Parashat Mattot

Living in Balance

What accounts for the negative correlation between material excess and awareness of the Divine?

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Most Westerners seek a relatively high material standard of living marked by ownership of a house, car, and appliances; vacations; and frequent consumption of meat and other "luxury" items.

We also feel a deep desire for spiritual fulfillment, inner peace, and a connection to the Infinite; which manifests itself in traditional religious practice, 'new age' spirituality, and a host of other forms and perspectives.

Finally, most of us sincerely value a planet in ecological balance, where the global climate is stable, species perpetuate themselves, and the ozone layer is intact, to name a few primary issues. We search for balance between these things for ourselves, but even more importantly for our children and for their children. Yet true equilibrium often escapes us.

Like the tribes of Reuben and Gad we find our material and spiritual pursuits at odds. Excessive focus on material well-being distracts us from Godly pursuits, and in the Book of Deuteronomy (8:11-14) Moses warns the children of Israel of exactly this dynamic:

"Take care...lest you eat and be satisfied and you build good houses and settle, and your cattle and flocks increase, and you increase silver and gold for yourselves, and everything that you have will increase--and your heart will become haughty and you will forget the Lord your God…"

How does this happen? What accounts for the negative correlation between material excess and awareness of the Divine? 

A Tough Balancing Act

In a world where "belief" in the power of money is a primary value, there is simply less room for belief in God as the central force in our world. Even more so, we begin to credit ourselves for our successes and dismiss God's uniquely providential role in our lives.

As the Kli Yakar (Rabbi Ephraim Luntchitz, Prague 1550-1619) says about Reuben and Gad, "the nature of wealth is to make its owner arrogant." Focusing too much energy on the material unbalances us, weakens our ability to focus on the spiritual, and ultimately removes us from Godly consciousness and pursuits. Thus a first step toward tikkun (repair) is acknowledging that some material aspirations can undermine spiritual ones.  

The hardship of balancing material and ecological desires is as problematic for most of us as resolving the above conflict between material and spiritual ones. A good example is global climate change. Fossil fuels are central to our standard of living in that they power the manufacture and operation of consumer goods. They are also the main driver of global climate change. International scientific consensus states that such change will very likely bring more severe storms, floods, and droughts, with major impact on human societies.

In light of this, it would seem reasonable to amend the way in which we produce and consume. Yet many of us would experience a serious reduction in fossil fuel use as inconvenient at best and seriously distressful at worst. What do we do when the lifestyle we want to live endangers the healthy functioning of the planet on which we live?

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Jonathan Neril

Jonathan Neril is the project manager of the Jewish Environmental Parsha Initiative. He is a rabbinical student in his fourth year of Jewish learning in Israel. He received an MA and BA at Stanford with a focus on global environmental issues.