You might think that religion would be most successful in societies where a particular religion is able to establish itself and maintain a monopoly, but history has shown that this is not the case. In free societies, competition among religious groups, such as we have in the United States, seems to lead to much higher levels of religious participation than we see in religious monopolies, for example, in many European countries where there is an established church. Perhaps we shouldn't be surprised. In sports and in business, being challenged is considered a necessary condition for success. Being too comfortable can cause a team or a business to lose its edge.
Explaining his team's failure, a coach explained: "What it is, is you've got a hungry team here in New Mexico and I've got a satisfied team in Texas Tech right now." Knight said," We've got to get back to being hungry" (Mark Smith, "Knight: Keep 'Em Hungry," Albuquerque Journal, December 31, 2009).
Similarly, a business journal article titled, "Keep 'Em Hungry and Other Strategies," claims that keeping your suppliers insecure takes them out of their comfort zone and encourages initiative. It quotes an executive who states that "if you take them [your vendors] out of that guaranteed revenue position . . . it encourages them to look for new opportunities," CIO: Business Technology Leadership, October 15, 2007, p. 48).
In this week's Torah portion, God seems concerned that coming into the Land and settling comfortably upon it will cause the Israelites to lose their edge, and that the resulting complacency will cause them to turn away from God. "When the Eternal your God brings you into the land that was sworn to your fathers Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to be assigned to you-great and flourishing cities that you did not build, houses full of all good things that you did not fill, hewn cisterns that you did not hew, vineyards and olive groves that you did not plant-and you eat your fill, take heed that you do not forget the Eternal who freed you from the land of Egypt, the house of bondage" (Deuteronomy 6:10-12).
Robert Alter, professor of Hebrew language and comparative literature at the University of California, Berkeley, explains: "The full belly is the enemy of faith in Deuteronomy. The comforts of prosperity are thought of as leading to complacency, or perhaps even to cultic assimilationism-worshipping the gods of the previous inhabitants who planted those groves and vineyards and hewed those cisterns. Thus the history of Israel teeters on the edge of a precarious balance: If Israel punctiliously adheres to the commands of its God, it will prosper; but when it prospers, it runs the danger of falling away from its loyalty to God" (Robert Alter, The Five Books of Moses [New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2004] p. 913).
S'forno, a medieval Bible commentator from Italy, and one of the big four, whose commentaries were included in the classic compendium Mikraot G'dolot, sees the problem not in the wealth per se, but in the fact that it is new wealth, recently and speedily acquired. Commenting on Deuteronomy Chapter 6 verses 10-12 he writes:
"Wealth so easily acquired is liable to produce unlimited desires in man which eventually result in his rejecting the sovereignty of God" ( Sforno Commentary on the Torah, translation and explanatory notes, Rabbi Raphael Pelcovitz [ Brooklyn, New York, Mesorah Publications, 1997] p. 865)
Others stress the natural tendency of humankind to value more what we don't have and to undervalue that which we do have. This is expressed in a proverb: " A sated person disdains honey, but to a hungry man anything bitter seems sweet" (Proverbs 27:7).
Thus our tradition saw a value in privation, stressing that what words cannot teach us, experience sometimes can. This is how the Rabbis understand wicked King Manasseh's long reign. Through suffering he did ultimately repent and earn merit though he had been unable to learn the good from the wise teachings of his father King Hezekiah (see The Book of Legends: Sefer Ha-Aggadah, ed. Hayim Nahman Bialik and Yehoshua Hana Ravnitzky, trans., William G. Braude [New York: Schocken Books, 1992] p. 716, section 306).
Writing this at what we hope is the tail end of a recession, I'm wondering if our tradition's view of prosperity and deprivation rings true to us. There was an extent to which during the glory days of the economic expansion, we viewed ourselves as "masters of the universe" and were confident that we had achieved all this by our own strength and skill. Having much, we wanted more, just as Sforno suggested, and taking what we had for granted, we assumed the market would continue to rise and our houses would continue to gain in value.
But have the economic hardships of recent years made us more appreciative of the gifts we do have and more sensitive to those in need? Has being a bit hungry made us less self-satisfied? Perhaps. There has been, for some, a turning toward family, toward core values, a seeking of simplicity, an appreciation of home cooked meals, and a rejection of the constant quest for more and more. But others have been made bitter by setbacks and become even more focused on holding on to what they feel is theirs.
As we read Parashat Va-et'chanan this year, let us consider that learning from our privations will lessen their sting. We can replace our hunger for profit with a hunger for something more ultimately sustaining, something that will expand our souls and will-in future prosperity-allow us to be better human beings.
Rabbi Melanie Aron is the senior rabbi at Congregation Shir Hadash in Los Gatos, California. She has served on the URJ Board of Trustees and as chair of the URJ Committee on Adult Jewish Learning, and is involved in interfaith activities in her community.