New car, caviar, four star daydream

Money, its a gas.
Grab that cash with both hands and make a stash.
New car, caviar, four star daydream,
Think I’ll buy me a football team.

Yes, I know that most Torah posts don’t begin with lyrics from Pink Floyd.  But what’s the advantage of coming from a secular background if you can’t resurrect some of the nonsense of your past life and use it to give your point a little more punch?

I heard a story only yesterday — one of the many sad stories of people whose feet were swept out from under them by the current financial collapse — about a fellow who had made millions buying up 800 numbers based on the names of big businesses and then selling the numbers to those same corporations.  Then came the age of the website and his business evaporated.  Now he’s deep in debt with huge obligations and no prospects.

Although my heart goes out to this person and his family, it’s difficult not to see in this story yet another symptom of the mentality that created the current economic crisis.

Torah law prohibits any Jew from either charging or paying any other Jew interest.  Why?  Although there is no prohibition against profiting through other business dealings, the charging of interest is in a class by itself, for it is neither investment, nor commerce, nor production.  It is making money from someone else’s money by taking advantage of someone else’s need which, according to Jewish philosophy, is not profiting but profiteering.

The Torah wants us to acquire a sensitivity to the difference between business and opportunism.  (It’s worth noting that once upon a time even the Christian world retained this sensitivity, and that Jews were forced to support themselves through moneylending because Christian society prohibited them from engaging in “respectable” professions.)

As I’ve written in connection with this week’s Torah portion, we have created an economy in which nothing is produced and nothing is created, in which business is  increasingly defined by an insatiable appetite for quick profits through the manipulation of other people’s money.  Such a system, as we discovered so unpleasantly, cannot sustain itself.

The most recent example is Bernard Madoff, who convinced some of the most respected and distinguished investors in the western world that he held the keys to the kingdom of inexhaustable riches, bilking them to the tune of 50 billion dollars.  No one asked questions, no one noticed the telltale signs of inviability because no one wanted to look that hard.

About a dozen years ago, when I was living in Atlanta, a man won a $4 million lottery — an extraordinary amount for the time.  He had been working a double-shift as a garbage collector.  When asked what he intended to do with his new-found fortune, he replied:

“I’m going to quit one of my shifts.”

The astonished reporter then asked:  “Only one of your shifts?”

The new millionaire answered back:  “A man has to work.”

Wise words from a wise man, garbage collection aside.  Today the conventional vision of success is wealth without effort.  Or, paradoxically, pathological exertion devoted toward the goal of leisure and recreation.  More on this in a later post.

For now, it’s worth recalling the deceptively simple words of the misha:  Who is rich?  The one who is happy with his portion.  Those caught up in the relentless pursuit of ever greater wealth are anything but happy and anything but rich, no matter how much money they may have.

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