Brainstorming with Baars Parshat Behar: God's Cosmic Joke
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Behar(Leviticus 25:1-26:2)

God's Cosmic Joke

It would seem that life can go one of four ways: (1) the rich get richer, (2) the rich get poorer, (3) the poor get richer, and (4) the poor get poorer.

However, few things are as they really seem. One of these four is not possible - which?

Despite what you might read on the front page of the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) or maybe in the editorial of Socialist Weekly, the rich cannot get richer.

Let me explain, I have a watch. It costs around $30. Some people have watches that cost $30,000. But for both of us, it's still only eighteen minutes past one o'clock. In other words, you just can't do better than function. Once something does what it is supposed to do, you just can't do better than that. Sure, you can inlay it with diamonds, you can add a radio and a GPS system, but when all is said and done, money really can't do more for you than help you function in life.

Let me explain this in a different way. Let's visit Joe. Joe lives in Somalia and he is part of the bottom 10% of the world's poor. Joe has never seen a bathroom or a shower. He has been wearing the same rags for years. He can't remember when he last had a meal. At best he eats just once a day, and then it's not much. Joe's chances of living past 30 years old are very slim. In fact he's just lucky he lived through childbirth. I could go on, but I think you get the idea.

This chap somehow moves to America and enters the relatively small group of so-called poor Americans. Basically he is living on a bench in Manhattan.

As such, Joe thinks he died and went to heaven. He has relatively clean clothes, access to basic health care. He probably has two meals a day and sometimes even a shelter. No one can shoot him and he might even be able to make some money.

That jump in the quality of his life is massive. No other improvement in his standard of living will ever equal the dramatic jump that move had on his life. There is a downside though. Joe thinks that because he multiplied his income by a factor of approximately 20, and his enjoyment of life multiplied equally as much, then it stands to reason, every similar jump in income is only going to make him equally happy.

This is his and our mistake.

You see, our poor new immigrant Joe eventually ascends from being poor to lower middle-class America. He now has a job and a room somewhere, three meals a day, indoor plumbing and a host of other amenities we all take for granted. Still an impressive jump, but not as great in degree as the first elevation.

But wait, let's see how our story unfolds. Our friend now has some more luck and moves up to the middle of the middle-classes. He has a car, home, entertainment, vacation, etc. Do you notice it's not as exciting?

He didn't either, so he keeps pushing up.

Next he moves to upper middle class. Hardly anything changed in his fundamental life style. His day is probably no different. Yes, he might be driving a Lexus to work, but it's still only a car and he's had one of those for a while now.

Joe then enters the world of the rich, maybe even the super rich. However, at best only 1% of his lifestyle is going to change. He still eats, sleeps in a bed and wears clean clothes. That's a big difference to the percentage change that he experienced when he went from Somalia to New York. There his quality of life change was 50% or 60%, if not more.

This is G-d's cosmic joke. The rich cannot get richer. You can't escape the tight box we are all in. Life doesn't get better than function. The reason Bill Gates is giving away so much of his money is because there is nothing to buy with it that would make the slightest bit of difference in his way of life.

I like to joke that when Gates went from $50 billion to $60 billion he did not call up his wife and say, "It's OK honey, we can eat out tonight." That's because the further up the ladder in dollar amounts, the less value it adds to your life.

Unfortunately though, most people can't get out of the rat race to realize all their efforts at the office bear little or no fruits outside that office.

"For six years you may plant your fields and prune your vineyards… But on the seventh year the land will observe a complete rest, a Shabbat for G-d…" (Leviticus 25:3-4)

It's called ROI (return on investment). You will typically see the ROI concept used in a business context. The higher the ROI the better the investment. It isn't as important to know how much you made, as it is to know how much you invested initially, and how long it took to realize the final sum. A small investment that generates a high return in a short time is a good ROI.

When Joe first landed in America, a day's work meant a real upgrading in his life style. In other words, an excellent ROI. But at 65 years old as the department head of a top brokerage firm, a hard days work may bring him a nice bonus at the end of the year, but the ROI for that additional benefit might be in the negative.

The additional money will not make the slightest difference in the quality of his life. He would have received more out of life if he had taken the day off and spent it with his family.

Nothing is going to change because he now can buy a $30,000 watch or a $300,000 car. It's time to stop, look around and ask yourself, what is the "more" out of life that would make it all worth it? That's why this week's parsha tells us to stop, take some time so that you can find what is in life that makes it all worthwhile.

That's the joke, after a certain point, the only way is up. Where is up? Let me explain.

There is a news story that is constantly being repeated - the gap between the rich and the poor has been getting bigger. Proof being, the rich get richer and everyone else is lagging behind.

As I have explained, it's a fallacy. In fact, it's been shrinking for the last 100 years at least. For sure, the gap between Joe in Manhattan and Joe in Somalia is massive. But the gap between middle-class Joe and Warren Buffet is very small and getting smaller all the time.

True, the rich have more dollar bills in the bank, but the problem is, those dollar bills do very little to improve the quality of life once you cross a certain threshold. Once you have a car in the driveway, the brand makes very very little difference. Once you have a watch on your wrist, whether the strap is made of leather with diamond studs or plastic makes very little difference.

You might say, "But it is some difference?"

Yes, but the real difference between those two people, the rich and the not-so-rich, is not the square footage of their houses but how the people in those houses get along. Somewhere in Joe's progression up the ladder of success things like friends, family, peace of mind, love, trust and a host of other upper values are going to make the real difference in his quality of life.

You can have the biggest yacht in the neighborhood, but if your wife doesn't love you, then it's just not going to be a lot of fun.

Get the joke, it's cosmic.

* * *

BRAINSTORMING QUESTIONS TO PONDER

Question 1: Who do you know that enjoys life more than you?

Question 2: What do they have that enables them to enjoy life like that?

Question 3: In 20 years from now, will you look back and wish you had spent your time differently?

Published: May 2, 2010

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Visitor Comments: 5

(5) Anonymous, May 7, 2014 3:06 PM

You can't do better than function

Some things money can't buy. I like your statement that you can't do better than function. My left hand doesn't function because of a stroke. Even if I won 100 million dollars in th lottery there's no guarantee this money could give back this function so it wouldn't make me any richer except on paper.

(4) Shlomit Feder, August 7, 2012 8:10 PM

thanks

I really liked this article. it is a real pity that not many people took the time to read it (at least that's how it looks like to me). Maybe publish it again under adifferent headline. Looking forward to read more authored by you. Shlomit

(3) Anonymous, May 14, 2012 2:52 PM

That was powerful!

(2) Anonymous, May 22, 2011 7:47 PM

Law of Diminishing Marginal Utility

It seems as if you are rephrasing the economic law of diminishing marginal utility in your article. If utility of a specific object such as a watch is your goal then yes, a Rolex only brings a certain amount of utility over a Timex but if you acknowledge that with greater wealth, it is entirely possibly to increase leisure time and decrease the pain of living a daily grind. I think it is a mistake to focus of the "trappings" of the richer and their functional utility and not on their true wealth which is time and the ability to purchase services that make living life easier. This accumulation of wealth for those aforementioned reasons would actually seem to undermine the premise of your example and lesson about Shmittah.

(1) Anonymous, May 14, 2011 7:09 PM

good to think about it. thanks!

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