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The Dark Side of the American Dream

Based on Mitzvat Bikkurim: http://www.lehavin.co.il/Index.asp?ArticleID=732&CategoryID=270&Page=1

Parashas Ki Savo, Chumash Devarim


The Dark Side of the American Dream

Based on Parasha U’Likcha by Rabbi Moshe Grylak

by Braha Bender


When Target struck a deal with Starbucks, both received a cutting-edge advantage. Starbucks got branches situated in stores across the United States. Target got that great coffee-shop smell.

It hits you every time you walk in: the aroma. Okay, so it’s probably not actually from the coffee shop (they pipe it in), but department stores are designed to feel welcoming. The message is that shopping is fun. Stores are a great place to be. Come in, stay a while, have a coffee.

These messages are cogs in the wheel of the American dream. Inside the store, material comfort beckons. Buy this item and your life will be more comfortable! You’ll be more successful! You’ll have more time to spend with your kids!

Between the coffee, the bright colors, and the seductive promises of comfort and success, materialism sells. Target is enormously successful. The American dream is alive and well. Everybody loves Target, right? So convenient. So much fun.

But there’s a schizophrenia that plagues Americans. On the one hand, Target is bright, fun, and associated with all sorts of wonderful things. On the other hand, materialism is killing people.

Nobody talks about the dark side of the American dream.

Like the dissociated alternate lives of those suffering from multiple personality disorder, America’s love for material comfort hides something insidious. Closing our eyes doesn’t make it go away.

Nobody talks about the credit card debt that has millions of men and women on anti-anxiety meds. Nobody talks about what happens when spouses are so busy financing their American dream that the relationship is left on the back burner. Divorce rips apart one of every two American marriages. Is that new lawnmower really worth it?

Starbucks and Target don’t cost money, they cost time. Materialism sucks time from marriages, from children, and from other Torah pursuits. Starbucks and Target are bright, fun, and very, very dangerous.

Fortunately, from the very beginning of the Jewish material identity, the antidote to materialism was built right in.


Stop Before You Shop

“And it will be, when you come into the land which Hashem, your God, gives you for an inheritance, and you possess it and settle in it, that you shall take of the first of all the fruit of the ground... And you shall put [them] into a basket and go to the place which Hashem, your God, will choose to have His Name dwell there… And the kohen will take the basket from your hand, laying it before the altar of the Lord, your God.” (Devarim-Deuteronomy 26:1-4)

Before there was Target, there was Orchard and Field. Ancient Israel was an agricultural society. Whenever a Jew felt like the ancient equivalent of a latte, he would head over to his orchard in order to pick a fresh fruit. He would whisper a bracha, pop a succulent green grape into his mouth, and bite into sun-ripened juices.

The difference between Target and an ancient Jewish orchard was that before taking that sweet, juicy bite, every Jew had to put the first and best produce from his trees and fields in a basket and bring them up to the Beis HaMikdash (temple). Why?

Imagine if you had to stop before you shopped. Every time a fabulous new set of merchandise arrived on your local shelves, fresh and ready for the picking, you and your friends would all grab carts and clear the shelves of the most appealing items – but not for you. None of your family or friends could benefit from the shiny, new things.

At least not until you had travelled all the way to the Beis HaMikdash in Jerusalem. After connecting with God, with your roots, and with the true purpose of all your money and possessions, only then would you be permitted to enjoy your purchases.

Sound far-fetched? That’s what Jews living in biblical times would do every year. It worked a whole lot better than anti-anxiety meds.


Reconnecting With a Bigger Picture

The mitzvah to sanctify first fruits, called bikkurim, targeted materialism at its core. As a former city girl once said, “Anyone who thinks farming looks like fun has never been a farmer.” Cultivating fields and orchards is hard work.

Farmers dig up tough, angry topsoil, clear away rocks, wait for the right weather, fertilize, and then spend hours if not weeks planting seed. That’s just the beginning. Weeds and pests will destroy the crop unless someone is out there under the hot sun to clear them away. Today watering systems are a full-fledged industry. Imagine what they had to do before modern technology. For farmers, the to-do list goes on and on.

When you put something in your cart at Target, you feel like this is “my stuff”. Imagine how the farmer felt. By the time fruit finally matured on the branches, ancient Jewish farmers felt much more proprietary than any modern-day shopper. He had planted and toiled for months. Those beautiful first fruits were his fair and square. If anybody had the right to be proud and possessive, the farmer did.

Yet it was precisely at that moment that Jewish farmers let go. The Almighty was the One who blessed the farmer with blossoming orchards and fields. It was to the Almighty that the farmer owed allegiance and pride, not to himself.

Instead of making a proud false god of “me, me, me”, bikkurim brought material abundance back into perspective. Wealth was only a small part of a much bigger picture. Physical comforts and successes were not the ultimate purpose of life.

The ultimate purpose of life was, and is, a relationship and partnership with God. Can shopping at Target and enjoying a nice Starbucks coffee be a part of that? Of course, as long as they don’t become the alter upon which we sacrifice our marriages, our parenting, our mental health, and our precious hours studying and practicing Torah.

How do we, in the twenty-first century, maintain a bikkurim mentality?


Gratitude Attitude

Standing with his first fruits in the Beis HaMikdash, the ancient Jewish farmer would declare aloud:

“An Aramean [sought to] destroy my forefather, and he went down to Egypt and sojourned there with a small number of people, and there, he became a great, mighty, and numerous nation. And the Egyptians treated us cruelly and afflicted us, and they imposed hard labor upon us. So we cried out to Hashem, God of our fathers, and Hashem heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. And Hashem brought us out from Egypt with a strong hand and with an outstretched arm, with great awe, and with signs and wonders. And He brought us to this place, and He gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. And now, behold, I have brought the first of the fruit of the ground which You, Hashem, have given to me.” (ibid 5-10)

It’s the ultimate rags-to-riches narrative, but who is the hero of the story? God is the hero! We were oppressed and He swooped in to save the day.

The farmer acknowledged that his fruits were not just the result of his individual hard work. They were the result and expression of a long, rich history. They were part of a puzzle forming a picture far more beautiful and satisfying than any single lifetime can compose. The Jewish farmer’s joy was not a small, selfish proprietary joy. His joy took place in the context of a relationship with God. That context gave his accomplishments a meaning and dignity that left no place for menial materialism.

So, too, our privileged modern-day lifestyles are a gift. We can use our material abundance as an exercise in gratitude and peace of mind. Or we can use our material abundance to fuel an endless rat-race of lust, self-absorption, dissatisfaction, envy and ultimately great suffering.

Do we remember where we come from as Jews? Do we live in humility, satiation and gratitude? Do our material lives contribute to our relationship with the Almighty? Do we use the convenience of Target to make more time for our families and our Torah?

You decide.

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