Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Livelihood and Israel


Much of this week's portion covers various forms of skin eruptions, called tzara'at, that result from speaking lashon hara, gossip or evil speech. Just as it is possible to speak lashon hara about a person, it is possible to speak lashon hara about Israel.

At a recent Shabbat meal, we had an impressive and respectful young man, one who has been blessed with an excellent Jewish education, at our table for the first time. As is my custom with our guests, I asked about his relationship with Israel. He described his belief that all Jews should live in Israel, as soon as Moshiach, the ultimate Jewish redeemer, comes. Until then, neither of his parents’ careers easily transfer to Israel and he is beginning professional school, so they all plan to stay in America where they can earn decent livings. To him, this was a perfectly reasonable perspective, completely consistent with his education.

It is commonly asserted that making a living is so difficult in Israel that we are relieved of the obligation to live there. But is such an assumption equivalent to speaking lashon hara about the Land of Israel?

Let’s assume that it is, in fact, more difficult to make a living in Israel than in America. Just as the juiciest gossip tells only one side of the story, there are at least two good reasons why making a more modest living in Israel than one makes in America can be spiritually preferable.

Reason #1 – Voluntary Simplicity
In Judaism, there is a perpetual tension between the physical world and the meta-physical world. Our spiritual self would like to go to synagogue Shabbat morning, but our physical self would prefer to sleep late. Our spiritual self would like to make a charitable donation to a Jewish cause, but our physical self doesn’t want to part with the money. Our spiritual self would like to keep kosher, but our physical self wants a cheeseburger.

The examples are endless, because it’s a tension we live with all our lives. Our spiritual self might, in fact, be drawn to Israel, but our physical self overrides that inclination with the argument that it isn’t possible to make a living in Israel.

Each time we choose the spiritual path, as opposed to the material path, we earn spiritual merit. If living in Israel was as easy as living in America, there would be less merit. God wants us to overcome our physical comfort to an extent to do the correct thing spiritually.

One of the corollaries to the physical/spiritual tension is that they cannot coexist. The more physical a situation is, the less spiritual it is. And the more spiritual, the less physical. For many, living in Israel means choosing a pie with a larger spiritual piece and a smaller physical piece. We’re not talking here about starving or becoming a charity case. It means being willing to live a simpler material life in order to reap greater spiritual rewards. Earning less money in Israel gives one the opportunity to mute the potent power of the physical in favor of the spiritual. In America, this idea that one can live a fuller life with fewer material possessions is called the voluntary simplicity movement. In Israel, it’s just called life.

Reason #2 – Relying on God
To the Western mind, money flows into our households as a direct result of our efforts. The harder we work, the more money we earn. Judaism teaches that this is an error in perception. In truth, our livelihood comes from God. This is a matter of faith.

In this week’s parsha, we learn that kohanim, Jewish priests, were experts in diagnosing tzara’at. One day, a particular kohein decided to leave Israel to make more money outside the Land. In preparation for leaving, he taught his wife how to diagnose tzara’at by looking at the pores from which each hair grows. After receiving his instruction, she convinces him that, if God provides nourishment for each individual hair on a person’s body, God certainly can provide for the kohein and his family without him having to leave Israel. In this story, the wife is more spiritually insightful. She sees clearly that their livelihood comes from God.

Israel has wealthy people. But for the majority of Jews, a more modest lifestyle is to be expected and embraced, not used as an excuse to stay in America.

To assert otherwise is akin to speaking lashon hara against the Jewish Homeland.