Living in a Material World
Rabbis have long tried to persuade us of the benefits of parting with some of our money. Are we listening?
But one day I screwed up the courage to ask him in a roundabout way. He seemed rather uncomfortable, even embarrassed by the question. He stammered. He couldn’t say why exactly, but ultimately he came out with it: “It’s the rabbis,” he said, “the rabbis.” He wouldn’t elaborate just then, but over time and subsequent visits it became clearer. He loved rabbis. They sang to him. Their rocking back and forth, their beats, their cadence, and their somber invocation of timeless words, their rhythm of righteousness with all its imperfections and hard questions, the call to be more; having a home in the afterlife spoke to him, too.
It turned out that although I did almost none of the talking, somehow my cause had spoken to him. How can I describe how an intimacy of righteousness works? In those meetings, despite being in the middle of a busy work day, a pleasant intensity quickly developed between us. I remember it as a lovely, warm bubble. He would look heavenward on the couch; his voice moved higher. He tossed words, big words high into the air and then abruptly he would stop talking and hand me the check quickly as though to hold on to it for even a minute longer was a sin.
This particular man had an extraordinary amount of money. And yet it seemed as though with the rabbis silently speaking through me, he had come on his own to realize that excess was a kind of sin. The money he had striven for, he had to give it up—at least some of it.
Perhaps this is what we experienced in my son’s yeshiva. In a moment of communal intimacy with the rabbi, we heard a song of sweet rebuke. Not that I thought that anyone in the parking lot would follow the donor’s example. After all, it is not the way of the world to let go of wealth or pleasure easily. Yet the crowd listened—somewhere through the power of the rabbi and through the intimate connection with another, we let go of it, just a little.
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To overcome fated lives, the Talmud’s rabbis argued, perform virtuous acts according to Torah