The economic recession was a harsh, dazing blow to those of us who rested comfortably on the status quo of financial security. Now Americans across the board are finding it difficult to pay for necessities such as food and rent. The secure financial pillars have crashed into the ground: Stock market equity cut in half, over a million jobs lost, Citigroup laying off 50,000 people in one week alone, and the auto industry is threatening to tank. The days of whipping out a credit card without consequence have ended, leaving people who used to make a decent living struggling to put food on the table.
While the news has been consistently dismal, it didn't quite hit home until I became one of the depressing statistics. Myself and the all the ex-Citigroup employees could have a pity party together at Starbucks, although I'm not sure we could afford it.
Why did I spend so much money on food last week?!
I sat in shock that Friday afternoon, heart pounding, tears filling my eyes, staring at my boss in utter dismay. He looked intently at his desk and uncomfortably muttered, "With the economy the way it is now, I just can't afford to keep you on staff any longer."
Thoughts raced through my head. Why did I spend so much money on food last week?! My excel spread sheet containing my budget flashed before my eyes with negative numbers, and my heart was filled with dread knowing that I had to make some serious cuts. Thank God, my situation was not as dire as most, as I had a backup plan and some savings to support myself. It's too scary to even contemplate what would happen if I had no contingency plan, or if I had a family to support.
And so I've spent the past few weeks thinking about finances, in a practical sense and in a spiritual sense, too. Judaism is a very practical religion. In acknowledging how central money is to our survival, every day in the Amidah prayer we ask God to bless us with physical abundance. In ancient times, during the Yom Kippur service, the High Priest would exit the Holy of Holies and recite a short prayer. What did he ask for at this climactic spiritual moment? "Let not your people Israel depend on one another, or on any other nation for its livelihood."
Yet while our basic survival is dependent on sustenance, the fruits of our labor will eventually pass to someone else; every material pleasure is destined to dissipate. In the words of King Solomon, "it is all futile."
Such is the dichotomy of life. That which is most essential to survival, gives us a false sense of security, for it is ultimately temporal.
King Solomon's words flashed through my mind that afternoon as I walked out of my boss's office. All the loyalty and effort that I invested in my career, all my feelings of stability and permanence, were swept away in a matter of seconds. I had mistakenly placed my future goals and my very self-concept in this job. Then I was fired. Futility of futilities!
Gaining Both Worlds
Thankfully, King Solomon offers a bottom-line solution to this existential crisis. When we are focused on spiritual pursuits, what we produce is eternal, and profoundly more pleasurable than anything physical. So should we all just fly off to Israel, study Torah and pray, and everything will be great?
But what about that nagging dichotomy: God created a world in which my survival is dependent upon labor, activities that in and of themselves are futile.
We yearn for spirituality, yet we need the physical tools to survive.
As I sat there at my desk, pondering the meaning of this unexpected turn of events, I recalled an insight I once heard from Rabbi Ephraim Twerski: The Midrash says that Jacob and Esau fought over who would inherit the material realm, and who would inherit the spiritual realm. Jacob -- and his descendents, the Jewish people -- won the spiritual realm. Yet we need the physical tools to survive. How do we achieve both?
The key is purpose. If we use the material realm for sake of spirituality, then it's a win-win: Not only do we enjoy the beauty and pleasure of the material, but we also gain the permanence -- the eternity, actually -- of the spiritual. When I expend my efforts in making money in order to contribute meaningfully to the world, I get both the pleasure of its materiality and the pleasure of meaning.
The solution for true stability, therefore, is to focus our direction on spiritual goals, while using the necessities of this world as tools to help achieve eternity.
I suppose I have my boss at Citicorp to thank for bringing me to such an important realization: We must aim for success in the path of spiritual greatness, but we also need to be blessed with the physical sustenance to make that journey possible. That is true security for our troubled times.