Shabbat; the antidote to the Golden Calf syndrome
I keep thinking about the HGTV show Property Brothers. It’s a show about two brothers, Jonathan and Drew Scott who help couples find, remodel, and transform fixer-uppers into their dream home. At the start of each episode, in the opening credits, they say, “a house is just four walls, but a home is where memories are made.”
This statement is so true - we all remember fondly the memories made in our childhood homes (and maybe, sometimes not so fond memories). We never thought of our home as just a house, it always has so much more meaning to it than just four walls and a roof, yet at times, we seem to forget this.
Many of us still remember clearly the crash of 2008 and the great recession that followed it. Many of us were hurt in that financial crash, maybe we lost our homes, our jobs. Without getting into too much detail regarding the reasons for the financial crash, it can be attributed to living beyond our means, spending more money than we have.
Between 1997 and 2006, the price of the typical American house increased by 124%.The national median home price ranged from 2.9 to 3.1 times median household income. This ratio rose to 4.0 in 2004, and 4.6 in 2006. Borrowings lost all proportion to the average earnings and prices continued to climb. In addition banks were more than happy to provide loans to anyone who wanted to purchase a home. They mostly provided what is known as subprime mortgages - these are interest only mortgages that were provided to people who under normal circumstances would not be approved for mortgages. People who had no down payment, less than stellar credit, not enough income; these borrowers could now purchase a house with an initial low mortgage payment of the interest. The issue was that within a few years these mortgages reset to a much higher interest rate plus the principle. The interest rate varied each month - often to a rate that was unaffordable. While home prices were increasing this was fine, homeowners could refinance against the appreciation in their homes value. However once the bubble burst, they were left with expensive loans they could not afford, that were much higher than the value of their home.
People began to think of a house not as a home, but as a capital investment. The value of the house took second place to the price - and it continued to increase. People felt that they were getting richer but in real terms they weren't. As prices rose, the value of the house remained the same - it was a recipe for disaster.
The golden calf is a symbol of what can happen when people turn gold into an object of worship. Gold, like money, is a means to an end. When it becomes the end in itself, it is a prelude to disaster. In the case of the financial crash of 2008, people were obsessed with money, obsessed with wages, bonuses, borrowing money when they didn’t have enough to buy a house, to buy the latest gadgets, luxuries they could easily do without. When money rules, we remember the price of things and forget the real value of things.
The Torah offers a remedy to the “golden calf syndrome”.
Immediately before and immediately following the events of the golden calf, Moses gives the Israleites the same commandment, namely the observance of Shabbat. Why would he give this commandment at this time?
Shabbat is the antidote to the Golden Calf because it is a day when we stop thinking about the price of things and instead focus on the value of things. On shabbat we don’t participate in commerce, we don’t work and we don’t have people working for us. It is a day dedicated to the celebration of things that have value but no price. Blessing children, spending time with family and friends, sharing joys and happy occasions with others, praying together and counting our blessings - we take a break from the hectic life, from economics, from the pursuit of money, from consumerism.
For one day, each week, we set it all aside and focus on what we have, on what is really important in life, on things that have real value. We live the truth of Ben Zoma’s aphorism, “Who is rich? One who rejoices in what he has.”
Shabbat is a day when what is really important to us comes back into focus. It resets our impulses to run after things that we don’t really need and instead focuses us on the true value of things instead of their price.
Consumer societies are based on stimulating demand to generate expenditure to produce economic growth. Advertising goes hand-in-hand with consumerism by focusing us on what we don’t have and convincing us that we need it. The latest smartphone, a new car, designer clothes. Social media shows us what our friends have and shames us into feeling that we are lagging behind them. We are convinced that in order to find happiness we need to spend money - money that we don’t necessarily have. The financial collapse happened when people spent money that they didn’t have on things that gave them temporary happiness.
People work harder today than they did 50 years ago, they have more than their parents had, computers, robots, Ai help people with their jobs making them easier, yet there is no self reported rise in happiness. This is a contemporary version of the Golden Calf syndrome.
The most important contribution of Shabbat to our capitalist society is that it introduces the concept of limits. There are limits to our striving, our work, our consumption of resources. A society that loses its sense of limits will eventually self-destruct - it is unsustainable economically, environmentally and psychologically.
Shabbat, one of the first commandments that Moses gave the children of Israel, remains as relevant now as it was then. It tells us that happiness lies not in what we buy but in what we are; that true contentment is to be found not by seaking what we lack, but by giving thanks for what we have. We should never be too busy making a living to forget we don’t have enough time to live. Most importantly we should never be led by the crowd when it stampedes in pursuit of gain, for that is how gold becomes a Golden Calf.