problems, we escape being great - as great as we can be.

And the precursor to becoming a real connoisseur in free will is awareness. You cannot master this amazing power until you become aware that you are making choices all the time. Once you become sensitive to this fact, you can then begin to monitor and examine your decisions.

Like it or not, this recession is herding us into the corral of conscious, informed decision-making.

Don't be a robot. THINK, don't just react. Life is serious. Millions of people are learning (the hard way) that just because they've always had money doesn't mean they always will. Executives, computer consultants, tellers, and real estate brokers are suddenly discovering the new world of the unemployed. And that means that lifestyles will have to change.

Indeed, the days of living "on automatic," may be over. Buying mustard is an act of total inconsequence, but before you simply grab the French's, hold the Shop-rite brand in your hands. Look at it and THINK. The French's may speak to your palate, but the Shop-rite will speak to your soul. It will remind you that as a functioning member of this human race, you have within you a gift that is truly priceless -- free choice.

By changing your automatic way of spending money into an exercise of conscious decision-making, you have entered into a new dimension. The decision may be totally inconsequential, but the process will be profound.

Like it or not, this recession is herding us into the corral of conscious, informed decision-making. It will hurt. That is the nature of change. But if channeled correctly it can also wake us up. And perhaps that's a silver lining in this very, very dark cloud.

Oh, I almost forgot to mention what happened on the way to the check out counter. I got tested one last time. Ketchup: Heinz vs. Shop-Rite.

I failed that one.


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