Letting Go of Greed

Our notion of greed evolves throughout our lives.

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"A baby enters the world with hands clenched, as if to say 'The world is mine; I shall grab it.' A person leaves with hands open, as if to say, 'I can take nothing with me.'"
Ecclesiastes Rabbah

We all want different things at different stages of our lives. When we're young, we grab at it all. Life revolves around us. Babies crying do not care what their parents are doing. They want attention, and they want it now. They expect immediate gratification. Slowly, as children grow and begin to recognize a world outside of themselves, they begin to shed selfishness. Sometimes children never grow out of juvenile wanting; as adults, they still expect the world to orbit around their personal universe. The grab for life persists.

greed in judaismEcclesiastes Rabbah is an ancient rabbinic commentary on the book of Ecclesiastes. King Solomon, who is traditionally attributed as the author of the book, shared many meditations on aging and on money in this collection of wisdom. He said, "One who loves money is never satisfied with money." The grabbing leads to more grabbing, in ever-growing greed.

Yet the interpretation above tells us that our perspective on material needs does shift over time when time becomes much more important than money. Looking at life through the physical prism of how we enter and exit it, the ancient sages understood that when we are just born we want it all. Our hands are clenched tight with desire. When we leave this world, we lose that muscle entirely.

Caring About Material Items

We open our hands with resignation as if to say that nothing physical matters anymore. It is of no consequence. Unlike

the Pharaohs of old who brought furniture and clothing with them for the after-life, we wear a simple shroud and lie in a simple coffin and greet the eternal life with nothing else. All of the material excess we accumulate in this world – the houses and clothing and over-full garages of stuff – means nothing at that point.

Rabbi Steven Leder, in his book More Money than God, talks about "extra-material affairs," when we let money distract us from more important matters, like our relationships and our deeply held values. Such affairs often go beyond what we can afford, along the lines of another saying attributed to Solomon, "Stolen waters are sweet" (Proverbs 9:17). Leder wrote his book many years before the economic collapse, but his words have special meaning today at a time of increasing foreclosures and out-of-control executive bonuses.

Consuming makes us happy until the bill comes. The problem with debt is that it allows money to have power over you because, as the Bible says, "The rich rule over the poor, and the borrowed becomes the lender's slave" (Proverbs 22:7)…[banks and credit card companies] are in the business to make money, and they count on your not being able to pay your debts in full. In fact, the more people are irresponsible about credit, the more credit is extended to them.

Leder talks about our overspending as an addiction. When we have a bad day, we shop. When we have a good day, we shop, or we use the ultimate excuse, "It was on sale." That's when people really grab. So many people today are paying so much in humiliation for the grabbing they did on a piece of plastic that pretended to be money.

Ecclesiastes Rabbah reminds us that all that grabbing will not have any meaning at the end of our lives when our palms are laid open, and we let go of it all. Why wait until then?

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Erica Brown

Dr. Erica Brown is the Director for Adult Education at The Partnership for Jewish Life and Learning and consults for The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington. She is an author-winning author and the recipient of the 2009 Covenant Award. Erica has served as an adjunct professor at American University and George Washington University. She lectures on subjects of Jewish interest and leadership.