June 12, 1997
Lifestyles of the Rich and Miserable
Torah PortionParashat Naso (Numbers 4:21-7;89)
Everything in Creation has a purpose, teaches the Midrash. But when someone gave us a gift subscription to People Weekly magazine, I was left to wonder if I had found the first truly purposeless thing in God's universe.
You know People, the epitome of "lite" culture, with its short, gossipy articles on the rich, the famous, the noted and the celebrated. Through People, we've followed the drama of Charles and Di's divorce, the travails of Frank and Kathy Lee, Dennis Rodman's love life, Oprah's diet, and Madonna-with-child. Does anyone really need this?
Of course, People is not an isolated phenomenon. There is an entire industry of gossip and celebrity worship. Consider "Entertainment Tonight." Since when does news about entertainment become entertainment itself?
Having read People for years now, I must confess that my initial cynicism was premature. It turns out that People actually does have a purpose under heaven -- a truly worthy moral purpose. People tells the stories of the rich, the beautiful, the famous...and how thoroughly miserable they are. Broken marriages, failed relationships, drug abuse, alcoholism, talents squandered, fortunes and family lost through narcissistic excess, suicide of body and spirit -- it's all there in the pages of People. Here are the "50 Most Beautiful" -- and those who have it all, with their unlimited wealth, fame, sexual magnetism, the homes and cars and svelte bodies we all dream about -- and their lives are so empty, so lonely, so pointless, so desperate.
there is no sustenance.
This is the moral lesson
Im ain kemach, ain Torah, or without sustenance, teaches Pirke Avot, there is no Torah. And, so, our leaders come to us frequently to ask for our contribution to support education, scholarships, programs to engage young and old in learning the ancient wisdom of our tradition.
But there is a second, and more profound, line to that teaching: Im ain Torah, ain
kemach, or without Torah, there is no sustenance. This is the moral lesson of People. All that wealth, all that talent, all that charisma, all that beauty -- all that our culture worships and envies as the goals and ideals of existence -- can be so futile and so barren, so utterly wasted in a life without moral vision, spiritual wisdom and transcendent purpose.
Our Torah portion this week offers an alternative vision in the form of a powerful image of life and its meaning. At Mount Sinai, the Israelites constructed a shrine -- the Mishkan -- a dwelling for God's presence, a connection between heaven and earth. Preparing now to leave Sinai and continue the journey toward the Promised Land, they are given instructions for dismantling and transporting the Mishkan. Each Levitical family is assigned responsibility for a part. The objects themselves were common -- a board, a rod, a section of curtain. What glory, what satisfaction was there in schlepping a heavy fence post, a bulky tapestry through the hot desert day after day, mile after mile?
It was only when the march stopped, and the whole was assembled, that each individual could suddenly recognize the meaning of his or her burden. Only then could each see the critical purpose that that board, that rod, that post, that section of tapestry held in making a place for God on Earth.
The burdens we bear day to day have little in common with the lives of the rich and beautiful. Struggling to raise healthy children and to provide for a family, and sharing the joys and terrors of life with a community of friends are not the resplendent stuff of People. But it is, in fact, in bearing these decidedly unglamorous and uncelebrated burdens where real heroism, real beauty, and real meaning are to be found. And perhaps, once in a while, and often not until late in the march, do we get to see the whole -- the holy, critical purpose of our own struggles in making a place for God in this world.
Ed Feinstein is the associate rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom. He is replacing Rabbi Steven Z. Leder, who is completing a book (along with fulfilling synagogue responsibilities at Wilshire Boulevard Temple).
All rights reserved by author