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Ekev 5783           August 20, 2022

Rabbi Randall J. Konigsburg

Shabbat Shalom

     In our Parsha this week we find Moses making a keen observation not only of the Israelites he is leading, but also an observation about all humanity. We read in Devarim, Chapter 8: 7-14:  For your God (Adonai) is bringing you into a good land, a land with streams and springs and fountains issuing from plain and hill; a land of wheat and barley, of vines, figs, and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey; a land where you may eat food without stint, where you will lack nothing; a land whose rocks are iron and from whose hills you can mine copper.

     When you have eaten your fill, give thanks to your God (Adonai) for the good land given to you.

     Take care lest you forget your God (Adonai) and fail to keep the divine commandments, rules, and laws which I enjoin upon you today. When you have eaten your fill, and have built fine houses to live in, and your herds and flocks have multiplied, and your silver and gold have increased, and everything you own has prospered, beware lest your heart grow haughty and you forget your God (Adonai)  —who freed you from the land of Egypt, the house of bondage; …”

     The literature of almost every culture has stories of children who were provided with whatever they wanted only to grow up to be selfish and cruel. It was the children who grew up, sometimes in poverty, who understood how to share what they had with others. Hasidic literature has many stories of rich Jews who were so caught up in their wealth that they forgot to help those who were in need. It was always the ones who had so little and yet they gave what they could to help.

     We do not have to go back in history to find this quality of vanity in our society. It does not matter if one is blessed with wealth or power, people grow haughty and think that they deserve all that they have and then they go chasing after more wealth and power.

     The sage, ben Zoma is famously quoted “Who is the one who is rich? The one who is satisfied with what he already has.” There are far too many rich people who are constantly seeking to gather more wealth and power to the exclusion of their family, friends, and their community. We live in a world of super billionaires who are so wealthy that they do not know how to spend it all. Imagine, once we had a space race to see if we could beat our arch enemies in the Soviet Union to the moon. Now these super billionaires are racing each other into space on their own privately built rockets.

     These super wealthy people build mega yachts each one bigger than another. One billionaire built a yacht that was so big, he could not get it downriver into the ocean without having to dismantle a bridge that was too low to let the yacht pass. The town that owned the bridge was told that this billionaire would pay to remove the bridge and then put it back in its place. The town turned him down. He would have to dismantle his yacht to get it under the bridge.

      I do not need to write a book here about crazy, rich Americans. In India, Malaysia, Japan, Korea, Mexico, the European Union and yes, even in modern Russia, there are crazy wealthy people who are on a constant search for more money and more ways to flaunt it. As one rich man put it, “it is not the money, it’s the amount.”

     But while these people have more money than you or I will ever see in our lifetime, according to ben Zoma, they are not really rich. They will spend their lives chasing more money and all the toys their money can buy but they will never be truly rich. Ben Zoma has it right. As soon as we are happy with what we already have, we are truly rich indeed.

     People with lots of money plan parties for months, arranging the best foods, the fanciest presentations, the most lavish decorations and a guest list that includes all the most “beautiful people” but people who are rich according to ben Zoma, have wonderful parties around their backyard BBQ grills serving hotdogs and hamburgers to friends and family, the people that they really love and really love being with. You see, it is not the one who dies with the most toys that wins, it is the ones who spread kindness and happiness who win in the end.

     There are super wealthy people who understand what it really means to be rich. Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft has a charitable foundation that gives away more money each year than the budget of several small countries. Ted Turner holds the record of the most money ever given away to a university. And I do have to add here that it was their wives, Melinda Gates and Jane Fonda who encouraged their philanthropy.

     On my cruise last week was a young woman who was all of 22 years old, traveling with her mother, by far the youngest person on our ship. She was sweet and personable and really listened to those, most old enough to be her grandparents, to all the advice people shared with her, advice from the end of life to one who was just starting out. When it was my turn to share with her my wisdom, at first, I said, “You should always enjoy life, if you are not enjoying it, then something is wrong.” I then thought about it a bit more and then added, “but the real joy in life is in what you give away to someone who can never pay you back. There is no joy more real than helping to change someone’s life for the better.”

      At my daughter’s Bat Mitzvah, so long ago, we decorated the tables with food baskets we were going to donate to the local soup kitchen. The baskets were decorated with balloons. The next day, I drove my daughter and some of her friends to the soup kitchen to deliver the food. They were so happy to have the food, but they gave my daughter back the balloons, they just had no use for them. On the way home we passed by the children’s hospital and my daughter thought it would be nice to deliver our car full of balloons to children in the hospital. So, we stopped, gathered all the balloons, and went to the children’s unit of the hospital. The guard at the door would not let us enter without permission so the social worker on call was asked to come up. She looked at the three 13-year-old girls, my daughter and two of her friends, with all their balloons and said, “I do not have time to deal with this, if they want to give out balloons, they will have to go themselves to deliver them. The children in the hospital were overjoyed with the balloons. The girls tied them to their wrists, to their beds, to the toys they were playing with on the unit. My daughter came out of one room, looked at me and said, “This is fun!” I kissed her head and said, “NOW you are really a Bat Mitzvah.”

     What is the difference between having lots of money and having lots of joy? Simply put, it is gratitude. Look at the verses in our Torah. “When you have eaten your fill, give thanks to your God (Adonai) for the good land given to you.”

     When we see all that we have and recognize it as a gift, we realize that we can appreciate what we have only when we are prepared to give it away. When we buy something, we often want to buy as much as we can so we do not have to run back and buy more. But when we get something as a gift, we always leave something behind for others. If we appreciate the gift, we want others to share in that appreciation.

     In Judaism we give thanks with blessings. All the blessings in our Siddur are about recognizing that everything in life is a gift. The food we eat, the places we visit, the people we meet and the things we learn all are blessings we can appreciate. Judaism declares that we have at least one hundred reasons a day to thank God. Try it. Sit down and make a list of one hundred things you are grateful for. At first, we do not think we have one hundred reasons to bless God, but as we get going, we realize that one hundred is really not enough. We read in our Siddur on Shabbat, just before the Shacharit service begins, “If our mouths were filled with song as the sea, our tongues to sing endlessly like countless waves, our lips to offer limitless praise like the sky, our eyes to shine like the sun and the moon, our arms to spread heavenward like eagles’ wings, and our feet  swift as deer, we would still be unable to fully express our gratitude to You, Our God and God of our ancestors, or to praise Your name for even one of the myriad moments of kindness with which You have blessed our ancestors and us.”

     We know where we came from. We were once slaves to Pharoah in Egypt. We were doing useless work and ruthlessly oppressed. Our babies were thrown into the Nile. God saved us from that slavery. God punished Egypt for the way we were treated, and we left Egypt in the shadow of God’s strong arm. We can never repay God for that first act of redemption. We can only love God with all our heat, with all our soul and with all our might.

     If we can bless God for everything we have received in life, if we can thank God for all that we have, then we will not have to worry about the endless cycle of wanting more and more money. We are already grateful for what we have. We are already happy with the blessings that we enjoy. We are indebted to God for every moment of our lives. And so, we appreciate all the joy that we experience.

     It is in the act of gratitude that we stop worrying about what we do not have and become thankful for all our blessings. May God always bless us with what we need in life, and may we always be thankful and happy for what we already have as we say …

Amen and Shabbat Shalom

Mon, April 15 2024 7 Nisan 5784