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Greed is God

Or, every deity deserves its crib

Liel Leibovitz
February 27, 2009

Heard the one about the greedy executive?

In the midst of tumultuous economic times, his people struggling with scarcity, uncertainty, and despair, he decides to build himself a new residence. You raise an eyebrow: that particular executive travels constantly, and seems to have little need for a fixed dwelling. But he insists, and construction is soon underway.

You hope that given his enterprise’s dire situation he’d go for something modest, something humble, something sober. You expect him to be practical and austere. You look to him to set an example. But he’s having none of that: he wants his house to be conspicuous and his might apparent.

For his living room, he commissions two statues of angels hammered out of pure gold. He builds the walls out of 48 upright beams, which, for good measure, he has overlaid with gold and held in place by silver foundation sockets. He tosses animal skins and ornate tapestries around, and sprinkles the tables with precious gems.

Oh, and the constant traveling? He’s well aware of that: he has the whole place designed so he could pack it up on a moment’s notice and have it shipped to follow him around as he gallops across the globe. Nowadays, he argues, even a permanent address has to be mobile.

Incensed? Don’t be. We’re not talking John Thain here, the former Merrill Lynch captain with the penchant for costly commodes, or even Frederick H. Waddell, the head of Northern Trust, who accepted $1.5 billion in federal bailout money and fired 450 employees shortly before splurging happily on a corporate retreat that included performances by Chicago, Earth, Wind & Fire, and Sheryl Crow.

No, the executive in question is the Celestial Chairman of the Board, CEO of all that is in heaven and on earth. And in this week’s parasha, he’s in a domestic kind of mood. Gather up 15 fine materials, he tells the Israelites—gold and silver and copper and wood and gems and animal skins and goat hair—and build Me a sanctuary, as I am going to dwell amidst you. And since you’re sort of nomadish these days, make it portable.

Hearing this, I imagine some of the Israelites reacting much like Americans nowadays react when they hear of another bout of executive greed, another corporate jet purchased with federal funds or another bumbling banker piggishly awarding himself and his cabal a hefty bonus. After all, trudging in the desert, the Israelites hadn’t much by way of gems and goat hair lying around, and had immense financial responsibilities on the horizon, like building a homeland or skirmishing with the Jevusites. And I imagine some ancient ancestor of that most fiscally prudent of Jews, Suze Orman, shuffling somberly about the camp, pontificating: “Do not spendeth the money you don’t really haveth on this luxurious sanctuary! Saveth for your retirement! Investeth your gold!”

But to no avail: God, like most Russian oligarchs and American gangsta rappers, wants His to be the coolest crib in the hood. And as much as thrifty tongues might have clucked then as they cluck now, there’s some solid logic to the spending spree.

To understand this rationale, consider the case of two of Manhattan’s finest custom tailors, who, to protect the innocent, shall remain nameless. Both men are at the peak of their prowess, both are masters of cut and hem and pattern, and both are blessed with a discerning and affluent clientele. But their ateliers couldn’t have been more different: one is nestled in a sleek building just off Fifth Avenue, with leather sofas and Persian rugs and espresso machines at hand to sooth and pamper the customers, while the other set up shop in a nondescript office building on Madison Avenue, occupying most of his space with workstations and fabric and paying little attention to what has now come to be called the “retail experience.”

The differences, of course, reflect divergent philosophies: one tailor believes that externalities like plush furniture and hot beverages would just distract him from his demanding craft, while the other thinks less of himself and more of his clients, eager to attract and retain them by whatever means necessary.

Both approaches, of course, are perfectly legitimate, but when it comes to religion, only one tends to work in the long run. No one wants to come and worship at a nondescript office building: we want an extravagant bit of real estate to go along with our spiritual well-being, some stunning surge of interior design to soothe our weary souls. We need our places of worship to be like Apple stores, awe-inspiring and gorgeous and a testament to the will and wonder of a Higher Power.

This is why God insists: the sanctuary is for us, not Him. He’s just bound to provide his people with the best retail experience possible given the inclement conditions.

Let us, then, be more merciful with Thain and Waddell and their looting ilk. Sure, they are greedy and ruthless, but in their vain extravagance they also embody a principle as old as the Exodus itself: when you set forth to build a religion—be it Judaism or capitalism—damn the hardships and the poverty. Build temples—be they sanctuaries or corner offices—and make them lavish. Spend extravagantly. It’s what we need to believe. Always has been.

Liel Leibovitz is a senior writer for Tablet Magazine and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.

Liel Leibovitz is editor-at-large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.