A while back, I got an email from a dear old friend. “I was going through my drawers,” she wrote, “and I found this. Enjoy it. I know I did.”
Attached were a few short letters. I read them once or twice and felt a warm rush of empathy towards their author. I could tell he was young, as he possessed that special sort of certainty that is only ours to keep until we become settled, mature, and reasonable adults.
He needed every bit of the brashness of youth to pull off his central argument: poverty, wrote the juvenile correspondent, was the one true path, the best way of life, a state of glistening bliss to which we must all aspire. If powers corrupts, he thundered, the lack of it must redeem.
It would be unkind to quote the eager young man’s work verbatim, but there he was, in letter after letter, arguing passionately that if one is to remain morally upright and politically just, one had to commit to a life of obstinate abjection. His greatest aspiration, the writer added, was to amble through life a cheerful pauper, sustained by bread and flowers and the occasional poem.
The letters filled my heart with hope. An itinerant college professor, I’ve spent much time in the company of young men and women on the cusp of adulthood, and was too often dismayed to learn that their ambitions had more to do with IPOs than poetry. This kid, whoever he was, may have been naïve, but he at least seemed to have soul to spare. I liked him.
As I put down the letters, however, a question crept into my mind—why was my friend sending me the epistles of some random dude? I was perplexed. I leaned back in my comfortable chair, sipped on the espresso I had made in my fine Italian machine from fresh-roasted beans I had imported from Costa Rica, launched a new window on my silvery new MacBook Pro, and intended to get to the bottom of the mystery.
A second later, a bolt struck hard. I knew who had written these letters. It was me.
It was 10 years ago. I had just graduated college and arrived in New York on a one-way ticket and with just enough cash to buy a few cups of coffee and the occasional hot dog. I was writing to my friend from the main hall of the public library on 42nd Street. And my enthusiasm was genuine: despite being impoverished, I felt freer than I had ever been, a man without duty living a life of no consequence. I sneered at the drones I saw passing me on their way from Grand Central Terminal to midtown Manhattan’s corporate castles. All they’ll ever have is money, I told myself then, whereas me, I’d always have the spirit.
I’ve since abandoned the follies of my youth, as you surely realize, and while I am still faithful to many of the same core ideals, I’ve rid myself of the foolish notion that poverty is in some way poetic, romantic or righteous in its own right. I still prefer the riches of Wordsworth to those of Wall Street, but if I can discuss the The Prelude while sipping on a lovely 2005 St. Emilion and sitting on a comfortable leather sofa, hallelujah. Wealth and poverty in of themselves don’t define us in any way; the values we assign to them do.
Just ask Hosea. The prophet, delivering this week’s haftorah, knew all there is to know about keepin’ it real. On God’s command, he married a harlot and named his daughter Unloved and his son Not Mine. He preached during tempestuous times in Jewish history, with the Northern Kingdom of Israel spinning downward toward ruin. And he realized that the problem was not so much having or not having earthly possessions but the way these possessions, or the lack thereof, make us see the world.
As Exhibit A he offered Ephraim, another name for the northern kingdom founded by the sinful king Jeroboam after the virtuous Solomon’s death. “And Ephraim said: Surely I have become rich; I have found power for myself,” Hosea booms, adding, “all my toils shall not suffice for my iniquity which is sin.”
Prosperous at the time of Hosea’s prophesying, the folks at the northern kingdom must have looked upon the ranting madman and his oddly named offspring as a collection of kooky outcasts. After all, isn’t material wealth proof of divine love? Wouldn’t God bless with riches only those of his creations he saw as deserving and just?
Unlike Calvinism, Judaism, quite radically, contends that the answer is no. Trying to assign spiritual values to material circumstances requires, by necessity, a belief that Man could somehow divine the mindset of God. Instead, our theology offers us a more complicated, and, ultimately, far more liberating assertion. Since we cannot ever know the Lord’s will, it tells us, all we have to go by is the laws he had given us. And these laws, being laws, are subject to endless debate, discussion, argument without end. We are therefore advised to seek the answers not in signs from above but in ourselves. We are urged, to paraphrase a seasonal favorite, to be good for goodness’s sake. We are meant to do the right thing without any expectation of compensation.
But this isn’t some altruistic fantasy. With righteous behavior come rewards, not heavenly prizes but earthly ones—if we obey those laws, prophet after prophet tells us, what we’ll get is a society that’s just and progressive and allows each man, rich or poor, to live with dignity and grace.
The captains of the northern kingdom saw things differently. For them, just like for my youthful self, there was merit in might and purity in power. They found proof of God’s love in every shekel and every sword, and they were so busy with inventory that they didn’t see the catastrophe coming right at them. We all know how their journey ended. May it not be that way for us.