• Rabbi Neil P.G. Hirsch

Health or Wealth - Parashat V'etchanan 5780

I begin by naming a profound tension many have noticed in the midst of this global pandemic: A tension exists between the current public health crisis of COVID-19 and the current economic recession or depression triggered by the virus. It is a tension between a virus and our balance sheets, between our health and our wealth. Krugman named this tension in a May column titled “How Many Will Die for the Dow?” We hear the tension between health experts who talk about crushing the curve while those who watch after the economy emphasize that we have to get people back to work as quickly as possible. And the pressure between wealth and health exists locally. Early on in the pandemic, it played out in Letters to the Editor in our Berkshire Eagle. At first, full time residents asked seasonal residents to stay away or to quarantine. Other letters replied that as second homeowners, they too pay property taxes in our towns, and therefore have just as much of a right to be here as anyone else. Eilu v’ eilu, both arguments have merit. But what I take issue with is that these folks are talking past one another. One person is talking about public health while the other is talking about the economy.


In truth, as we have all watched the numbers soar, this fight between our public health and our economy has played out from country to local community. I fear as we have moved from three million cases to four million cases in just 15 days, the invisible hand of the market has been pulling pretty hard in this game of tug-o-war.


This is unfortunately, not surprising. Michael Sandel is a political philosopher on faculty at Harvard. In his 2012 book, What Money Can’t Buy, he elaborates on the moral limits of our economic markets, and makes the ultimate claim that we as an American Society have entered into a new phase, one he argues is dangerous. "Without quite realizing it, we have drifted from having a market economy to being a market society." In other words, everything can be commoditized, everything has a financial cost, and ultimately we must maintain the wholeness of the economy above all else. Sandel critiques this market society as one not in balance with other forces that are real for any community. When we live in a market society in the midst of a pandemic, the maintenance of our economy then justifies the death of thousands. And for those of us who lean toward the public health argument struggle to understand the callous calculus.


The Jewish tradition is predicated on the value of debate and wrestling with opposing perspectives. So let us take both arguments seriously, and consider it from both angles through a Jewish lens. What text would help us better understand the tension between our health and our financial wherewithal?


This week's Torah portion helps us. In Parashat Va-etchanan, the second portion of the book of Deuteronomy, we encounter for the Sh’ma and the first paragraph of the V’ahavta:

וְאָ֣הַבְתָּ֔ אֵ֖ת יְהוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֶ֑יךָ בְּכָל־לְבָבְךָ֥ וּבְכָל־נַפְשְׁךָ֖ וּבְכָל־מְאֹדֶֽךָ׃

You shall love the Eternal your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.


Commentators on this verse typically focus on the first four words:

וְאָ֣הַבְתָּ֔ אֵ֖ת יְהוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֶ֑יךָ

You shall love the Eternal your God

Asking the question, how do we fulfill the commandment to love God?

The answer lies in the rest of the phrase:

בְּכָל־לְבָבְךָ֥ וּבְכָל־נַפְשְׁךָ֖ וּבְכָל־מְאֹדֶֽךָ׃

With all of your heart, with all of your soul, and with all of your might.


Consider the last two of those three ways of loving God: How do we do this with our souls and with our might?


The Hebrew word for soul is nefesh. As some of us have discussed recently in Lunch n’ Learn and Shabbat Torah Study, nefesh is about one’s own sense of self, one’s own being, one’s personhood. Your nefesh is what makes you, you. As pilots are trained to do, they count the number of souls on board their flights. We are commanded to love God with our whole being. The way we live our lives as ourselves is to be an expression of love toward God. The choices we make, the way we conduct ourselves, these should be born out of a sense of love for God.


And, there is the other consideration:

וּבְכָל־מְאֹדֶֽךָ׃

And with all of your m’odekha

That last word is worth a moment of attention. M'od is a word that emphasizes, usually translated to “very.” How are you doing today? Tov m’od, very well, we say. When God looked at all that had been created, God found it to be tov m’od, very good. M’odekha is a person’s very-ness. In other words, the rabbis read this as your financial means, your wherewithal. We are to love God not only with our whole being, but we are to put our resources to bear on that love.


Inside the v’ahavta is another expression of the tension that exists in the midst of this pandemic: health or wealth? Your very being or your very wherewithal?


No word in Torah is wasted, nothing is superfluous. Who is this person who can love God with his entire soul or her entire might? Using this dichotomy, the rabbis elaborate in the Talmud: If one’s own body is more precious to him than his wealth, then let him live by the instruction that he is to love God with all of his nefesh, with his entire being. And if one’s own wealth is more precious to him than his body, then let him love God with all of his m’od, all of his financial ability.


We are commanded to love God, to direct our actions, behaviors, and mentality in a direction that is upward and embracing of the Divine. Some may tend to see the world through an economic lens, others through a more personal one. Inside of the rabbis’ analysis of the v’ahavta lies a clue to the tension we are experiencing right now: In this world, there are all types. There are those who would sacrifice their lives and others lives for wealth. And others who say that one’s own nefesh, and the nefesh of another is of the greatest value. The rabbis recognize that inside of a community, and in truth inside of each of us, we are pulled by different priorities. We criticize some for only caring about money. And, we criticize others for not facing up to economic realities (Sanhedrin 74a).


Yet the rabbi’s mandate, and God’s mandate is clear: Whatever the motivating factor, the place we are to be brought back to is love. Yes, love of one another, and love of God. After all, we love God best by actualizing love among one another. And in that reasoning, the tension begins to dissipate, because it brings us back to some of our core spiritual principles.


As the prophet Micah teaches: “Only to do justice And to love goodness, And to walk modestly with your God” (6:8). Justice, love, kindness—this is the way of our tradition. And when we notice those tendencies in ourselves that would pull us away from those key pursuits, let us be reminded with the words we are to say when we lie down and when we rise up, when we walk through any doorway. Let us place them firmly on the forefront of our minds: We are to love God. Which also means loving humanity and all of God’s creations, and to do all we can to be stewards of God’s world. This plays out through public health, by attention to the economy, in the political arena, and in the spiritual realm too. We need everyone doing all we can to find that sense of wholeness that I believe God intends for us all.


May we each continue to be well,

May we each continue to be healthy,

and may we each find ways to do right by ourselves,

to do right by one another,

and to do right by God.


Shabbat Shalom.


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