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    Material Wealth in the Modern Era

    The opening section of Parshat Ki Tavo is

    framed by the encounter with financial success.

    Having cultivated a successful harvest,

    a person presents his finest fruits to the Mikdash

    amidst fanfare and festivity. The Mishnah

    describes actual parades which spontaneously

    assembled to accompany rural farmers

    on their celebratory journey to Yerushalayim.

    Exquisitely decorated baskets carrying succulent

    Israeli fruit were hoisted upon happy

    shoulders as a religious “carnival” erupted.

    Another year and another successful harvest

    promised a comfortable winter period with

    the availability of well-stocked resources.

    Yet a strange recital sits at the heart of this celebration

    – the recital of the four verses known

    as “Arami Oved Avi”. These four verses – recited

    during the Pesach Hagaddah- succinctly

    summarize the story of our Exodus. This brief

    section delineates the descent to Egypt, followed

    by the harsh enslavement, our prayers

    for rescue and, ultimately, the verses describe

    our miraculous Divine Redemption. Their

    recital on Pesach- the actual night of our

    Exodus- is appropriate. Their recital during

    the ceremony of Bikkurim is more curious.

    Amidst the euphoria and joy surrounding

    financial success the ancient history of Egyptian

    redemption is reviewed!!

    Rabbi Soloveitchik described this historical

    context as a strategy for avoiding the egotism

    and self-absorption which often follows financial

    success. Our commitment to a broader

    historical agenda assures that our personal

    triumphs serve some larger and more dignified

    purpose. By invoking Jewish history and

    the struggle of a Jew, personal comfort is lent

    a more “idealistic” function. If we are granted

    health and prosperity we can dedicate greater

    energy to a historical and religious community

    and its tasks. This week many Americans

    mourned the death of former Senator

    John McCain. Many have cited a quote of

    his about living a life of idealism: “Nothing

    in life is more liberating than to fight for a

    cause larger than yourself, something that

    encompasses you but is not defined by your

    existence alone”. For a Jew, the most compelling

    “cause” and the one which best liberates

    us from our egocentrism is the history of a

    people challenged to both represent God in

    our world as well as broadcast His message

    from the land of Israel. By returning to the

    genesis of Jewish history and the first phase

    of this multi-generational struggle, a Jew

    casts financial wealth or affluence within this

    ‘larger cause’. Material comfort is transformed

    from a potentially hedonistic and self-serving

    condition to a state which enables the dedication

    of resources toward that grander cause.

    The insertion of the Exodus story within the

    Bikkurim celebration unshackles us from our

    own selfish interests and casts our monetary

    success in the context of a larger historical

    narrative. Divinely-enabled financial success

    carries expectations. In adopting those duties

    and expectations, wealth is merely an additional

    “tool” or resource to advance Jewish

    History and to amplify the Divine presence in

    this world.

    Our generation has been awarded unprecedented

    financial comfort. Most of the past

    2000 years of Jewish history has been characterized

    by poverty and financial instability.

    Constant expulsion and the accompanying

    forfeiture of financial wealth repeatedly depleted

    Jewish financial abilities. Remarkably,

    in the aftermath Holocaust and the shocking

    plundering of Jewish wealth, we have, by and

    large, recovered our communal wealth. Understandably,

    we have little to no “tradition”

    of how to integrate this experience of affluence

    within our overall religious experience.

    We have no books or seforim which provide

    guidelines for living with wholesale affluence.

    The sustained condition of communal wealth

    was unimaginable to previous generations

    and to their thinkers. Some, today, are bashful

    at the prospect of wealth, almost ashamed to

    acknowledge affluence in light of the financial

    struggles of previous generations. Others

    completely divorce the experience of wealth

    from religious consciousness and moral considerations.

    This dangerous “disconnect’ often

    can lead to a slippery slope and yield morally

    inappropriate behavior. Wealth can certainly

    fuel behavior which, if not in violation of actual

    Jewish law, certainly contravenes both

    our Jewish value system and general human

    moral instincts.

    Our wealth, in part has been delivered to

    advance our stage of Jewish History- the resettling

    of our land. It is hard to imagine a

    more impressive international philanthropic

    project than the rebuilding of our State. Over

    the past 150 years how many funds and how

    many resources have been directed to our

    beloved State from Jews across the globe?

    Rabbi Herzog, the original Chief Rabbi of

    Israel, once overheard an anti-religious person

    mocking the “kollel” culture of depending

    upon the financial support of others. He

    rebuffed that “the entire State of Israel is one

    large Kollel” highlighting the financial dependency

    of the fledgling state. For years the

    entire country of Israel resembled one large

    “Kollel” being supported heroically by the

    combined funds and resources of an entire

    people. B”h we have witnessed the development

    of Israel as a financial superpower but

    without question this evolution was fueled

    by phenomenal Jewish philanthropy. Who

    would have imagined that the post-Holocaust

    generations would be capable of accomplishing

    the ambitious project of constructing a

    modern Jewish State?

    Additionally, our wealth must be cast in

    broader historical terms – even broader than

    the construction and refurbishing of our

    Modern State. As History surges to its conclusion

    we anticipate and expect the general

    improvement of the human condition. We

    believe that religious

    experience and human

    welfare overlap,

    and if we dream of

    a world of universal

    recognition of Divine

    authority we expect that world to enjoy general

    human welfare. Without question the

    past 400 years have witnessed significant improvements

    in almost every sector of human

    experience: from politics to the economy and

    from science to medical treatment. These

    events – which have become more dramatic

    over the last century- cannot be “regarded”

    independent of a historical framework. The

    advance of human experience should echo

    the religious evolution toward a state of universal

    recognition of one God.

    If these “universal” improvements to humanity

    at large augur the end of history, the

    progress in the Jewish world should certainly

    indicate that history is coursing toward its

    inevitable conclusion. As the vanguard of humanity,

    our national trajectory both reflects

    and impacts the general unfurling of the human

    spirit. The Jewish world has never enjoyed

    the type of financial capabilities it currently

    possesses. For the first time in centuries

    Jews can afford to build robust institutions

    and stout communities. Moshe Moshkowitz

    – a member of the original Israeli pioneering

    generation, and a living legend in Israel has

    been instrumental in spearheading the revival

    of Jewish population in Yehuda and Shomoron

    (along with initiating dozens of other national

    projects). He steered the establishment

    of the city of Efrat and launched Yeshivat Har

    Etzion (where I teach). Forty five years ago, as

    the palatial Beit Midrash of our Yeshiva was

    being constructed he was challenged: “Why

    are you installing marble floors, vaulted ceilings

    and a fish pond? Is this a movie theater or

    a museum?” To which he replied in surprise:

    “A museum deserves such majesty and a Beit

    Midrash doesn’t”? For centuries, economic

    constraints and socio-political discrimination

    prevented us from building truly spectacular

    palaces of study and worship. We have now

    achieved these capabilities and we honor religion

    by fashioning these “monuments”; their

    construction reflects our newly-achieved

    economical ability and, of course, our reconstructed

    Jewish pride and freedom. Instead

    of shying away from our financial success we

    should interpret it as a historical warrant and

    as an indicator that we are living through a

    transitional period in history with newly formulated

    opportunities and responsibilities.

    Our wealth can either be turned ‘inward’ to

    selfish and self-aggrandizing experiences or

    can be employed to advance history and our

    people. Our Parsha and the framing of material

    success within Jewish History should

    inspire us to accept our luxury, but view it

    as a challenge and a demand rather than an

    indulgence merely for personal gratification.