This has been a tough financial year for many people. And a change in financial status has other potential serious consequences: loss of self-esteem, anxiety and physical ailments, to name a few. It’s as if we’ve walked into a hotel, and the guest representative checking us in said, “If there is anything that you need, please let us know and we’ll teach you how to live without it.”
But a passage from Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel z’l can help us recapture a perspective on what really matters in life: “Every human being is a cluster of needs, yet these needs are not the same in all men nor are unalterable in any one man. There is a fixed minimum of needs for all men, but no fixed maximum for any man. Unlike animals, man is the playground for the unpredictable emergence and multiplication of needs and interests, some of which are indigenous to his nature, while others are induced by advertising, fashion, envy, or come about as miscarriages of authentic needs.” (Between God and Man, ed., Fritz Rothschild, p.130).
With the economic realities of the past 18 months, many of us have come to appreciate Heschel’s truth anew. We see that the “playground” for “the multiplication of our interests,” is now littered with objects which are the illusions of authentic needs. Without minimizing the pain of the past 18 months, perhaps some good has happened during this time, too. We remembered what it means to have people who really care about us in our lives and what a blessing it is to be a part of a community. We struggled but came to embrace the distinction between self-worth and financial wealth. We recalled that we are not our jobs, that there is a self that’s differentiated from whatever roles we play. And perhaps we found a resilience that we didn’t know we possessed.
I hope that the economy dramatically improves soon! Too many people have suffered far too long. But as people of faith, when we have more again, will we remember what it was like to have less? Will we take Heschel’s words to heart and remain true to real ultimate concerns and not be lured back to artificial needs?
The Ethics of the Sages (2:8) offers an alternative to the fallacy of artificial needs– “…the more Torah the more life, the more schooling the more wisdom; the more counsel the more understanding; the more righteousness the more peace.” With words of Torah well-spoken, we have a unique opportunity to be a conduit for gently reorienting people toward matters of ultimate importance. May God bless us all in the New Year with life and health, prosperity and peace—and a long memory for ultimate, enduring values.
Rabbi Hayim Herring