How To Handle the Financial Crisis: A Trans-Century Phone Call

imageRuminating about the economic turndown, I came across a fascinating article in the June 1, 2008 issue of the New York Times, “It’s Not So Easy Being Less Rich.” It describes the financial travails of Manhattan’s super-rich. Although their investments once engendered huge annual incomes, these incomes have now shrunk to as low as $2 million a year. They do not face foreclosure of their chateau-like Park Avenue apartments, nor are they reduced to frequenting discount stores, but the financial turmoil has seriously lowered their luxurious standard of living. They are no longer able, for example, to hire private jets at $10,000 an hour. Some even worry about their marriages, fearful that their trophy wives, accustomed to extravagant spending, might leave them entirely.

While pondering this, I heard a strange crackling on my telephone. I picked it up and overheard a voice saying: “Pass this message on to the rich Manhattanites: My name is Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, and I’m talking to you from the eighteenth century. Among the books I have written is Mesillat Yesharim, Path of the Righteous, published in 1740—but before you dismiss it as out of date, listen to chapter 13: ‘When one accustoms himself to luxuries, to enjoying the excesses of the so-called good life, danger lurks around the corner.’ Even though I wrote that 250 years ago, you will admit that it is very current.”

The connection sputtered out. A call that spans a few hundred years, after all, is a very long distance call.

I went back to the Times article. The personal trainer to many executives was saying that because of stress, many super-rich are suffering sleepless nights, overdrinking and overworking, thus hurting their physical well being.

Rabbi Luzzatto came back on the line: “I am happy that the Times corroborates my teaching, but all this is very obvious. That same chapter 13 says:

Should the person who is used to luxury even momentarily lack what he is accustomed to, he becomes greatly depressed, and throws himself even more vigorously into the toils of commerce and acquisitions in order to recoup his losses—and thus embarks once again onto the cycle that led to his depression in the first place.

“You have my sympathies,” he said. “God be with you.”

I resumed reading the Times. The personal trainer was saying: “They come in with these storm-clouds over their heads. They look like hell.”

Luxuries are not forbidden—as long as we run them, and they don’t run us. Luxury-envy can easily turn into luxury-lust.”

The line crackled again. “Shalom! I am Rabbi Avraham ben HaRambam, son and disciple of the famous Maimonides. I could not help overhearing. In my book, The Guide to Serving God, I discuss the quality of ‘histapkut,’ which means ‘contentment with little.’ This is not easy to achieve, but once it is, it is a guarantee for happiness in life, a real antidote to the misery you are now experiencing. See my chapter 9:

He who has learned to be content with what he has, and not to look at what others have, will fully enjoy life. Greed and hunger for more and more only makes us less and less healthy. The simple life leads to good health. To dress flashily, or eat greedily, or to amass extravagant possessions only leads to misery in the long run.

Although I wrote this in 1230, now you surely understand that this is not just medieval pie-in-the-sky moralizing, but very practical advice. Your personal trainer takes several hundred dollars an hour. But what I tell you is better for your health—and it’s free.”

The rich Manhattanites were silent. How were they supposed to know the teachings of ancient Jewish moralists?

However, one would have expected a person like Ehud Olmert, raised in a Jewish land, to have been exposed to some of these ideas. Olmert’s ethical problems all stem from his apparent desire to emulate his wealthy acquaintances. (By the way, who was the last Israeli prime minister who lived rather simply? One has to go back decades. Was it Menachem Begin? Golda Meir? David Ben-Gurion?) As I considered this, Rabbi Luzzatto began talking: “Ehud, you have been leading a Jewish country. How can it be that you evidently never saw my books, which are considered Jewish classics? You might have spared yourself much tzaros. Listen to my chapter 15:

When one sees the splendor and riches of men of great wealth, it is impossible for lust not to rise up—and danger lies ahead—because the lust for luxuries soon gives way to envy and fraud, all generated by the things he is convinced he must have.…

“Ehud, I don’t want to kick you while you are down, but surely my words make sense to you.”

Olmert responded: “With all due respect, my dear rabbi, what you said might have been fitting for the eighteenth century, but this is the twenty-first century. Surely there is nothing wrong with an occasional little luxury.”

Rabbi Avraham ben HaRambam came on the line, in what had become a century-spanning conference call: “Ehud, you are right. We are not to become monks or nuns. God wants us to enjoy the pleasures of the world—but all within the confines of His guidelines. Luxuries are not forbidden—as long as we run them, and they don’t run us. Luxury-envy can easily turn into luxury-lust.”

Chimed in Rabbi Luzzatto: “In other words, when “I-would-like-that” becomes “I-must-have-that-come-what-may,” that is the red alert. The next stop is what we in the thirteenth century call vexation of spirit, and what you moderns call depression. Ehud? Ehud, are you still on the line?”

I awoke from my reverie wondering why such books are not required reading in all Jewish schools. Not only could they help create a happier citizenry, but they could also create a healthier community.

It was then that I discovered the perfect gift for the person who has everything. Give a starter kit to good health and contentment: a deluxe package of these two newly translated classics, Rabbi Luzzatto’s Path of the Righteous and Rabbi Avraham ben HaRambam’s Guide to Serving God. And lest the recipient consider them quaint and outdated, wrap them in a copy of the June 1, 2008 issue of the New York Times.

Rabbi Feldman was rabbi in Atlanta, Georgia, for forty years. He is the former editor of Tradition magazine, and the author of nine books.

This article was featured in the Spring 2009 issue of Jewish Action.