In Judaism we tend to think that God’s promise to Noah after the flood means that the world will never be destroyed. But all God says is that “He” will never destroy the world through rain. “We” on the other hand are a whole other story. As of now, our behavior of excess and rampant consumption has once again threatened the existence of the world.
One of my favorite literary characters is Tolstoy’s Pierre Bezukhov (from War and Peace). Pierre has everything in life–actually he has too much. The only thing Pierre does not have is a sense of contentment and satisfaction. Its not until he sheds the excess of life that he is able to appreciate his surroundings and become able to get in touch with what is most important to him. Tolstoy’s point is that when you have too much you can never really be at your best. When someone has too many friends they don’t have time for the people they truly love, when people have too much knowledge they tend not to be able to be able to make sense of it all, and when people eat too much food they usually have a hard time digesting. Just like a track runner in life, the more excess we have the more we get slowed down.
One of the most prevalent social ills facing America–and particularly Jewry–today is conspicuous consumption. The challenge that has come with American Jewry’s power, influence, and affluence is how not to let it be wasted through conspicuous consumption. One only needs watch one episode of the show Entourage, go to a Jewish wedding, or go to a posh Saturday afternoon suburban kiddush–with delicacies ranging from sushi, to short ribs to 25 year single malts–to know what I am talking about. While luxury and abundance propels our economy it slows down and numbs our senses of contentment and real satisfaction.
The Jewish version of conspicuous consumption is the law of “bal tashacit.” (Deuteronomy 20:19-20) The word taschit has two meanings: waste and destroy. This duality of meaning highlights the challenge of “having too much.” When we have too much we end up wasting and thereby destroying what we have. So much of the damage to the environment is done merely through personal access. Everyday each of us waste food, water, and electricity and in the process we end up destroying the things we most love and cherish the most. Asking people to make the most of what they have is not only environmentally sound, but also makes for a happier and more meaningful life.