Ask the Rabbi with Rabbi Yitzchak Schochet
It’s the curse of too much
Dear Rabbi Why did God give the Jews the land of Israel – mostly uncultivated desert, while neighbouring states have the oil? How does this make Israel the land of ‘milk and honey’?
You know the old quip: “If only Moses would have made a right instead of a left.” Terry Lynn Karl, a political science professor at Stanford University and author of The Paradox of Plenty shows how the populations of poor countries such as Nigeria often get poorer after oil is discovered and a tiny elite benefits. “Countries with a history of conflict,” he writes, “have perverse effects from mineral wealth – more war, more corruption, less democracy and more inequality.”
Oxford professor and World Bank economist Paul Collier has calculated the probability of civil war in such countries. His conclusion is that in a country that doesn’t dispose of substantial natural resources, the risk is only as high as a half-percent. In countries that depend mainly on natural resources, on the other hand, the probability rises to 23 percent. Think about this.
When countries have riches readily available for the taking under their feet, they are not really motivated to make maximum use of their brains. Ingenuity is the product of need; resourcefulness, initiative and inventiveness are the ways people who have to struggle for prosperity grow to greatness. Countries are like people.
Often, though not always, children born into extreme wealth, never having had to exert themselves to be surrounded by luxury, end up as unproductive playboys who contribute little, if anything, to the world around them. They live their lives reaping the benefits of unearned riches without feeling the need to make any personal payments or contributions in return.
How often do we read in the tabloids about this one or that one’s child getting into trouble, getting arrested, being rehabilitated from drugs, etc. Small wonder that two of the richest men in the world, Warren Buffett and Bill Gates, have made clear they want to give away most of their fortunes during their lifetime so that they “do not burden their children with what they call “the curse of having too much”.
There is much to be said about such a perspective. Just imagine if, in 1948, Jews would have come to a land welcoming them with the oil reserves of neighbouring Saudi Arabia. We would never have seen the creation of the country that is a world leader in so many areas of scientific achievement, of medical breakthroughs, of pioneering accomplishments that are nothing short of miraculous. Without oil, Israelis realised that they had to earn their bread by the sweat of their brows and stimulation of their minds.
That’s why, in retrospect, the greatest blessing of Israel is that it wasn’t blessed with an overabundance of resources that would make intelligence and brainpower unnecessary. All God chose to give us were milk and honey. Not because these are the two most valuable items in the world, but because they are the metaphors for the true blessings of life. Milk is the first food we imbibe from our mothers.
As a child, every one of us was content with milk. God gave us a land “flowing with milk” to remind us that out of His great love He made sure we wouldn’t ever be deprived of what is really essential for our well-being. Honey is the symbol of sweetness. Material blessings don’t necessarily bring joy.
A life of genuine sweetness is the one endeavour that makes life worth living. A land that flows with milk and honey means being granted the ability to make its inhabitants happy, through a process of self-fulfillment – by means of human endeavour.
Role of women in community
As a United Synagogue member, I wonder about all the media attention on the role of women in mainstream Judaism. I don’t know the practical implications, but if there is a clear demand for change, why can’t we just implement it?
The irony is that if you look back in the press over the past couple of years, you will find it is the same people beating the same drum over and over again.
You’d think they stand for everyone when I am fairly certain they represent less than three percent of their constituency.
You’d also think the United Synagogue was backward, stuck in some time warp while these “suffragettes” are looking to implement change.
The hard fact is that the US caters to a broad spectrum of members and does so quite remarkably in so many wonderful ways. Shabbat UK is one of many outstanding examples. Although there are those who bang on about more of a role for the woman, I am not sure what exactly they are on about. Is it the Shabbat morning service? Do they want to take down the mechitza?
Do they want to break with normative Halacha? Is the US deemed backward, because all of three hours in the week doesn’t comply with their agenda?
Call me naive, but I am just not getting it. I’m proud to be part of a synagogue body that enables so much diversity while maintaining traditional standards – and engages its membership today more than it has done at any time during its long history.