We all live in a world based on faith. Modern society is, by its very structure of multi-leveled cooperation and global interface, a faith-based society. And even the least religious among us draws on a remarkable reservoir of faith for his everyday survival.
For example, every time you board a plane, you put your faith in the flight crew, the ground crew -- and these days, in Homeland Security -- that you will reach your destination safely.
Every time you take medicine on prescription, you are putting your faith in the doctor who wrote the prescription, the company that manufactured it, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration that certified it as safe -- and that it won't kill you.
Nor do you have to be sick or leave home to require an ample supply of faith. Every morsel of food, from your morning Wheaties to your last spoonful of Ben & Jerry's, comes with the certification of government inspectors that there was no spoilage, that nobody along the line of production tampered with the product, and that the inspectors themselves weren't sleeping on the job. Because, if not, that spoonful could be your last.
Our public lives, too, are imbued with faith. Democracy is built on it. Saddam Hussein doesn't need his citizens to trust him -- only to fear him -- in order to rule. But the citizens of a democratic society agree to abide by the laws, pay taxes and serve in the military because they trust their elected officials to make policy and administer the laws of the land fairly.
Without the chain of faith that binds society together, everything would cease to function.
Whenever that trust is betrayed, it has a corrosive effect, weakening the loyalty of the people and their willingness to bear the burdens of a modern democracy. And, as we have seen so recently in America, when the electoral process itself is called into question, a bitterness and alienation ensues that could, if not checked, tear the country apart.
So our daily lives amply demonstrate a profound faith in the honesty and professionalism of thousands of human beings in government, industry and the military. Indeed, without the chain of faith that binds society together, everything would cease to function.
To a large extent, that is what the present economic crisis is all about. When the economy is healthy, money circulates, people buy and sell, invest and lend. But they do so only because they have confidence in the economy; that their investments will pay dividends, that their loans will be paid back, that they will have more money to buy more things after the last thing they have bought.
Without that confidence, fear steps in, the flow of money stops, and the economy with it.
What causes this sudden change? Why is it that where once -- not so long ago -- there was a pulsing, forward-moving confidence, there is now so much fear and anxiety?
Arguably the most important cause of the crisis is the series of massive scandals that have rocked corporate America in the past year. As a result of the multi-billion dollar devaluation of major corporations like Enron, World.com and others, investors have lost confidence in the market. Time will tell if the aggressive measures being taken in Washington -- more stringent stock market regulations, the big new tax cut, a new presidential advisory team -- will have the desired effect.
But one thing is certain: it is on the basis of such intangibles that the nation's leading economists are basing their recommendations.
Over half a century ago, Rabbi Elchonon Wasserman called attention to the very same intangibles. A scholar and a martyr of the Holocaust, he was no economist; his insights into the economic problems of his time (the worldwide Depression) were based on his own penetrating observations as informed by Jewish tradition.
Rabbi Wasserman put the principles of economics into an historical/religious perspective: Since the era of prophecy ended early in the Second Temple period, God has had to communicate His wishes to mankind by means other than direct communication with the prophets. Once, God spoke through the rebukes and warnings of the prophets. The people were told directly where they had gone wrong and how they were expected to correct their ways. There was a direct line of communication.
Since then, God communicates with us in a different way -- through the events of history. By interpreting the underlying meaning of events, we can gain some clarity as to what God wants of us.
Of course, if events were random, without pattern, there would be no way for us to discern the Divine will. But God acts in a way known in Jewish tradition as midah keneged midah, literally translated as "measure for measure." This means that the troubles which befall us -- or the blessings that are bestowed upon us -- partake of the very character and resemble the good or bad deeds which precipitated them.
To be sure, the events that whirl about us are often chaotic and confusing, but with this key to interpretation, we can sometimes attain clarity.
Rabbi Wasserman applied this principle to the problem of economic slowdown. For this, too, is midah kneged midah: If people have no faith in God, He will see to it that they will also have no faith in each other. It follows, therefore, that if a situation arises in which people lack faith in each other, it may very well be that it is because they have forgotten to draw on the wellsprings of faith in their Creator.
It is not meant as a punishment. God, in the Jewish view, is not vindictive. On the contrary, He wants the best for us. We need to utilize the natural capacity for faith that is such a ubiquitous feature of our daily life. We need to see that the countless acts of faith in others that society depends on is ultimately useless without a faith in God as its base. If we don't, we need to be reminded of where true faith resides.
The economic slowdown, painful as it is, is really a blessing. It is the signpost on the road back to the faith we have lost. If we can realize that, then, with God's help, we can get things moving again.
Sources: Bais HaLevy al HaTorah, Parshas Vayechi for the idea of faith in daily life;Talmud Sanhedrin 90a for the general principle of midah kenged midda; N.Z. Grossman, Yated Ne'eman, Parshat Vayeira, for his translation of Rabbi Wasserman's remarks from the Yiddish, adapted for this article.