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December Shopping; Eternal Values

That time of year again. Chanukah, Christmas, the “Holiday Season.” Giving and getting and shopping! Forbes predicts that gross national revenue from Holiday spending will top one trillion dollars. The American Research Group, which has tracked consumer Holiday behavior since 1985, estimates that Americans will spend an average of $983 per person this year on Holiday gifts.

The funny thing is that recipients of this largesse do not seem very impressed. Studies have also shown that people are very satisfied with modest gifts, if they come from people they trust and value.

So how do we get to one trillion?

Brene Brown, the therapist and best-selling author, describes our culture as one of scarcity. It’s like each of us walks around with a personally tailored catalogue in our brains, listing our perceived insufficencies. We are never enough. We tell ourselves that we’re not successful enough, or resourceful enough or diligent enough or thin enough or safe enough or whatever enough.

Lynne Twist is another writer and social activist, whose book and website, The Soul of Money, explore the relationship between material wealth and personal fulfillment. Twist writes: “For me and for many of us, our first waking thought of the day is “I didn’t get enough sleep.” The next one is “I don’t have enough time.” Whether true or not, the thought of not enough occurs to us automatically before we even think to question or examine it…before we even sit up in bed, before our own feet touch the floor, we’re already inadequate, already behind, already losing, already lacking something.”

This sense of scarcity is often unreal but it is a powerful, virtually autonomic, internal mindset. It is aggravated through advertising, celebrity culture, and social media, as they remind us relentlessly of everything we do not have. We wind up comparing our lives, our marriage, our children, our careers to unattainable, media driven images of perfection. We judge ourselves not on the basis of our own talents, trials and personal history, but on popular myths about how great other people are.

It’s hard to over-estimate the damage done by this mindset. It makes us feel inferior, ashamed, envious and greedy and so causes us to cut ourselves off from each other.

The best antidotes I know to this brutal messaging are the teachings of my Jewish faith. I try to remember, and hopefully teach you to remember that we are created in G-d’s image. Therefore, we are given the abilities to create lives of connection and fullness, not of fear and scarcity.

As Lynne Twist, there are many mornings when I also experience, first thing, and rapid fire, debilitating thoughts: Did I get enough sleep? Can I make the morning Minyan in time? Do I have enough time today to finish that teaching? Prepare that report? Make that meeting? Meet my sons? Exercise? That’s why every morning I also recite two sentences form the Prayer Book: Modeh Ani L’fanecha….I thank G-d for the renewal of my distinctively human consciousness and spirit. And the second, after I ritually wash my hands, Rei’sheet Chochma Yirat HaShem…The beginning of wisdom is reverence for G-d who gives a worthy intelligence (seichel!) to all human beings.”

We are not born anxious and fearful.

Self-judgment, self put-downs, come originally from without, from mistaken messages from parents, even if their intentions were good, from Rabbis and religious leaders who spoke in damning ways, from bullies, from impatient friends, from manipulative political leaders, from social prejudice, and increasingly from our celebrity obsessed and mindlessly competitive culture.
The shame comes from without, but so does its antidote. In the beginning of the Amidah prayer, in one of the most robust parts of the service, we stand and chant with full throats:
M’chalkeyl chayim b’chesed!

You sustain life with kindness…support the fallen, heal the sick and release the confined!

There are plenty of real problem in the world. There is economic insecurity, environmental degradation and terrorism and racism and sexism and homophobia and anti-Semitism and more.

But there is also a Spirit in the world which emboldens us to persevere, to heal, to wonder and praise, to recognize the divine spark even in our adversaries and so open the way for a safer and saner world.

That spirit sends us Malachim, angels, other people who cheer our goodness and nurture our courage. So, at the most vulnerable times, we have other people and the presence of G-d at our side. We have Elijah at the Bris, friends at the gravesite, our deceased parents and righteous ancestors at Yizkor. At Chanukah we have the example of the Macabees. They remind us that it is not fear, conformity or isolation that is the will of G-d but rather community and courage.

Just as shame and despair are promoted from the outside, so are encouragement and hope. The challenge in life, day to day, is deciding which voices we will listen to.

Chag Sameiach—Happy Chanukah!

Rabbi Weintraub

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