Have you been following the OWS movement—that’s Occupy Wall St.? Originally started a couple of weeks ago in lower Manhattan, it has spread throughout the US to more than 60 cities—including Atlanta. It all began on Sept. 17th, initiated by the Canadian activist group Adbusters.org to “protest corporate influence on democracy and a growing disparity in wealth.” Adbusters’ senior editor Micah White said they had suggested the protest via their email list and it “was spontaneously taken up by all the people of the world.”
To watch the goings on at OWS and the tent city they set up in Zuccotti Park in lower Manhattan, one could not but be reminded of today’s parsha. 1st of all, we have Abraham and his famous tent with 4 doors—one on each side welcoming guests from every direction. Abraham was also trying to teach the world something—and that is that there is a Gd in the world and that we should treat each other with love and compassion.
But what has come out of the Occupy Wall St. tent cities seems to carry a much different message. At 1st, local restaurants began to complain that the protesters trashed their bathrooms and prevented their regular customers from entering. Then it escalated with a rash of reported sexual assaults, petty thefts and general outbursts of violence—the most serious incident this week with a Molotov cocktail thrown at the World Trade Center in Portland. It almost seemed to me that the OWS tent cities were becoming the modern equivalent of the ancient corrupt cities of Sodom and Gomorrah from today’s Torah portion.
And then on Yom Kippur something wonderful happened. Daniel Sieradski, a local Jewish activist, organized a Kol Nidre service across from Zuccotti park and 1500 people showed up. The liturgy combined traditional elements of the Kol Nidre service with calls for social justice. A special moment came with recital of the Aleynu prayer, in which participants were invited to shout out something they planned to do in the year ahead to make the world a better one.
And then a few days later, a Sukkah went up in 9 of the OWS cities. Activists said that the Sukkah—which is a temporary dwelling—beautifully coincided with the message of these temporary OWS camps. The Jewish Forward reported that on Friday night of Sukkot police asked Jewish activists to take to take down a tent that the Jews for Racial and Economic Justice had set up to facilitate a Friday night—not Shabbos—meal. When the protesters claimed they would not on religious grounds because the tent was a Sukkah—you won’t believe this—the police pointed out that one couldn’t see the stars through that roof so it couldn’t be a Sukkah. Only in America!
However, since the Occupy Wall St. protests began, there has been no shortage of anti-Semitic rants by the demonstrators. I’ve seen many videos, some likening the Jewish people to money-grubbing “bankers” who are in complete “control” of the country and its finances. In one video, a protester pointed to a Jewish man wearing a kippah calling him, a “dumb motherf***er!” In one unbelievable video protesters actually said that “Israeli’s have no heart because they do not blow themselves up in suicide attacks against the Palestinians.” Yes, you heard that correctly. According to the protesters, Israelis actually lack “righteousness” because they don’t kill Palestinians in suicide-bombings. Palestinians, on the other hand, are lauded by the Occupiers for such murderous acts that purportedly “show love” for their cause.
My problem with the whole OWS movement is that I would like to be a little clearer about what it is that they’re protesting. Rabbi Benjamin Blech in a recent article on aish.com called, “Wealth and the Occupy Wall St. Movement,” asks: “Is this more about money or morality?”
What’s troubling, Blech says, is that much of the anger of the protesters seems to be fueled by a sentiment about wealth that Judaism long ago rejected. There have always been people who believed that spirituality demands that we forsake materialism. Rich people are, therefore, wicked by definition. Accumulating a great deal of money is a sin. And hence, in the New Testament Book of Matthew (19:24) it states that: “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of Gd.”
From a Jewish perspective, wealth is not bad—it’s a precious opportunity. When Abraham 1st discovered Gd and gave the gift of monotheism to the world, the Torah tells us that he was divinely rewarded with prosperity. The ancient philosopher Philo had it right when he summed up the Jewish sentiment in these words: “Money is the cause of good things to a good man, of evil things to a bad man.”
From time immemorial Jews have recognized that their mission in life is tkun olam—to improve the world. They were also realistic enough to realize that a great deal of good they were required to perform on this Earth can only be fulfilled with adequate financial resources. Helping the poor, assisting the community and its needs, building synagogues and schools, and supporting friends, family, neighbors—all these good deeds require money.
In a beautiful Midrash, we’re told that when Moses was commanded to take a census of the Jews by asking each to contribute a ½ Shekel coin, Moses was baffled. He couldn’t believe that for something so important like counting Jews something so materialistic would be used. So the Midrash tells us that Gd showed him a “coin of fire.” Fire destroys, but it also creates. Fire may burn, but it also cooks, warms, and serves the most beneficial purposes. Money and fire are related. Wealth may destroy those who possess it but it can also be the source of the greatest blessing. Precisely because it has this quality, it becomes doubly holy. When we choose to use a potentially destructive object in a positive and productive manner, we have learned the secret of true holiness.
In the verses immediately following the Shema Yisrael the Torah commands us, “And you shall love the Lrd your Gd with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your might.” The word, m’odecha, “with all your might,” literally means, “with all your wealth.” Having a great deal of money isn’t a problem. Not knowing what to do with it is what causes almost all of our difficulties. And spending it correctly is the challenge we face throughout our lifetimes that will best determine whether we can face our final judgment after we die with confidence.
“Show me your checkbook stubs,” said the noted psychologist, Erich Fromm, “and I’ll tell you everything about yourself.” Self-indulgence or selflessness? Wine, women and song or charitable works? Hedonism or helping others? Forsaking Gd because you no longer need Him or feeling more spiritually connected out of gratitude for your good fortune?
For those whose crusade against Wall Street is synonymous with a vendetta against all those with wealth, there needs to be recognition of the great good accomplished by many of those who've been blessed with prosperity. Just because someone has “made it” doesn’t make him a villain. To add the adjective “filthy” to the word rich in signs hoisted by OWS protesters is to unfairly castigate those who Gd may have rewarded because they’re wise enough to work on His behalf in creating a better world.
We could all learn much from Michael Bloomberg, the self-made billionaire founder of the Bloomberg financial information firm and New York Mayor, who for 2 years in a row was the leading individual living donor in the United States, according to The Chronicle of Philanthropy. He recently said he intends to give away most of his fortune, because “the best measure of a philanthropist is that the check he leaves to the undertaker bounces.” And that will insure that he dies a very happy man.
Capitalism isn’t only about accumulating more and more money. Just a few years ago Time Magazine named Bill and Melinda Gates as its “Persons of the Year.” Gates, a Wall Street superstar, was acknowledged as one of the most influential people in the country—not because of how much money he has but because of how much of it he is willing to give away. Gates is now trying to convince the super wealthy to publicly commit themselves to giving away most of their fortunes for charitable purposes—and Warren Buffett, one of the world’s wealthiest men, among others has signed on.
When the Occupy Wall Street crowd talks about cleaning up corruption, when it points a finger at all those whose financial recklessness plunged the country into the Great Recession, when it gives voice to the anger we all feel at the perpetrators of highly immoral business practices that hurt millions of innocent victims—for all of these righteous causes they deserve our unqualified thanks.
It’s only when they engage in anti-Semitic slurs, bully local businesses, commit crimes of rape, robbery and violence that their cause, whatever it really is, becomes diminished. And when they confuse anyone who is wealthy with the enemy, we need to remind them that just as much as the poor don’t deserve to be despised for their poverty, the rich don’t deserve to be hated simply because they have money. Rich people are not the enemy. They build businesses and create jobs and increasingly share their wealth. May we soon be blessed to be among them. Amen!
Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis