Concepts that have become the lingo in the past half a year, like recession, debt and stimulus, all have Jewish parallels. How do Jews deal with a spiritual recession?
Over the past half a year, people all over the world have been paying close attention to two things. 1. The Covid-19 statistics, and 2. The economy. The drastic, once in a millennium epidemic brought great fears that we would fall into a recession and even a depression. What is the difference between the two? President Harry Truman once said that if your neighbor loses his job, it’s a recession—but when you lose your job… well, that’s already a depression.
Unfortunately, spiritual “unemployment” in Judaism is also high: Attending Synagogue is more difficult than it used to be, Hebrew School carries a risk, and in general, there are many Jews to whom Torah is not their “line of work,” and perhaps even higher numbers than the unemployment numbers.
And if it’s true with the economy that a neighbor’s woes constitute a recession, then in Judaism, which is our line of work, when our Jewish brethren are spiritually “unemployed,” it’s our problem, and therefore, it’s a depression, not a recession.
Now one of the biggest problems with the U.S. economy is that the national debt keeps growing. And on top of that, the personal debt of each of America’s millions of citizens keeps growing too. People today owe a lot more money than they did once upon a time.
And it’s the same thing in Judaism: Our “debt” to G-d grows each year.
Last year, we may have promised to try hard to be good Jews, earning us a “Shana Tovah” on credit. So we took the loan, used it… but didn’t pay back what we promised to pay. True, we did a mitzvah here and a mitzvah there, but we didn’t come close to paying the debt we owed.
And now, here we come again this year asking for another good year in the form of a loan—and our spiritual debt to G-d only grows…
The Jewish Stimulus
But just like the government tries to do everything it can to get the economy out of its tailspin, so too must we do everything we can to get our Judaism out of its own tailspin.
So: With the U.S. economy, the first thing the government did, was to flow money into economy—an economic stimulus.
The idea was that the government would fix roads, build bridges and schools and other public structures, and thus create local employment opportunities which would automatically give the economy a push.
And the same thing applies to Judaism: The first thing we need to do to strengthen our Judaism is to give charity. The point is this: When a Jew gives charity, first thing, he is doing a mitzvah—his spiritual debt gets smaller. Additionally, because of the spiritual energies that it introduces into the universe, giving charity helps one’s material and physical business dealings.
The Talmud tells us about the great Sage, Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai, who was the leader of the Jewish Nation at the time of the Destruction of Second Temple. The story goes that he was once riding a donkey on his way from Jerusalem, with his students following behind him—when he suddenly saw from afar a young girl digging around for something to eat on a mound of garbage.
She was simply a poor girl literally looking through a landfill for anything edible.
But when he got closer, she recognized him, stood in front him and said, “Master—sustain me!” Rabbi Yochanan asked her, “Whose daughter are you?” Meaning, what family do you come from? Who are your parents? She answered: I’m the daughter of Nakdimon ben Gurion.
Now if you know your Talmud, that should shock you. Because Nakdimon ben Gurion was one of the three wealthiest citizens of Jerusalem. So of course, Rabbi Yochanan asked her: Where did your parents’ money disappear? What happened? How did you end up like this?
So the girl told him: You don’t remember how in Jerusalem, they would say, “the money is missing salt.” What that meant is that just like salt preserves anything that you salt, like meat or fish or vegetables, so too would they say in Jerusalem that you have to salt your money or else you’ll lose it.
But how indeed do you “salt” your money? For this, the Talmud (Tractate Kesuvos 66b) tells us: By giving charity.
Now when recessions hit, academic pursuits tend to proliferate. More people tend to go back to college during recessions, in the belief that people who get college degrees have much better chances of finding work.
As we all know, every Jewish mother tells her son to become a doctor. After all, doctors are always in demand, good economies or bad. And the same is true for law professors, accountants and so on. As a general rule, a person with an education has a much higher chance of finding a job during a recession.
By way of example, a recent headline said that while general unemployment was close to ten percent, unemployment among college graduates was only about four percent. That’s a huge difference.
But the same is true for Judaism.
A Jewish child who gets an education in a Jewish school has a much better chance of standing firm when there is “recession” in Judaism. For starters, he’s got a lot of knowledge—he simply knows more. On top of that, the study of Judaism makes Judaism a part of him—he feels that Judaism is something that belongs to him, not something extra that is outside him. He doesn’t see himself as an American first and a Jew second.
To a kid who gets a good Jewish education, Judaism is his line of work, his career, his profession. And it doesn’t make a difference what physical or spiritual state the Jewish Nation ends up in—in all times, his Judaism will be part of him.
Now during times of recession, governments lower taxes, at least on small businesses, in the hope that it will encourage entrepreneurs to open businesses and hire workers.
And again, it’s the same thing in Judaism.
Everyone knows that there are 613 mitzvos that a Jew needs to keep. But how can G-d expect us to keep so many mitzvos? What does G-d want from us already? So I’ve got news for you: It’s true that at the Giving of the Torah, G-d gave us 613 mitzvos—but when the Jewish Nation was exiled from its land, G-d “lowered the taxes.”
What does that mean? It means that there are many mitzvos that can only be kept when the entire Jewish Nation is located in the Holy Land, like the mitzvah of Yovel, of the jubilee year, which involves Jewish-owned farmland in the Holy Land, and was only held once every 50 years.
Ever since the Exile, however, we can only keep 87 positive mitzvos, And the purpose of that is to lighten the burden of mitzvos upon us, so that we’ll be able to get out of our spiritual “recession” and start keeping more and more mitzvos.
Back in the 1930s, when America was in the Great Depression, American Jews stopped buying gifts for Bar Mitzvahs, birthdays, weddings and so on. They simply didn’t have the money. They also didn’t go on vacations. Instead, they started taking pleasure in less expensive things, like going to the movies, buying candies, and so on.
But what’s interesting is that at that time, among the new industries that sprung up were the postcard and greeting card industries. Instead of spending larger amounts of money on gifts, people would send lovely card with a few pleasant greetings written on the back, and with that, they would discharge their social obligations.
Now at that time, a Jew named Irving Stone, living in Cleveland, Ohio started a greeting-card company and turned it into a huge business. And to this day, this huge company is known as American Greetings, and its Jewish founder became one of Cleveland’s biggest philanthropists.
So, getting back to our subject of spiritual recessions: Even in the “work” of the Jewish Nation, when there is a recession, people are not expected to do great things and make great changes. What G-d expects of the Jew at such a time is a “postcard,” a “greeting card”—whatever little mitzvah he or she can do: Lighting candles on Friday, putting a mezuzah on the doorpost, putting on tefillin from time to time.
These are things that anyone can do—and with a lot of little mitzvos, it’s possible to eventually become a big spiritual “philanthropist” and launch a huge “mitzvah business.” And then, not only will such a “business” be enough for you, but you’ll be able to draw close and connect many Jews with G-d.
The Rebbe always said that on Rosh Hashanah, every Jew needs to resolve to add something to his or her Jewish repertoire.
So my friends, let us take this opportunity, standing before G-d, our King, on this Rosh Hashanah day, to resolve to send G-d a “postcard”—a mitzvah—every day in this coming year.