a Meaningful Life with Simon Jacobson
Radio Show Transcript - June 13, 1999
Mike Feder: Good evening, this is Mike
Feder and welcome to another edition of Toward a Meaningful
Life with Simon Jacobson. We are here live in the studio.
This eveningís topic is "Money and Materialism: Vice
Letís just plunge right in and start with the
initial question which will set up a lot of the questions
that come up.
Can you tell me, in your opinion, what is materialism
and what is money, and can you explain how it fits, or if
it fits into a spiritual life?
I know youíre not the professor of economics,
but do your best!
Rabbi Simon Jacobson: Well, thatís not
what weíre going to discuss, I hope. I will say that I donít
think thereís a person in this world who doesnít know what
money is, and therefore, by extension, what materialism is.
I include you as well in that category.
I donít know if people know what it is, but
they know that they need it.
So therefore I think itís something that I wouldnít
say is close to everybodyís heart, but clearly, part of everyoneís
lifeóas much a part as the air we breathe and the food we
eat and our shelter. Because essentially (except for air,
thank G-d) all those things need to be bought.
Feder: Weíre not there yet.
Jacobson: As a matter of fact, it says
in Jewish mystical books that there are three basic human
needs: food, clothing and shelter. And the interesting thing
is, the more necessary something is to our lives, the easier
and more accessible it is, and the cheaper it is.
The air we breathe, we need every moment, so
itís free. The food we eat we donít eat every moment, but
we eat it every day, so itís cheaper. We wear clothing every
day, but we donít need to buy it every day, so itís a little
more expensive. And shelter, which is either a home that you
rent or buy, and if you buy it, itís either once in a lifetime
or rarely, so itís much more expensive.
So itís interesting that as you climb the ladder
of needs, the more immediate the need and the constant renewal
of the need, the cheaper it is.
And this is the way itís set up. I donít think
any government has tried to tax air rights.
Feder: They havenít done it yet.
Jacobson: Right. They did start charging
for water and sewers.
Feder: I was just reading in the paper
today that some British company bought half of Connecticutís
water supply. Whatís next? Maybe Disney will own the air.
Jacobson: But to go to our actual topic:
you know, money, you canít live with it, you canít live without
it. And I say with it because you see what money does to people,
the corruption, the competitiveness, the jealousy, the divisiveness.
And if anything is a symbol of materialism, money is that
symbol, because money clearly distinguishes between us: my
money is not your money.
You want something from me, you have to pay
me for it. I want something from you, I have to pay you. Either
in object, time, or energy.
People value money in a very profound way. I
remember there was an article in the Times a while back that
was simply hilarious. People were sitting around the table
having a talk, and they were talking about their lives todayóin
society, itís "in" to be open about your life, about
the abuses of your lifeÖ
Jacobson: People are open which has its
virtues. And theyíre talking about this one who had this abusive
childhood (and really bad stuff) and thereís sexual abuse,
and then someone just asked the other, "You know, tell
me, how is your 401K doing, your investments?" And the
women froze up, like he had asked her the most intimate secrets.
She just finished talking about the most private parts of
her life, her relationships, and her neuroses, and her parents,
but to ask her about her money?!
And the article is about that: how the money
thing among people is such a secret, which just testifies
and demonstrates how much (I donít know if itís guilt) "my
money is me."
Feder: I was just going to say, why would
people want to protect that more than anything else?
Jacobson: So my explanation would be
based on a book called the Tanya, a book written by Rabbi
Schneur Zalman of Liadi in the 18th century, close
to 250 years ago. He wrote this classical work called the
Tanya which means "to study." To study, to learn.
And he writes in chapter 37 thereóand we invite our listeners,
if they are interested, to come to our website and write us
for a translation of this sectionóhe talks about the power
But in order to understand charity, particularly
monetary charity, you have to explain the soul of money. What
is the power, the spirit of money. He put it in a very interesting
way. He calls money soul energy, in Hebrew, chayei nafshi,
He explains that the reason for that is that
money for us, for an individual, is the symbol of oneís value.
Obviously life is invaluable. Thatís why people will spend
all their money to save a life, because whatís money when
compared to life.
But if youíre able to symbolize or capture in
some manifest way our value, the value of your time, of your
energy, of your creativity, of your connectionsÖin this world
the only way to measure it is with money. You want my connections,
hereís what I charge for it. You want my time, hereís what
I charge for it.
So money has become a symbol of our life value.
So although all of us will say, "Iím worth much more
than that," but weíre talking in the commercial world,
if you want my time, thatís how I charge. You know, Iíll come
to you and say, you know, Mike, I need your time and youíll
say to me, "My life is invaluable, youíre going to have
to pay me a million dollars an hour."
So you have to find some type of estimate. So
you look at other people your age or with your experience,
and you figure out the high range/low range, and essentially
itís the issue of economics, which is supply and demand. It
depends on how much you want it. It depends on how much people
are willing to pay for it. There are many variables. But when
it comes right down to it, there is a dollar figure on your
intangible. Because how do you measure experience? How do
you measure a doctorís seniority, experience of forty years
when he goes into surgery?
Itís impossible to measure, because experience
So money is used as a measure. And Iím speaking
now in a healthy way. Iím not getting into the dirty side
of money, and all the other issues, but letís just analyze
it. That is why he explains why people are so attached to
money. Because money is for them that type of symbol and if
youíre able to translate a soul energy/life energy on paper,
this is what it looks like, thereís a dollar figure.
Now, of course, this gets completely distorted
once youíre making money just to make money and it becomes
a rat race on its own and itís not just in that pure sense,
I need your service so hereís what Iím paying for it. Thatís
a very nice collaboration. And weíll discuss that.
But I want to just touch upon that point, because
that lies at the heart of the issue, that money is the symbol
of a personís life energy. And the more you can charge or
the more you make, in a sense, is reflective of your power
and experience. The distortion is that itís not necessary
the case. There are people with a lot of money and no experience
and no particular expertiseóthey just happen to be born into
a family that left them a very nice inheritance.
There are people that at one point their money
did reflect their hard work and experience. So there are two
ends of the spectrum which is why itís hard to just make generalities.
Feder: Before you move on to deepening
the response to thatÖI mentioned before the word "materialism."
Materialism briefly, in my mind, is owning things: houses,
property, furniture, cars, and people amass these things;
people seem to have a hunger for it. So I wanted you to include
this, not just moneyÖ
The question is, is it absolutely necessary
natural or inherent in human nature, as it appears to be,
that people desire or want "things" to a certain
greater or lesser extent. It seems like itís something the
world over in history.
Jacobson: Great questions and we should
address them all. Let me take it to the next level, so to
speak, and incorporate it into what I was leading up to. Donít
forget, all this leads up to how this fits in with your spiritual
life, which is, the bottom line.
So money is a symbol of the self in many peopleís
minds. Or at least a big part of yourself. The self that contributing,
thatís ambitious, thatís productive, you know, your mark in
Feder: Thatís the positive side.
Jacobson: How people value you for the
mark that you make in this world. In that sense, money is
the best symbol of materialism in general. And let me give
you the "meaningful life" formula.
Feder: Like one of the health shows on
the air here, right? (Laughing)
Jacobson: Weíll call it the formula for
this week. If we keep doing this throughout our shows, slowly
we can build up a whole series of formulas that can help people.
But I actually donít mean it so facetiously, I mean it, there
are formulas, and not every one is simple, but there are formulas,
and this one goes like this.
This is the postulate. Materialism divides,
Feder: Ooh. I like that. I like that
Jacobson: What I mean by that is, why
does materialism divide? Because letís define matter in most
raw, scientific fashion. Matter occupies time and space. I
donít know if thatís a scientific formula but we can all agree
that matter occupies time and space. Either more time or less
time; more space or less space. But if it doesnít occupy time
and space we canít call it "matter," at least not
in our world.
When something occupies time and space it immediately
precludes something else occupying that same space. Two people
canít sit in the same seat. Two people canít share the same
piece of food. If they do, one is going to have less, letís
put it that way.
Feder: Thereís just so much to go around.
Jacobson: Right. And by definition, material
objects are either owned, or traded, or sold.
Feder: Or stolen!
Jacobson: Okay, good. Exactly. But two
people canít share the exact same thing.
Feder: Iím sorry. Also given sometimes,
Jacobson: Thatís good, weíve covered
every transaction possible! So two people canít sit in the
same seat, Iíll use that as an example to drive the point
home. If I want to give you my seat, I have to stand up. The
same is also true conceptually. If I want to share my food
with you, I have to give some of it up, I have to eat less.
If I want to share money with you, I have to have less. If
I give you $50 or my $100, I am $50 poorer.
Thatís the world of materialism. Money is the
quintessential symbol of that because itís straight, tangible,
bank accounts, you need to have the boundaries.
There are other things, like sitting in the
subway and standing up for an older person. Many people do
that, but they wonít part with their money. So money is powerful
in the way it capture the essence of the divisiveness that
results from "Iím different than you are."
Now, spirituality, on the other hand, going
to the other end of the formula, unites. The fact is, we see
that people love each other. And when people love each other,
they donít see that separation. If Iím giving part of my food
to my child or someone I love, I donít see it as, "Okay,
now I only have half." What I get in return for giving
it is far greater than what I would have gotten from that
bite of food.
The same is true with money. If you really are
a charitable, giving personósome people do count every penny
they give and they give begrudgingly or for a tax write-off
and they really donít care, but there are people who are gracious.
And when they give to someone, like giving to your child in
a way, they donít start counting and saying, "Iím poorer
now." I mean, there are parents who make calculations
and frankly, it repulsed me when I read a studyóyouíll find
this funnyó that adults begin to return to society their economic
investment at around age 34.
Feder: Whatís been invested in them?
Jacobson: Yes. How much their birth way,
how much the prenatal care and the doctor care, the Pampers,
the food, the milkÖ
Feder: This is a disgusting statistical
Jacobson: The hours spent, educationÖIím
not saying it to criticize, Iím just making a point. The point
is, so letís say the amount of two million dollars is spent
until age 20. Then, at age 20, with the education and everything
else weíve gottenóthereís an investment hereóyou begin to
learn enough (youíve gone to school but youíre still not that
experienced) so you begin to repay your school debts, college
loans, and then at around age 34 or 35, in the best scenario,
you begin to produce more than the two million dollars that
it cost to get you here.
Feder: So itís a person as an economic
calculation and a unitÖ
Jacobson: But this just demonstrates
how money takes over and spirit just completely is destroyed.
What about the joy and gratification, the years
of hope and health, that the child brought into the parentsí
life. You canít add that into the calculation, because itís
not worth anything financially.
Feder: Thereís a really silly country
Western song that I play sometimes on my other program on
the other station. This girl goes to her mother and she says,
"I did the lawn and I did the laundry and I mowed the
grass," and she says, "and this one is 36 cents
and this one is a dollar." And the mother sings back
to her, "For the nine months I carried you inside of
me: no charge. For all the love I gave you: no charge."
Like sheís saying, the cost of my love is no charge. Itís
corny but itís a powerful sort of message.
Jacobson: So spirituality unites and
materialism divides. Because spirituality teaches us that
value is not just how much you make. Sometimes what you give
is more valuable than what you take.
Feder: Can we conclude then, or should
we, is it too much of a jump to say that materialism is bad
and spiritualism is good?
Jacobson: No. I would never conclude
Feder: Well, uniting and dividingÖ
Jacobson: Okay. Mike, thatís great. People
may think we pre-scripted this but your question is right
on target and directly relevant to understanding this.
Look, this is process. Itís a process of understanding.
You know, studying Torah, for me, and in general spirituality,
is a journey. You learn about things in a deeper way and then
you learn to apply them into your life. Your question is very
legitimate. Divisiveness, unity. One is evil, one is good.
Feder: Sounds that way to me.
Jacobson: But let me add one final point
regarding the spirituality and materialism. Value. What we
value. Valuing spirit doesnít just mean valuing religion.
Youíre talking about valuing things that are transcendent
by nature, things that are not tangible. You cannot measure
love, the love of a parent to a child or of two people, in
dollars and cents.
But we do know this. That a person who loves
another will spend millions to save that personís life. So
we see that there are times that itís beyond money, itís invaluable.
So we have this dichotomy in our lives. On the
one hand, we clearly need money and we clearly need the materialism
that divides. On the other hand, any thinking person or any
person with some type of dignity or conscience knows that
thereís more to life than money and materialism.
Feder: So you wouldnít even go so far
as to call it a necessary evil, materialism.
Jacobson: I wouldnít, no. Because I come
from the school of thought that G-d created materialism and
put our spirits into a material world or into a material body.
So there has to be a purpose for it. And once you realize
the purpose, than materialism can be converted into an ally.
If you donít realize that purpose, then yes, it can be a major
destructive force in our lives.
Feder: So youíre saying that itís the
same as the metaphor that people use for toolsóyou can pick
up a screwdriver and you could fix a medicine cabinet or you
can stab somebody with itÖ
Jacobson: Precisely. Atomic energy, technology,
can be a tool to destroy and depersonalizeólike they say in
computers: garbage in, garbage out. Computers donít make people
wise or sensitive. Computers just speed things up.
Feder: Let me ask you this question.
You know, this is all following one after another, like a
tennis match thatís going on here.
You know, it occurred to me when I was thinking
about this subject in advance
Jacobson: Itís like a volley that doesnít
Feder: Yes, thatís our lives, right?
And no one wins!
Jacobson: No. We all win.
Feder: See, thatís unity. Thatís a spiritual
So it occurred to me that youíre saying that
materialism and spiritualism work in harmony and you have
to convert one into the other. But when you look at the lives
of great spiritual leaders, or great religious leaders, itís
universally understood, and it seems to be practiced by these
people, that they do anything from ignore to spurn to condemn
to denounce materialism.
We donít expect, and we would denounce our religious
and spiritual leaders for being rich. Now, why is that? Because
I think this fits into what you are sayingóalmost contradicts
it a little bit.
The people we hold the highest spiritually,
we expect them to be the least material.
Jacobson: Questions are right on target
and I appreciate the flow, the volley. So hereís my return.
Based on what Iíve said, one can argue that
perhaps asceticism, or at least a limited form of asceticism
is the optimum lifestyle. Because we see, if we go back to
the discussion on materialism, that if materialism was simply
the value of peopleís worth and their lifeís contributions,
thatís fine. But we see what it does to people: the corruption,
the jealousy, the disproportionate distribution of wealth.
So itís not so pure. So Iím intensifying the argument for
materialism being an evil, and then Iíll give you my return.
Seemingly, you see that money can be a major
corruptive forceólike the line goes, "Everyoneís for
Feder: Everyone has their price.
Jacobson: Itís just a question of what
the price is, right? So seemingly, based on that, our aspiration
should be the most spiritual life possible with the least
amount of immersion in materialism. A very legitimate question
that elaborated upon extensively in Jewish thought.
As a matter of fact, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob,
our forefathers in the bible, chose to be shepherds precisely
for this reason. Why? Because shepherds need to make a living,
to be able to provide for themselves, but they chose a livelihood
which is not Wall St. They chose sheep, the most docile of
all creatures, sheep graze in the meadows, while the shepherds
can meditate: look at heaven, earth, nature. Theyíre in nature.
So they chose it not by accident, but because
it was the most conducive to the most spiritual kind of life,
as much as one can accomplish in the material world.
So this seems to be a great virtue: choosing
a quiet, peaceful life and getting away from the corruption
(sheep can never corrupt because theyíre very pure and they
do what they have to do all day. Theyíre not malicious or
Feder: I donít think weíre reaching a
lot of sheepherders in this area, so obviously youíre arriving
at a better conclusionóI sense it comingÖ
Jacobson: So thereís virtue in that.
Yet, this is what the Torah teaches. Joseph, the son of Jacob,
was the first in the bible who actually went into the business
world. He was an accountant. Not by his own will. After he
was sold into slavery by his brothers, he ended up in Egypt
and ended up as Potipherísóas the bible saysóaccountant.
Then, after the dream story and all that, he
ends up as the viceroy of Egypt, dealing and handling and
trading in grain at the time of the famine. Now he began as
a shepherd when he was young, but now he became a real businessman.
And the thinking goes, and this is a fascinating
concept, that in some ways he was greater than his father,
grandfather and great-grandfather, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
Do you know why? Because while he was in the business world,
he maintained the integrity of a spiritual person. They, in
a sense, cut themselves off, escaped. And he did not compromise,
even though he was there.
Feder: It sounds a little like a rationalization,
so if you could hone in on that, it would be really helpful.
Jacobson: Iím going to elaborate. The
reason, in Judaism, asceticism is considered completely unacceptable,
is that G-d put a spirit into a body and into this material
world for a purpose. And the purpose is that the soul should
refine, educate and direct our material pursuitsóour immersion
in materialismóour money and our belongings, and sanctify
There is an inherent tension between matter
and spirit, as we discussed. One leads to selfishness, one
is selfless. One is divisive, one is unifying.
But that tension is relieved in three ways.
One is escapism into the spiritual (going to the top of the
mountainóleaving the material world), or the other extreme
is indulgence (total immersion into the material world and
forget about the world) and the third, which is the most difficult
balance, is integration. How do you do that? By spiritualizing
and sanctifying your material life, you relieve the tension
between matter and spirit.
So in a sense, letís look at the soul in the
body as a teacher and a student.
Without direction, without discipline, the student
can go anywhere. Same with a parent and a child. The soul
is the wise one, the one with the emotions, the one that has
the spiritual direction
Feder: The teacher.
Jacobson: The captain of the shipóthe
body being the ship. That may be an even better analogy, because
the body is simply a vehicle. You used the example before
of instrumentsóa vehicle. The body is the vehicle and the
soul is its captain. But a captain without a ship goes nowhere.
A spirit without a body canít function in the material world.
Feder: So complete and utter extreme,
asceticism is a total waste of a soulís time.
Jacobson: Exactly. Whatís the point of
coming into this world and then cutting yourself off. Itís
similar to a form ofóI know this is extremeóspiritual suicide.
Youíve been put here for a purpose.
Now thereís a long discussion about how the
soul goes through pain when it comes into this world, because
itís leading a very pure and innocent world, and suddenly
it sees this material world of objects, selfishness, itís
a completely foreign and alien environment. This is constantly
given as an analogy in all the spiritual, mystical books
Feder: But it must live here.
Jacobson: Itís forced to. As a matter
of fact, as the Talmud, the Mishnah, says, "Al korkach
ata chai" I force you, I coerce you to come into
this world and live. And weíve used the analogy before, that
the soul is like a flame, and the body is like a wick. The
flame is always aspiring, always yearning to leave. It wants
to go back up.
Feder: I understand that!
Jacobson: So the spirit thatís inside
of us is always reaching upward. So in a sense, this paradox
is necessary, that on one hand spirit should always lift,
and the body is tugging downward, and the goal is that the
spirit should prevail on the body, and not the body on the
Not that our spirits become slaves and servants
to the body, but that the body becomes a vehicle to the soul.
Imagine the hammer tells your hand where to
go. You hand has to inform the hammer where to go.
So the body, materialism is a vehicle, which
has many challenges, to the extreme of corruption and everything
weíve spoken about. But the objective is for you to sanctify
your material corner of this world. An example is one I used
earlier when quoting the Tanya: taking your money and giving
some of it to charity means that you sanctify the rest of
the money that remains with you.
Feder: Letís just take a little break
to identify ourselves. Youíre listening to Toward a Meaningful
Life with Simon Jacobson, and Iím Mike Feder. This is
WEVD 1050 AM in New York. We are here every week from 6-7pm
on Sunday evening.
Rabbi Jacobson is the director of the Meaningful
Life Center in Brooklyn out of which a lot of things flow,
and one of the main things that we talk about, thatís a blueprint
for the program is the Rabbiís book, Toward a Meaningful
Life, published by William Morrow. Virtually every subject
that we cover on this show, no matter how specific, general,
or newsworthy, is covered in this book.
Jacobson: As a matter of fact, the topic
that weíre covering today, some of the elements of what weíre
talking about today and maybe others things we havenít covered,
can be found in Toward a Meaningful Life in the chapters
"Wealth and Charity," and "Work and Productivity."
Feder: And the book is still available
in hardcover. In fact, youíre bound on a tour in the near
future, right, that has to do with the book?
Jacobson: Yes, Iíll be going to Australia,
down under, and bring warm regards from New York. But in addition,
there are many people who read the transcripts of the radio
shows in other countries as well because the web is virtually
Feder: Let me give you some of the ways
in which you can send us questions on the various topics you
are listening to, anything that you have to direct towards
us. The most important thing is the telephone number: 1-800-3MEANING
or 1-800-363-2646. You can also email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
You can always write to us at The Meaningful Life Center,
788 Eastern Parkway, Suite 303, Brooklyn, NY 11225.
Iíd like to also tell you that we have a new
website where you can download transcripts of this program,
and previous and future programs. Itís www.meaningfullife.com.
So those are the "material" details
that we want to share with you today.
Jacobson: I want to add that we encourage
people to write or call us because I feel that this show is
everyoneís, but just ours
Feder: And weíre interested in personal
stories that people have about their lives.
Jacobson: And there arenít that many
platforms in life where you can bring your most personal,
spiritual, psychological, religious issues and questions and
faith. We guarantee that your questions will be respected
no matter how irreverent, and addressed. One guarantee is
that we will address everything in some way.
I also feel very gratified, and also very thankful
to Mike, to be part of such an opportunity to be a springboard
or clearinghouse for people from all backgroundsóand I appreciate
all the questions, arguments, rebuttals, and debatesÖ
Feder: So please contact us.
Letís plunge back into money and materialismÖ
Jacobson: Back to money and materialism!
Feder: Where else can we go? Weíre surrounded
by it. This is one subject that is constant now when you pick
up the newspaper. For example, the New York Times business
section over the last ten years, went from being one small
section in that paper, to being the largest section in the
paper and itís there every day.
Jacobson: What more do you need than
the Wall St. Journal?
Feder: I was coming out of my apartment
building the other day. Every week there are more Wall St.
Journals sitting there waiting for tenants to pick up than
any other newspaper. So this is whatís going on. In the Daily
News yesterday you read, "$300 million lottery in New
York." There going to make gambling legal all over the
place. Today in the New York Times, Albany legislators meet
regularly, day and night, with lobbyists who give them money.
I mean, virtually the entire place is corrupt.
Another article in the paper today, "Mexican
Babies for Sale" on Long Island. What am I saying, Iím
saying real heavily that it seems as if (Freud wrote this
book, Civilization and its Discontents) he said there
is a race between love and death. Thatís the way he put it.
It seems as if thereís always been a race between altruism,
spiritualism, and materialism. And it sure looks to me like
we are rapidly and badly losing this race. And maybe I donít
want to be negative, but Iím just readingóIím just saying
what I see in the papers.
What are we supposed to do about this? Weíre
surrounded, weíre overwhelmed with this.
Jacobson: I see it somewhat differently,
but I think your view is legitimate, and Iím sure reflects
that is many of our listeners, but I think itís good to present
different views. Everything can be seen in different ways,
Mike. Frankly, I see it a little differently because I deal
with people on the spiritual end of things and I see the hunger,
the desperation of people who have succeeded in that world,
and thereís a real void, almost like a childish search (childish
in a good wayóan innocent search) for more.
Let me just give you my thoughts on this whole
thing. Based on what we discussed earlier, itís clear that
a person without spiritual values needs to have an alternative
for value. So itís a very clear proportion. If youíre not
going to find value in transcendental intangibles, then what
I described earlier, the way youíre going to measure your
life energy, you have only money to measure it.
What I was discussing was how do you balance
the two. But if a person doesnít have the spiritual side,
they only have the other side, then youíre dealing with the
problems and potential problems that youíre describing.
And I must tell you, itís not a question of you and I bemoaning
all these newspaper articles, and what people will do for
moneyóthe corruption, bribery, and cheating and whatever you
can get away with. I think a person who is lacking spiritual
values is doing themselves the greatest disservice. They are
starving the single most important resource you have. Itís
like someone not taking any Vitamin A, or any iron or calcium.
A part of your body must have that vitamin, that mineral,
that food. Soul must have nourishment. If not, you will hear
from the soul. It may take ten years, it may take twenty years.
It may take ten broken relationships and three divorces and
children who are completelyÖ
Feder: or a depression or a breakdown
Jacobson: Whatever. But your soul will
have its day. Not to get back at you, itís just hungry.
Feder: It seems a truism about gamblers,
talking about materialism. That people who pile up stuff or
gamble, the soul has itís wayówhat it does is it destroys
you, so that you have to start all over again, like youíre
Jacobson: And in a way that may be the
greatest gift, because sometimes people donít change until
they hit rock bottom. When you have nothing, you have nothing
to lose, isnít that what they say?
So the point being that we have to wise about
it. Itís not so easy. Because when things are going well,
and youíre on that highóthe stock market is going up, investments
look goodóbut when the storm hits, the trees that standóyou
donít see it when itís tranquil weather, you see it when the
storm hits, when thereís trauma or loss, when problems set
Now I want to bless everyone listening to us
and everyone in this world that they shouldnít have any problems,
and no traumas, but life is life. And how you plant your roots
before the storms strike, thatís how your tree will stand.
This isnít a threat and this isnít some type
of guilt tripÖ
Feder: Itís just the way it is.
Jacobson: Right, and also, what we can
do for ourselves. So there are two extremes here. I was talking
about no asceticism; where you have to recognize the need
for the material and the need to sanctify it.
Because remember, we could look at it the other
way also. If a soul separates itself from the body as much
as possible, the body will come back to haunt the soul.
I have my needs, too. Not necessarily unhealthy needs. Because
the soul does function with the body as partners in this world.
Feder: One reason I mention all of these
things that weíre surrounded with hereówhen you walk through
the city, youíre surrounded by so much of this that itís an
imbalance. Youíre talking about shepherds off in the hills,
and you canít just separate yourself and be a total ascetic,
and yet, what Iím talking about is a gross imbalance of materialism
from day to night in the city.
So my earlier question is, how do you walk through
the "valley of the shadow" of materialism? How do
you walk through it and find even a space inside or outside
to deal with what bombards you at every moment?
Jacobson: Good question. I was speaking
about someone who is gravitating toward a spiritual life and
denying the body. So there, the Baal Shem Tov teachesóa very
fundamental idea in Jewish thoughtówhen you see the burden
of materialism, and you may receive it as your enemy, you
are commanded to go an assist it, but not deprive yourself.
You must use materialism as a catalyst for spiritual growth
and not experience separation or asceticism or escapism. You
have to elevate the material.
Thatís one side of it.
Now the other side, which of course is much
more prevalent and much more problematic: The immersion in
materialism, the constant bombardment and exposure, simply
because of all of our needs, and also due to the fact of a
lack of spiritual education where youíre very grounded.
I once heard an analogy for this. You make a
circle, and how do you make a circle on a piece of paper.
You take a compass, you stick a needle into the paper, and
you steadily go around. What happens if that needle is not
steady? Or you donít have a center thatís steady? Jagged,
broken. It may never end up being a circle. It may end up
being a square. That spiritual center is your spiritual values.
Your mission statement. Your focus. Your higher vision.
Materialism is the circle. You need it, but
it needs to be grounded. And if you donít have the proper
spiritual grounding, it will be everywhere. So you may make
millions of dollars, but youíll have no focus, no direction.
So the question is a very good and legitimate
oneÖ and hereís the other extreme. Letís use Noah, from the
bible, as an example.
Noah was living in a very corrupt time, and
money was part of that corruption as well, as it always is.
If thereís corruption, thereís always some money around.
What did Balzac say? That behind every great
fortune, thereís a great crime?
Feder: Absolutely. Thatís what Mario
Puzo used to begin the "Godfather" off.
Jacobson: So Noah is relatively a righteous
person in that generation and G-d says, "Build an ark."
The ark is symbolic, not just of protecting himself against
the floodwaters, itís also insulating himself from materialism.
Because the floodwaters are a symbol of the raging waters
of the material world.
Feder: And what happens when it gets
unleashed and goes too far unchecked.
Jacobson: Unchecked it floods you. Youíre
totally underneath it. And before you realize it, youíre drowning
and you become like all the other sharksÖno pun intendedÖsharks
under the water.
And you started out very idealistically, but
suddenly, youíre there. You know, people in middle age, they
suddenly grow up and realize that. They wake up one day. Middle
age is getting younger and younger as we know.
So Noah builds an ark. And there is an interesting
thing. Do you know what the ark is called in the bible? There
are many words in Hebrew it could be called. The ark is called
"teva." Teva in Hebrew also means
"words." G-d says, you protect yourself from the
floodwaters, you create for yourself a spiritual oasis with
words, with holy wordsówords of prayer, words of study, Divine
words. Iím not saying you should G-d forbid commit suicide,
donít go to heaven, donít go up to a mountain. You stay in
that world, but build yourself an ark, and that ark will float
on the material world, will float on the raging waters.
The ark, the teva, is representative
of the words of Torah and prayer. Words. Now words, Mike,
in this sense means knowledge. Spiritual words. Obviously
not Wall St. Journal words about the Dow Jones Industrial,
because then youíre back to the water.
Feder: Talk is cheap!
Jacobson: I think the Wall St. Journal
has a line that goes, "Money talks, we translate."
But to go back to Noah, so he builds an ark that is symbolic
of our selves. Do you know how you sanctify the material world?
You must create an oasis. You must have some time off. Every
day some study, every day some prayer. Even ten or fifteen
minutes. As a matter of fact, in the middle of the day, at
lunch hour, do something of that nature. That creates a little
Weíre not discussing escaping, because escaping
is usually a sign of desperation. Itís not working so you
just run for your life. But here weíre talking about a balance.
That oasis becomes your ark. And when you re-enter the material
world, hereís what happens. Noah doesnít want to leave the
ark after 40 days and 40 nights. He says, "Itís very
peaceful here. I like this synagogue. I like this campus,
oasis, this womb." And G-d has to command him by saying,
"Tzai min hateva," "Leave the words,
leave the ark." Not never to return. But I donít want
you here all the time. Now the water has subsided. You go
back out, and you bring what you learned inside here and you
bring it out there. Because you have the power.
You see, hereís a very crucial point. If materialism
is a challenge for spirituality, to the point that you need
to escape, then materialism wins, even if you escape.
Feder: It drove you too far.
Jacobson: Right. It means the spirit
really canít withstand the power of materialism. G-d says
the materialism is not inherently evil.
Jacobson: And itís up to you to tap it.
And you can elevate it. And this goes down to the principle
which really requires more of a theology course, that G-d
is neither spirit nor matter. And when you reach a place of
true transcendence, G-d is not more soul than He is body,
and He is not more body than He is soul.
Thereís a place thatís beyond both, and can
therefore integrate both. Thatís enoughÖsuffice it to say,
if people want more information, theyíll write and theyíll
ask, and weíll talk about it on other shows.
So the key here is to have this balance. You
must create a womb, an ark, words that create that type of
insulation. But at the same time, you need to know when to
go back out and keep the dance going.
Feder: If you are blessed with a lot
of material goods, if you have a lot of money, do you have
a moral responsibility to be giving it to charity? Let me
go even further than that and ask my question in a more specific
Somebody has a lot of money, take Bill Gates
as an extreme example, the guy has 80 billion dollars. Would
you say that people have not only a moral, but perhaps there
should even be a legal requirement that a huge portion of
what people make, if they make a lot, has to be given to people
who have little? I mean, in America thereís no absolute force
that makes you do that.
It seems to me there almost should be.
Jacobson: In my chapter on "Charity
and Wealth," I cite Torah sources that say that it is
incumbent upon a person, according to Jewish law, to tithe;
to give a tenth of oneís earnings to charity. Some go beyond
that and give a fifth, which is 20%. When it comes to real
spiritual yearning, you can give even more than that. So there
is a law of that nature.
Whether the government should impose such a
law, then youíre getting into an area that isÖ
Feder: Well, then youíre talking about
capitalism vs. socialism in a way, right?
Jacobson: Yes. Instead of taxes, charity,
which in a sense is why there are tax deductions. If you would
know the elaborate schemes possible to save on your taxes
through charity, I find it, in a way, very admirable of the
founding fathersónot of the people giving (itís an incentive
for themÖwhy give it to the government?)ówho were basically
saying, if youíre giving it to a good cause, you donít have
to give it to us.
That is, I believe, a very noble part of this
country. That the government said that; you know, instead
of paying us, pay a hospital, give it to a school.
And hospitals, and universities, schools and
libraries have benefited from this. So bottom line, with charity,
it doesnít really matter what the intention or incentive was
of the giver. Things have been built, poor people have been
Now obviously the skyís the limit and thereís
always more, and I know people who would give even if there
was no tax deduction.
Feder: President Reagen had this thing
once called the "trickle-down" theory, which was
just a rich manís excuse that people would get little scraps
maybe after the rich people got through having what they have.
It seems to me that if you look at the history
of the 20th century in this country, Roosevelt
and that whole revolution when he came in after the Depression,
it was all based on the fact that unfortunately there are
people who will not give what they should give, and they will
cheat the government. If weíre all paying taxes, and weíre
paying as much as we should be, shouldnít there be a requirement
that we should be forced to support people (in a way we do,
almost, as if we were in Rooseveltís era)? I mean, our taxes
do go for welfare and things like thatóthatís forced charity
in a way.
Jacobson: This is complicated because,
on the other hand, thereís also government subsidies, the
government supports many charitable works. I would generally
say that the United States, overall, is a very charitable
Feder: Compared to some othersÖ
Jacobson: But also compared to history.
The amount that they have given for foreign aid and the help
of many countriesóIím not saying that everything is great
here, everything can always be betteróbut I donít know the
amounts of moneyÖhow much money is given for hunger, for helping
other nations: billions and billions of dollars? You read
about it. Whereís that money coming from? Ultimately itís
coming from the taxpayers.
So in a way, whether we like it or not, Americans
are paying for governments and often completely ballooned
expenses which are not monitored properly, but part of that
money is clearly going toward humanitarian causes. Of course
thereís abuse and corruption, Iím sure, on the individual
level. But the individual thrust is, I think, quite admirable.
I donít know if the Roman Empire was doing that,
or the Spanish EmpireÖ
Feder: But what youíve been saying today
is that youíre appealingóand thatís why this radio program
is hereóyouíre appealing directly to people to take responsibility
in their own lives for their own feelings about thisÖnot to
rely on governments and institutions to do whatís correct.
Jacobson: No of course, obviously. Personal
virtue and personal giving is critical. You just mentioned
it and I just wanted to throw it into the pot that interestingly,
thatís an element thatís very uplifting because it is some
type of collective consciousness going on here. It didnít
have to be that way.
The people in this country could have voted
in a government that says, we donít want to do that. Those
millions going out there, we want it back into our pockets.
So thereís something to be said about it, it involves more
of a discussion.
Feder: It didnít have to be done. In
other words, itís almost like collective altruism.
Jacobson: Yes. Collected altruism, also
forced. You know, itís like saying, despite our selfish nature,
this is the way we want this country to run.
Feder: You know, we only have a few minutes
left and I wanted to repeat once again that you are listening
to WEVD and the program is Toward a Meaningful Life with
Simon Jacobson. This is Mike Feder. We are here every
Sunday night from 6-7 pm and tonightís program is underwrittenómost
charitably underwritten I should sayóby Mr. Robert Klein and
we thank him very much. And this is bringing goodness and
spirituality to other people.
Jacobson: And if you know Robert, you
know that heís a model, a paragon, of virtue and kindness
and selflessly gives, and may he be blessed with much materialism.
Feder: So that he can give more charity!
Jacobson: Right. That G-d gives you materialism
in order that you can make the material matter into spirit.
Feder: After my father died, people leave
things when they die, they leave material objects, it could
be a pocket knife, it could be a farm, a piece of furniture.
You must have seen this in your own life, that people will
get into violent arguments that could last years over the
objects that people leave behind.
It just fascinates me. Iím not sure that thereís
a question, but itís a comment that youíve seen before that
objects and materialism become infused with the personality
and the memory and the very essence of the person who is no
Jacobson: Thatís an interesting factor
as well. If itís a relic, or an object that reminds us of
something beautiful, of some powerful connection, and makes
us better people, then great. But if itís an object that divides
us, and creates discord and hate among families, then what
are you saying. That a great, beautiful object that my father
or mother owned, that brought so much beauty and unity into
our home, is becoming a force of disunity, then I wonder whether
itís the object or the person.
Feder: They could leave a treasured bible
Jacobson: Exactly. And if that creates
discord, then whatís happening is, youíre using a healthy
item and youíre contaminating it with your selfishness. I
donít mean you, Mike, I mean any person. And rather, I think
the attachment to material objects is not necessarily driven
by altruistic or beautiful causes, itís because "I want
it. And I donít want you to have it."
And sometimes "Iíd rather that if I donít
have it, you wonít have it, no one will have it."
Feder: So in our last two minutes. People
are going to be waking up tomorrow morning and theyíre going
to be going to bed tonight. In the next 24 hours, what would
you tell people that they can do in terms with dealing with
this materialistic world weíre wallowing inÖ
Jacobson: Wallowing is a good word, because
thatís the story I want to tell. There was a student who was
a great student of one of the Chassidic Rebbes, and then he
got married and went into business. The business he went into
was galoshes manufacturing.
And in those days, in the shtetl, he made a
killing, because the streets are unpaved, and galoshes saved
many shoes. He became very wealthy as his business grew and
he diversified, and only became more wealthy.
Years later he came back to the great Rebbe,
and his Rebbe looked at him and saw immediately where his
head was. You know, this was a great student, who had once
been a scholar, who had spiritual values and ideals.
And he smiled at his student and he said, "You
know, Iíve seen feet in galoshes, but Iíve never seen a head
In other words, his head was completely immersed
in the galoshes; in more than one way.
So we have to look at ourselves the same way.
Many people put their heads into their galoshes. You have
to put your feet in galoshes. Not to live with asceticism.
You need to be grounded. You need to make a living, and may
G-d bless everyone with a lot of wealth, a lot of materialism.
But never forget where your head belongs. It belongs in a
And you do that through designating some time
every dayóeven if itís just 15 minutes óto study, in the afternoon,
lunch hour. Another approach: put a charity box on your office
desk. A symbol of your business meetings, a charity box. Just
as a reminder of a more sacred, spiritual experience, and
that your head is in the heavens, and not in galoshes.