c. 2008 Religion News Service
(UNDATED) “Now God saw all that had been made, and it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning; the sixth day.” (Genesis 1:31).
While many people may question the literal accuracy of the biblical creation account, there is no doubt a new economic world was recently created in about six days, and no one can truthfully say “it was very good.”
During the turbulent days when venerable financial institutions like Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy, Merrill Lynch was sold off, and AIG, Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae were taken over by U.S. taxpayers (even though no one asked for our approval), I kept thinking not only of Genesis, but also of Tom Wolfe’s 1987 novel, “The Bonfire of the Vanities.”
In that book, Sherman McCoy, Wolfe’s Wall Street protagonist, is called a “Master of the Universe” because of his alleged financial talent. However, Wolfe makes certain the arrogant McCoy is brought down and humiliated.
Wolfe may not have known that Jewish prayers and songs frequently employ the phrase, “Master of the Universe.” It is a translation of “Ribono shel Olam,” a Hebrew term reserved only for God, and not even for high flying investment brokers.
About a year ago, one of those “Masters” asked a rabbinic friend of mine to place money in a complex fiscal instrument called “derivatives” that promised extraordinary monetary gain. When pressed for a definition, the broker could not provide a clear answer, and my friend declined the offer.
A few months ago, I was asked to put money into a hedge fund. I, too, was unable to get a clear definition of that popular Wall Street term. Instead, I was told in conspiratorial terms that hedge funds are “secretive and volatile.” Thanks, but no thanks.
Currently, the media and some political leaders are blaming wide spread “greed” to explain the economic chaos. Gee, really? No religious leader finds that surprising. Despite our high-tech society, human nature remains the same as it has always been.
The Jewish tradition provides a vivid example of greed and how its seductive power can blind us to reality and paralyze us from achieving purposeful goals.
When the ancient Israelites escaped Egyptian slavery, they were pursued by Pharaoh’s powerful army of horses and riders. The animals were adorned with precious stones and pearls, but when the Egyptian forces reached the Red Sea, the horses and riders drowned. The precious stones floated to the surface and were cast on the shore.
In their collective greed, the Israelites refused to move toward the Promised Land. Instead, they remained in place, and each day they greedily came to the seashore and gathered up the precious stones for themselves.
They reasoned: “Why move forward to an uncertain future in the Sinai wilderness when we can so quickly and effortlessly become rich?” Why indeed?
But Moses was not blinded by the glitter of the precious stones. He angrily said: “Do you think the sea will continue to bring up precious stones and pearls for you every day?”
In the midst of today’s economic dislocation, I think of my father’s advice. His generation was marked by the horrific events of the Great Depression that began in 1929 _ massive unemployment, bank closures, long bread lines, once proud men and women selling apples on the street, angry citizen marches on Washington, and a pervasive feeling that America was on the verge of economic, political and social collapse.
That shattering experience forced my father and millions of other Americans to distrust investment institutions and the monetary lures offered by “financial experts.” His wariness was succinctly embodied in this warning: “Nobody really knows anything, especially investment brokers who often leave common sense at their office doors.”
It is clear a world that was is no more. The once easy pickings at the shore of the Red Sea or in today’s financial marketplace are gone.
Of course, America will recover from the present toxic economic climate. As a nation, we have always been “prisoners of hope” (Zechariah 9:12). But we also need to remember Moses’ message: “Move on.”
(Rabbi Rudin, the American Jewish Committee’s senior interreligious adviser, is the author of “The Baptizing of America: The Religious Right’s Plans for the Rest of Us.”)
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