Remember That Time Is on Your Side: Choosing Possessions Over Promise Has Consequences

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By Rabbi Gregory Marx

Parshat Matot-Masei

There is a pronounced human tendency to reach for the short-term pleasures of life, when we know that it is better to wait for the longer-term benefits. Every day, we are tempted to reach for that which gives us joy in the short term even though it may hurt us in the long term.

Among the Seven Deadly Sins, listed prominently is greed. We take that which is not ours and, in the process, undermine our integrity and our character. We choose immediate gratification rather than waiting and building slowly.

Our grandparents came to America with a dream. They dreamed of working hard seven days a week so that their children and grandchildren might have the opportunities denied to them.

Today, the American dream has nothing to do with differed gratification. Today, the American dream is winning the lottery. That tells us a great deal about our focus on the short term.

Our landscape is dotted with fast food restaurants, which provide poor nutrition, but we go there because it’s fast and easy. Just returning from Europe to visit my daughter, I was struck by how differently Europeans and Americans eat. Those on the continent dine and are never handed the check until it is asked for. Here, in the states, our servers put the bill down while we are still chewing our last bite. Everyone is in a hurry.

We are obsessed with our phones, fascinated with immediate gratification and consumed by our consumption.

Peace activist Elsie Boulding wrote, “Frugality is one of the most beautiful and joyful words in the English language, and yet one that we are culturally cut off from understanding and enjoying. The consumption society has made us feel that happiness lies in having things, and has failed to teach us the happiness of not having things.”

Our Midrash teaches, “Three gifts were created in the world, and these are wisdom, strength and wealth.” Our sages argued that possessions acquired honestly and used judiciously can enhance life, but we must be careful, lest our possessions own us.

Consider in Matot-Masei how hunger for immediate gratification destroyed our community.

The tribes of Israel had concluded their wandering through the wilderness and were gathered on the eastern shores of the Jordan River. They were so close to their goal of entering the Promised Land, the land of Israel, that they could practically see their destination from where they stood.

Most could hardly wait to take possession of the land. Standing on the shores of redemption, the members of the tribes of Gad and Reuben looked about themselves and saw lush, verdant land. They chose to grab what they could rather than having to potentially fight for the Holy Land.

As a consequence, the Torah tells us that they remained outside of Israel. The Torah continues, “The children of Reuben and the children of Gad owned cattle in very great numbers.” They chose pastures and fields for their flocks, financial security rather than loyalty to the covenant and the fulfillment of God’s promise.

The Midrash Rabbah tells us that as a consequence of choosing possession over promise, they were the first tribes to go into exile. You see, there was no other tribe around them to protect them when the invaders from the north came upon them. Money in the end couldn’t save them.

While few would deny that wealth can be a great blessing, it can also be a person’s undoing. When it becomes an obsession rather than a luxury, when it becomes a goal rather than a means to a goal, when it displaces character and morality and becomes the source of one’s security, then wealth turns on its owner and becomes a snare and an enemy.

In the final analysis, the tribes of Gad and Reuben had easy lives until they didn’t and, by that time, they were cut off from their people. The source of contentment, our Torah teaches, cannot be quantified or qualified. Happiness lies in living a life of character, integrity and holding fast to the values of our people and heritage. What is in our hearts alone can save us. 

Rabbi Gregory Marx is the spiritual leader at Congregation Beth Or in Maple Glen. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide the Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent.

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