Avram and his nephew, Lot, find success during their journey out from Haran, so much so that apparently “the land could not support them staying together; for their possessions were so great that they could not remain together. “
So many questions are raised by this single verse within the narrative of Lech L’cha. Is there a point at which our possessions and wealth intrude on our social and familial relationships? Can we be so saturated by our material wealth that we burden the very environment in which we live? Can our possessions grow so great that they interfere with our ability to sustain ourselves within a cohesive community?These are the questions we struggle with as moderns. Apparently, these were among the questions our ancestors dwelling in and around the Ancient Near East struggled with as well.
On Rosh Hashanah, I spoke about the potential of our American focus on the individual to interfere with the strength, cohesion, and vitality of the Jewish community. Just last week, I participated in the first session of what will be an extended interfaith discussion at the Institute for Christian and Jewish Studies on the subject of the impact of “The American Dream” on religion. Interestingly enough, while my focus at the start of the New Year was on the impact of citizenship rights on religious affiliation and involvement, our conversation last week at this clergy scripture forum kept coming back to the individual right and capacity to earn lots of money. For better or worse, the American Dream, we concluded, seems to have gotten inextricably tied to the capitalist dream of material success.
Capitalism is an economic system, but it is tied into the political system of democracy because at its core capitalism values the success of the individual. The challenge of capitalistic theory, however, arises when we consider what happens to the individual who simply can’t succeed – when no amount of determination or effort works to get that individual on the path towards economic success. It is easy for us who are generally successful at achieving (even maximizing) that cause and effect relationship to forget that there are those in our society for whom hard work and effort simply do not equal or correlate with material gain.
Ayn Rand, the 20th century novelist and playwright, who has gained renewed attention due to Vice Presidential candidate Paul Ryan’s allusions to her work, reminds us that capitalism has the potenial of being an appropriate economic system for a society that values the integrity of individual liberty. She writes,
“The moral justification of capitalism does not lie in the altruist claim that it represents the best way to achieve ‘the common good.’ … this is merely a secondary consequence. The moral justification of capitalism lies in the fact that it is the only system consonant with man’s rational nature, that it protects man’s survival qua man, and that its ruling principle is: justice.”
Justice. Justice is understood by Rand to be the underlying principle of our American economic system, a system that is grounded in rationalism and has become the apparent foundation to our American dream. Whether we agree with her or not regarding whether Capitalism achieves the moral ideal she holds it to, we can demand that the pursuit of justice be a non-negotiable part of this American dream.
Let me repeat: we can demand that justice be a non-negotiable part of our American dream!
Though written and accepted as sacred canon long before the development of formal economic theory, our Torah portion appears to offer us a warning against the possible dangers of excessive material gain, specifically the human tendency towards putting our possessions before our relationships with others.
Twentieth century Israeli commentator, Nahama Leibowitz draws attention to the distinction between Avram and Lot’s journeys presented in this week’s Torah portion. When Avram first leaves Haran, the text states that Avram takes his wife, Sarai, and his nephew, Lot, with him. Then it mentions, רכושם כל ואת, and all of their possessions. People first, stuff last. A chapter later, when Avram leaves Egypt, the text differs significantly. Lot appears to have become an after thought mentioned only after the material possessions Avram and Sarai have acquired and taken with them on their journey.
Was material gain the source of the estrangement between Avram and Lot? The answer can only be left to commentary and conjecture, but the narrative makes it clear that the land can no longer hold them up together for their possessions were too great. Their material wealth became too burdensome and prevented them from יחדו לשבת, dwelling together.
Economic success is a valued element of the American dream. The possibility of the individual to achieve is at the heart of what it means to be an American: “to pursue the blessings of liberty for ourselves and our posterity." At the same time, too much emphasis on economic and material achievement - on financial freedom -- may be leading us to forget about the pursuit of liberty and justice for all citizens. The establishment of justice precedes the pursuit of liberty in our Constitution. When the pursuit of possessions interferes with our ability to dwell in harmony together then, in essence, we’ve risk shattering the American dream.