Why the credit crunch can have a silver lining

By Rabbi Yitzchak Schochet, August 1, 2008

The economic downturn may be hard but it can help free us from the slavery of materialism


A little while ago, I was in discussion with someone who had been given the unenviable task of having to inform a whole group of employees of their impending redundancy. The credit crunch was biting. The greatest challenge, as he pointed out to me, was knowing the circumstances of some of these people - the expectations they created for themselves, the standards craved, the short- and long-term ambitions, all underpinned by a ravenous desire to accumulate more. All those dreams shattered in one fell swoop. It's a tragedy in itself but compounded that much more by the consequences that ensue.

Only recently, a spokesman for Mishcon de Reya, the legal firm that has been involved in some high-profile divorces, pithily put it, "When money looks like flying out of the window, love walks out of the door." London divorce specialists say that inquiries have tripled since hard times began to hit the City fat cats. I have encountered this within the Jewish community as well and know other rabbis who could attest the same.

There is an inevitable tragedy when the focus of a relationship becomes so utterly dependent on extravagance - the bigger house, the new cars, the foreign holidays - that when these things dissipate, when the status quo cannot be maintained and the glue turns out to be putty, there is nothing left to hold it all together.

The problem with the wealth that people accumulate is that it turns them into slaves of a lavish lifestyle. This has become the foundation of their marriages, and neither they nor their spouses can imagine existing without it. As one columnist put it: "As many wives have been chosen by their husbands mainly to be adornments to this lifestyle, it is hardly surprising that when it collapses, they consider their marital obligations to be over."

Rabbi Elazar ben Azaryah, who was both a Torah giant and a wealthy man declared: "If there is no sustenance then there is no Torah." You need a livelihood, your basic creature comforts, in order to be able to better focus on your religious development.

But at the same time, if there is no Torah, there is no sustenance. Without the spiritual dynamic, the material itself is unsustainable, such that everything will suffer in the longer term. It's all about achieving a sense of balance. Neither sustenance nor Torah needs to come first - both need to come at the same time and need to be in balance for us to be successful.

It is precisely during turbulent times like this that individuals feel more vulnerable and are more susceptible to spiritual input. It is therefore incumbent on rabbis to be alert to those who may have endured a serious financial loss, or have been made redundant and to offer spiritual solace where practical.

Spirituality and religion have a unique comforting factor when enabling one to put life in better perspective.

More sermons and general discussions on themes that remind congregants that there is more to life than money and materialism would go a long way. Synagogue welfare teams should make members aware of the employment bureaus available in the Jewish community, as that provided by Jewish Care or the Employment Resource Centre.

Even the right sort of conversation in the classroom can help children gain a sense of balance, especially those that have to cope with sudden reduced indulgences they may have otherwise become used to. Personally, I tend to offer the occasional sermon encouraging people to look toward the light at the end of the tunnel and assuring them that every descent is for the sake of a greater ascent.

Daily, we recite the powerful words of the Priestly Benediction. The blessing consists of three parts. The first, "May God bless you and protect you," refers to the material. "May God cause His face to shine upon you and always be gracious to you," refers to the spiritual. "May God raise his countenance to you and give you peace." This is the notion of finding the right balance whereby we achieve true composure in our lives.

As it is, the fabric of the modern family is so much more delicate, always under threat of being ripped apart. Few people take their relationships as seriously as they should. The family is a living organism that needs the freedom to breathe. But when that freedom is lost to materialism and marketing, then all parties feel stifled and the innocent love that once was is suffocated out of the union.

Most people seek what they do not possess and are thus enslaved by the very things they want to acquire. Many more people would stay happily married forever if they didn't depend for their contentment on being masters of the universe.

To be sure, there is nothing wrong with wanting a good life. Anyone who tells you they don't enjoy some element of luxury is either a liar or simply self-delusional. For that matter it's not even the materialism per se that is the chief curse of the world, but the skewed idealism.

People get into trouble by taking their hallucinations too seriously. Today's generation doesn't cry over spilt milk any more - they cry over spilt champagne. They fret not about a lack of necessities, but an abundance of benefits. They moan over the frills, not the basics. The greatest irony of today's generation is that the source of their problems is often the very blessings themselves.

"Not on bread alone does man live, rather all that which emerges from the mouth of God is how man shall live" (Deuteronomy 8:3). The goal of Judaism is to combine the physical and spiritual in symmetry. Only then will we merit the ultimate blessing of peace in our personal lives, our relationships and our world.

Yitzchak Schochet is chairman of the Rabbinical Council of the United Synagogue and a member of the Chief Rabbi's Cabinet with the portfolio for the family

Last updated: 9:17am, August 19 2008