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What's your net worth?

by Rabbi Perry Raphael Rank

Rabbi Rafi RankShanah Tovah, everyone.  It is, as always, so wonderful to see the Midway family gathered together for Rosh Hashanah.  And this family keeps growing.  Checking the roster the other day I noticed that we were about 800 families strong and all I can say is ken yirbu—may that number increase.  Wouldn’t it be nice if every Jewish person who walked into this building could find a spiritual home within it.

Speaking of walking into a synagogue, two men walk into a synagogue.  One is a regular and the other a business associate from South America who has never been to a synagogue.  The regular says to his business associate, “Listen, you may see some unusual behaviors here but whatever you see, don’t hesitate to ask, I’ll explain everything.  So the business associate sees people grasping their tzitzit and kissing them, asks about it, and his friend explains that the tzitzit represent the mitzvot of God and by kissing them we show our affection for God’s will and His mitzvot.  The associate then sees many people bouncing three times on their tiptoes during the kedushah, asks about it, and his friend explains that this is a symbolic way of ascending into the very heavens to sing God’s praises.  The business associate sees many people raise their pinky and point at the uplifted Torah, asks about it, and the friend explains that we thus declare our faith that this is the very Torah that Moshe gave to the Jewish people.  The business associate then sees the rabbi walk to the lectern, remove his wrist watch and place it on the podium just before the sermon, asks about that, and his friend explains, “Oh, that doesn’t mean anything.”

This just out of the IRS—apparently, our favorite branch of the government received an anonymous letter with $1000 enclosed.   The note read: “Can’t sleep at night.  Please find enclosed $1000 that I short changed on my income tax.”  That poor soul with the active conscience would have done well to conclude his message there, but he didn’t.  He continued, “If I still can’t sleep, I’ll send you the balance.”

It’s good to have a chuckle about money.  It’s probably been a good chunk of time since any of us have laughed about money.  It wasn’t within the past year, that’s for sure.  We have all witnessed and are still clearly in the midst of one of the most serious economic crises the country has had to endure, some saying that it is the worse since the Great Depression of 1929.  We have seen Lehman Brothers file for bankruptcy; the Federal Reserve engineer a takeover of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac; and Washington Mutual earn the dubious honor of the largest bank failure in United States history, its assets exceeding $300 billion dollars.  All this has hit home in a very real way as so many of us have watched our pensions shrink and our investments whither.  And there’s nothing funny about it. 

Our tradition has a lot to say about credit and debt.  Because the Torah’s purpose is to help us design a just and fair society, the way we treat each other financially is a matter of great concern to the Torah.   So, for example, I’m sure you’re familiar with this one:

∋∋∋ ηνγ ,τ ϖυκ, ;ξφ οτ
If you lend money to My people…
λαβ υηκγ ιυνηα, τκ
Exact no interest from them (Exodus 22:24).
And in the passage which directly follows this ruling, we learn:
λγρ ,νκα κχϕ, κχϕ οτ
If you take your neighbor’s garment in pledge,
υκ υβχηα, αναϖ τχ σγ
you must return it to him before the sun sets (Exodus 22:25).

And the Torah goes on to explain that we should never leave our neighbor exposed to the elements, without protection, without a blanket to sleep with at night, and if we do, and if that debtor should cry out to God, God, compassionate as He is, will hear those cries and we will be in trouble.

None of this kept Jews from making loans, but it did place certain restrictions on how we went about the banking business.  Our ancestors were probably aware of the severe banking practices in ancient Egypt.  There, debtors would pledge the body of their nearest deceased relative and should the debtor default, the creditor could remove the body, lock the tomb and thus prevent further burials.  In fifth century Rome (CE), defaulting on a loan could result in the debtor becoming a slave, and that slave could be dismembered, though scholars disagree on whether the dismemberment was figurative or literal.  Whatever its meaning, the image is fairly gruesome.  In ancient India and Nepal, a creditor would punish a debtor’s delinquency by fasting on the debtor’s doorway, shaming the debtor and his family, and should that self-imposed fast end in the creditor’s death, the public would have the right to beat the debtor to death.  It is no wonder then that the term “mortgage” is really a combination of two words, “mort” from the Latin meaning “death” and “gage” which is a pledge.  You all know that term “gage” from a very different kind of pledge if any of you have ever gone through an “engagement.”  Your engagement, I hope, was a “life pledge,” but your mortgage is the “death pledge,” all of this pointing to one unassailable fact: the damaging effects of being unable to pay back your debt.  That miserable predicament has a long history in the annals of civilization.
This is not the first time our country has faced a credit crunch that could derail our economic tranquility.  And I now want to point to an irony between an incident that happened 100 years ago, and one that happened only recently.  But first, we have to go back in time to the year 1907. 

The Knickerbocker Trust Company was, at one time, one of the largest banks in the United States, its headquarters being, where else?  New York City.  We can’t see their main headquarters anymore because another building has taken its place called the Empire State Building.  In any event, it seems that the bank got itself into a real quagmire by backing speculators seeking to corner the market in shares of a copper mine.  That project failed and it soon became public that the bank, having used so much capital to support the speculators, had no remaining assets to pay its depositors, which as one can well imagine, generated a public outcry and panic.  The bank had to close, the bank president committed suicide, and remember, these were days prior to anything known as the Federal Reserve Bank, so there was no Alan Greenspan or Ben Bernanke to the rescue.  There was, however, a man of great stature and wealth who people did turn to and that was J P Morgan, a man who helped create such storied corporations as General Electric and United States Steel.  Anyway, JP gathered his millionaire cronies in order to put up tens of millions of dollars to jump start an economy that had gone into shock.  JP was very persuasive in getting his friends to fork over the cash for as it was explained to them, should they choose not to participate, it would be  “under penalty of… lacking assistance when the pinch should come to them” (The Weekly Standard, March 31/April 7, 2008; p. 25).  In other words, you better help out now, or else when hard times come to you, be assured that there will be no one there to help you out.  This is the threat I wanted to draw your attention to because it is ironically relevant for us today.  About ten years ago, in 1998, then Federal Reserve Chief Alan Greenspan sought to ease strains on the economy by raising sufficient capital to once again get the economy moving.  A number of financial firms and banks did step forward to participate, with the notable exception of one, a company called Bear Stearns.  That may explain why only recently, when economic crisis came to rest on its doorstep, there was no one there to help.  Turn a blind eye toward those in economic straits, and when your brush with misfortune happens, you may find yourself desperately alone.

The Torah clearly recognizes the pain that can accompany the blind and unremitting forces operating within the free market, but it is forever reminding us that however important money may be, being a mensch—a decent human being—is infinitely more important, and if the past century of American economic crises has anything to teach us, it is, I would dare say, the very same lesson.

In Birkat Hamazon, the grace recited after meals, we ask God that we never find ourselves in a position where we are dependent on osu tac ,b,n or the gifts of other human beings.  And yet, it is so very important that we be the gift givers for those who suddenly become dependent on those gifts.  That’s why we’ve put out shopping bags throughout the congregation today.  Each year our Operation Isaiah, in which we ask that you bring non-perishable items to the synagogue before Kol Nidre, generates a very modest response, perhaps overly modest.  This year, I would like our response to be generous, if only because the lines at these food pantries have lengthened in recent months as the economy has worsened.  It is a great mitzvah to give while we can..  God would have us give because vesm lies at the heart of a just society.  J P Morgan would be more pragmatic—give while you can because God only knows when it might be you standing at the receiving end.  Next week, I hope to see hundreds of these shopping bags returned and brimming with non-perishables: peanut butter, pastas, canned fish, canned vegetables, canned fruits, and so forth.  And don’t shop alone—shop with your kids.  Make this a family activity.  Show them that vesm is more than writing a check, but very often a concrete expression of our concern for others and our obligations to God.  To paraphrase a popular commercial, the gas used to get to the grocery store will be about $5.00.  What you spend to fill this bag with non-perishables will be $15.00 or $20.00.  And the time you spend with your children or grandchildren teaching them the mitzvah of tzedakah will be priceless. 

The Internet—God bless it!—is an overflowing fountain of apocryphal tales, some of which are emotionally powerful, and many of which are either unsubstantiated or downright false.  I ask forgiveness for the one or two slips I’ve made on this bimah when I have relayed to you as true, a story which later proves to be a complete fabrication.  So whenever I bring a story to you, I devote some time to checking its veracity and the following is true.  It’s an obituary which was published in the Vallejo Times Herald, a California newspaper serving the Solano and Napa counties.  The obituary was unique, as you will soon see, and I will read a portion of it to you, though I’m omitting the name of the deceased in spite it being of public record at this point.  After a rather extensive listing of the surviving relatives, the obituary continues as follows:

X had no hobbies, made no contribution to society and rarely shared a kind word or deed in her life. I speak for the majority of her family when I say her presence will not be missed by many, very few tears will be shed and there will be no lamenting over her passing. Her family will remember X and amongst ourselves we will remember her in our own way, which were mostly sad and troubling times throughout the years. We may have some fond memories of her and perhaps we will think of those times too. But I truly believe at the end of the day ALL of us will really only miss what we never had, a good and kind mother, grandmother and great-grandmother. I hope she is finally at peace with herself.  As for the rest of us left behind, I hope this is the beginning of a time of healing and learning to be a family again. There will be no service, no prayers and no closure for the family she spent a lifetime tearing apart. We cannot come together in the end to see to it that her grandchildren and great-grandchildren can say their goodbyes. So I say here for all of us, GOOD BYE, MOM.
[Obituary for Dolores Aguilar as published in the Vallejo Times-Herald on August 16 & 17, 2008]

Brutal, brutal!  There is an obvious and glaring Jewish ethical problem with this obituary.  Children are under an obligation to fulfill the mitzvah otu ct sucf, honoring one’s father and mother, and if children find themselves in the sad and unfortunate position of being unable to fulfill that mitzvah, then they certainly should refrain from actively dishonoring a parent.  This obituary is essentially a hostile act, but my intent is not to criticize the children for publishing it; my intent is to wonder out loud how many children read it, and thought to themselves that they, too, could run such a piece, or in the very least know of a friend or relative who could run such a piece?  Do we know how much money this woman had in the bank?  No.  Do we know whether she died a wealthy woman or a poor woman?  No.  But this we do know:  by the time she left this world, one of her children audited her life, and determined her net worth to be pretty much zero.  What a tragedy!  The fact is that net worth may be an economic metric, but only from one perspective.  Net worth is also a very human and social metric.  Each of us is worth something to our children, to our grandchildren, to our siblings, to our friends, and to our communities, and it is a worth that has nothing to do with the bottom line in our portfolios.   

One day, a man and his dog were walking along a country road.  It was a beautiful day in an idyllic setting, when it suddenly dawned on the man that he was dead.  He remembered dying, and the dog, his beloved dog of many years gone by, walked right beside him, the two having been reunited after so many years of being apart, in some afterlife.  He wondered where the road would take them.

After a while, the two came to a high, white stone wall. It was situated at the top of a large hill, and broken only by a tall arch that glowed in the sunlight.  When he was standing before it he saw a magnificent white marble gate and the street that led to the gate was paved with gold. He and the dog walked up toward the gate, and as he got closer, he saw a man at a desk to one side.  When he was close enough, he called out, “Excuse me, where are we?”  “Oh, welcome to Heaven,” the man answered.  “Wow--heaven! I’ve always wanted to get to Heaven and here I am.  Would you happen to have some water?” the man asked.  “Of course we do. Come right in, and I'll have some ice water brought right up.”  The gate began to open.  “Can my friend,” gesturing to his dog, “come in, too?” the traveler asked.  “I'm so sorry,” came the reply, “but no pets allowed.”  The man stopped in his tracks, thought a moment, shouted out “Well, thanks anyway,” and then turned back to continue his journey on the road he had been walking on together with his dog. 

After another couple of hours, and at the top of another large hill, he came to a dirt road leading through a broken farm gate that looked as if it hadn’t been closed in years.  As he approached the gate, he saw a man inside, sitting on the ground, leaning against a tree and reading a book.  “Excuse me!” he called to the man.  “Do you have any water?”  “Yeah, sure, there's plenty of water in here.  In fact, there’s a pump over there, come on in and help yourself.”  And then, very tentatively, the traveler asked, “How about my friend here?” gesturing to the dog.  “No problem for the canine, there should be a bowl by the pump.”  They went through the gate and sure enough, there was an old-fashioned hand pump with a bowl beside it.  The traveler filled the water bowl for the dog and took a long drink himself.   When they were full, he and the dog walked back toward the man who was standing by the tree.  “Thank you so much for the water, sir.  We appreciate it.  By the way, what do you call this place?” the traveler asked.  “Well,” came the reply, “this is Heaven.”  “Heaven!” exclaimed the traveler, “that's odd.  Two hours ago we passed the most magnificent spot I’ve ever seen with a white marble gate and roads paved with gold.  The man next to the gate told us that that was Heaven.”  “Oh yea,” the old man chuckled, “he always says it’s Heaven, but it isn’t.  It’s hell.”   “Hell?”  the traveler cried, “That’s false advertising.  Doesn't it make you mad to have your name abused like that?”  “No, not at all,” said the old man, “we're just really happy that they screen out the folks who would leave their best friends behind.” 

I did research this story on the Internet to see if it actually happened.  Its status remains unverified.  But the truth it promotes is verified and enduring.  The white marble gate and the golden roads sure are enticing, but at what price do we pursue the material benefits of this world?  What sacrifices do we make for the so-called good life?  In the all-consuming pursuit of wealth, who do we leave behind?  Is the cost worth it?

Debt, which is a four letter word, is really not a dirty word.  To the contrary, the ability to secure credit and thus go into debt is a critical aspect of a healthy economy and the means by which an economy can grow.  It is precisely because credit is so difficult to secure that we now face an economic crisis of enormous proportions.  Money has got to flow from creditor to debtor and back again.  That’s why they call it currency; it only works when it flows.  According to the Talmud, it is okay to go into debt:  R. Yohanan said in the name of R. Eleazar son of R. Shimon—The Holy One, Blessed be He, said unto Israel:

ηκγ υυκ ηβχ
My children, you can bank on me
ουηϖ ,αυσε υασευ
and celebrate the holiness of the day,
γρυπ ηβτυ ηχ υβηντϖυ
and trust in Me and I will pay. (Beitzah 15b)

And so if you want to make a really good investment, invest in ase hnh, sacred time.  Let me ask you about sacred time.  How much sacred time is there in your life?  How much time, in the course of the week, exists which cannot be penetrated by your cell phone, or interrupted by an e-mail, or disrupted by a trip to the mall, or violated by some mundane errand, or decimated by an unending to-do list?  Sacred time is an incredible gift of God.  We are, sitting together right now, in an ocean of sacred time, but this sacred time is also given expression each week by Shabbat, and during the course of the year by the Yontiffs that we observe like Pesah, Sukkot or Shavuot.  These sacred moments have all too often been viewed as impositions but they are really noble excuses to pay more attention to our families and to our communities, which we routinely short change as we focus our energies and efforts in the pursuit of an ephemeral and fleeting material world.

Money is not an end; it is a means.  It is pointless to earn it unless there is some intent to use it in such a way as to advance our net worth among those whom we love and who are supposed to love us.  The great Taoist master, Lao Tzu, taught:  We shape clay into a pot, but it is the emptiness inside that holds whatever we want.  The Jewish people, in creating and promoting sacred time, offers the world the emptiness, the quiet, the breathing room, the space required to live life as the gift it is. 

R. Yehudah son of R. Shalom would explain as follows:
ωϖβαϖ ατρν υκ ιηχυμε οστ κα υη,υβυζνα οαφ
Just as our earnings are determined on Rosh Hashanah,
ϖβαϖ ατρν υκ ιηχυμε οστ κα υη,υβυρξϕ λφ

That’s good news.  The fiscal year is over.  We can put this horrible economy behind us and look forward to a better year.  But rather than letting God determine our earnings and losses, let’s take the fate of our net worth into our own hands and invest wisely.  By helping those in need, we create the forces of compassion and justice which ought to form the very foundation of all civilized society.  We can bank on God by resolving to earn a little less in order to live more by honoring the sacred time that is our heritage.  By spending more time with family and community we enhance our net worth, no matter how dismal the economy around us may be.

The economic crisis we face is a serious.  The next president of this great country is going to have his hands full for four years because I don’t think this is a crisis that is going to dissipate quickly even with a $700 billion dollar shot in the economic arm.   At the same time, let’s be sure to distinguish between net worth as an expression of the bottom line in a portfolio and our net worth as described in the obituary that our children and grandchildren and friends will someday compose, even if it is published only in their hearts.  That net worth is infinitely more precious.  No presidential candidate will ever say that to you, but since I’m not running for president, I can afford to tell you the truth.

L’shanah Tovah Tikatevu veTeihateimu—

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