Consumerism and the Unhappy Generation

When HASHEM your G-d will broaden your boundary as He spoke to you, and you say, “I will eat meat,” for you will have a desire to eat meat, to your heart’s entire desire you may eat meat. Devarim 12:20

For forty years in the Midbar the Jewish people ate mon.  Guided by Moshe Rabbeinu, engaged in constant Torah study with every physical need taken care of, the Klal Yisrael lived on a lofty spiritual plane. Now they were being ushered into a different era; they would be entering Eretz Yisroel and begin living in a natural manner, and so they were given many directives to retain their status of  an exalted nation.

One of the points that Moshe Rabbeinu makes to the Klal Yisrael is that when you settle the land and follow the Torah, you will find success in your endeavors and HASHEM will expand your borders. When this occurs you will desire meat. You may eat this meat anywhere that you wish.

Rashi is bothered by the relationship between the expanding of your borders and “your desire to eat meat”. It almost implies that the expansion of your borders will bring on this desire to eat meat. Rashi explains that the Torah is teaching us a principle in derech eretz. That one should only desire meat when he can afford it. When HASHEM expands your borders and you enjoy financial success, then it is appropriate to desire meat, not before.

This Rashi seems difficult to understand. What is wrong with desiring meat? The Torah might tell me that if you can’t afford meat, don’t eat it. If it is beyond your means and purchasing meat would create an undo expense, don’t do it. But even if you can’t afford it, what is wrong with desiring it?

Pleasures and Passions

The answer to this can be best understood with a moshol. Imagine that you find yourself shipwrecked on a desert Island. You haven’t eaten in three days, and you are driven by one burning desire- food. As you hobble along the island you notice a brown paper bag under a palm tree. You open it up to find a dry peanut butter sandwich that has sat out in the sun for 3 months. You gulp down that sandwich with more gusto than anything that you have ever eaten in your life.

Here is the question: how much pleasure did derive from eating that sandwich? There is no question that you had a powerful urge, a very real desire, but how much enjoyment did you receive from that activity. The answer is not much. It certainly relieved your hunger and in that sense brought a release from pain, but it would be hard to imagine that for the rest of your life you would be reminiscing back to the sensation of the bitter, spoiled peanut butter, and dry cracked bread as it scratched your throat as you swallowed it.

This is a good example of the distinction between pleasure and passion. You ate that sandwich with great desire- a lot of passion, but you didn’t derive much pleasure from that activity. Passion is the pull to engage in a given activity, pleasure is the amount of enjoyment that one receives from it. As unusual as it may sound, most people fail to make a distinction between pleasures and passions.

HASHEM wants us to be happy

This seems to be the answer to the Rashi. While it is true that life is a battle, and exerting self control is the primary vehicle of growth, HASHEM created us to be happy. If you bring new desires into your world, desires that you can’t possibly fulfill- you are destined to be miserable. You will be constantly wanting, constantly hungry – something that is the opposite of a pleasurable existence.

The Torah is teaching us that our desires are things that we can and need to control. If you have the capacity to meet the desire to eat meat, and it is within the parameters of your purpose in life, there is nothing wrong with allowing those desires to surface. HASHEM created many pleasures for man to enjoy, and you should use those pleasures to better serve HASHEM. But if you don’t have the means to fulfill those hungers and you allow them to be present, then you will be living a very uncomfortable existence, constantly hungering for something that can’t be met.

When HASHEM grants you abundance, and you can afford to luxuries, then you shall desire meat- but not before. The Torah is educating us into a higher form of living. Enjoy the pleasures and control the desires, using this world for its intended purpose, thereby living B’ Shlaymos- complete, not lacking

Consumer-ism- a national culture of competitive acquisitions

This concept is very applicable in our times. Economists refer to us as the consumer generation. The word consumer is a derivative of the word consume: To eat, to use up. And it is very telling.  The culture we live in breeds the need to consume: food, clothing, appliances, electronics, cars …They aren’t products that are acquired- they are used up– And at an ever increasing rate. It has been said; that progress today can be measured by the speed of that which was yesterday’s luxury becomes today’s necessity.

But it is more than simply being cultured into the need to acquire material possessions. Spending has become the vehicle to establish social position, and for many people their personal identities are tied up in the type of car they drive, the brand of clothing they wear and their entire sense of self is based on an image sold in the marketplace.

We are the chosen nation- expected to live above the rest of the nations and unfortunately, that sense of living at a higher standard can become perverted into materialism, where the expectation is that for people like “us” nothing less than the best will do. And so our weddings, our wardrobes, our homes and our cars have to be the best.  The way our children dress and the types of toys that they expect are nothing short of top notch. And we find ourselves with an ever increasing cost of living.  When barely surviving in our communities means that we are expected to earn three to four times the national median household income; something is wrong with our lifestyle.

But what can we do about it? We can’t be expected to live with less than everyone else. And so we find ourselves caught in this every increasing spiral of earn and spend, earn and spend, until no matter how much money we make, we never seem to be make ends meet.

While only a Navi can define for us why HASHEM does what He does, when we witness, “market corrections”, and there is a general sense of we must cut spending, we might conjecture that it is a great chessed to us, to teach us to enjoy what we have, but not create new desires and expectations – to break out of this culture of spending and the baggage that it brings.

We live in times of mass prosperity, where the average person is rich, but to enjoy that great bracha we must maintain control.  The Torah’s goal is for us to be live an exalted life, to be the chosen nation, to be happy and satisfied in our existence. Everything in this world was created for man’s use- but it must be used properly, in balance, in the right time in the right measure. When man does that he enjoys his short stay on this planet and accomplishes his purpose in creation.

This is an excerpt from the Shmuz on the Parsha book.

Get The Shmuz on the go!