A Sermon on the Mall

Headshot of Rabbi Edward Feinstein
Headshot of Rabbi Edward Feinstein
Rabbi Edward Feinstein

Rabbi Ed Feinstein is senior rabbi of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, California. He has served on the faculty of the Ziegler Rabbinical School of Rabbinic Studies at American Jewish University since 1990 and is an instructor for the Wexner Heritage Program, lecturing widely across the United States.

In 1982, Rabbi Feinstein became the founding director of the Solomon Schechter Academy of Dallas, Texas, building the school’s enrollment from 40 to over 500 in eight years, and winning national recognition as center of educational excellence. In 1990, he assumed the position of executive director of Camp Ramah in California, the largest Jewish camp and conference center in the western United States. He came to Valley Beth Shalom in 1993 at the invitation of the renowned Rabbi Harold Schulweis, whom he succeeded as the congregation’s senior rabbi in 2005.

Rabbi Feinstein is a member of the board of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, a member of the school board of Milken Community High School and an active member of AIPAC. A survivor of two bouts of colon cancer, he speaks frequently to cancer support groups all over Southern California.

posted on May 11, 2014
Torah Reading
Haftarah Reading

"We don't know who discovered water," observed Albert Einstein, but we do know one thing: "It wasn't a fish!" A fish -- born into water, living, eating, breathing water -- is never sufficiently separated from water to become aware. As the unnoticed condition of its existence, no fish will ever know water. And what of us? What surrounds and contains us to which we are unaware? What is the ubiquitous medium of our existence?

I asked my children where they wanted to spend a few free hours one Sunday afternoon. "Let's go to the mall!" Not the beach? the mountains? the park? No, they insist on the mall. Arriving mid-afternoon, we find thousands of people. Welcome to the New American Neighborhood, replete with Bloomindales, The Gap, and Victoria's Secrets! No longer just a place to shop, the mall is where they grow up, where they date and fall in love, where families gather, where they grow old together. What does this do, in the long term, I wonder, to the souls of our children?

"You are what you eat" concluded the philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach. It is economics -- the means of production and the opportunities for consumption -- that determines our values, attitudes and identity. The marketplace saturates us. It tells us what's important, what's valuable, what's real. It even penetrates the self -- telling us who we are and what we're worth. Ask any man to introduce himself. See if he begins by telling you that he's married 18 years, the father of three, a huge opera fan, a committed gardener, a volunteer for Big Brothers. Chances are, he'll tell you his occupation: "I'm an attorney, a physician, a stock broker." This is his identity. Homo Faber -- he is his occupation -- what he "does for a living."

The Torah in this week's portion, Behar Sinai, worries about the impact of the economic struggle on the lives of human beings. It is concerned for the poverty of the body. Four times in this brief portion we find the words "Should your brother sink into poverty..." The poor must be supported. Money lent in assistance may not accrue interest. Lands auctioned to meet debt must be redeemed and kept in the family. And most radical of all: To prevent the accretion of systemic poverty, generation after generation, a Jubilee is proclaimed every fifty years. In the year of Jubilee, all properties return to their ancestral owners, all debts and contracts of indentured servitude are canceled, and all economic conditions return to a starting point of equality.

The Torah is concerned about the poverty of the land. In our pursuit of wealth we abuse and overwork the land. Torah commands, "In the seventh year, the land shall have a Sabbath of complete rest, a Sabbath of the Lord: You shall not sow your field nor prune your vineyard. You shall not reap the after-growth of your harvest or gather the grapes of your untrimmed vines; it shall be a year of complete rest for the land."

Most importantly, the Torah is concerned for the poverty of the human soul. This seventh year, the "Sabbath of the Lord" is not only for the land, but for those who work the land. It removes the human being from the economic struggle. An astonishing proposal: A seventh year of fallow hands but fertile mind to rediscover who we are when we're not at work, not struggling to make it, not a commodity on the marketplace. A full year separated from the endless project of accumulating wealth, to do what? What would you do? Travel? Learn? Do art? Master the viola? Volunteer? Get to know your kids? Every seven years a chance to shed the skin of the attorney, the accountant, the executive, and find the human soul beneath.

The Hasidic master, Yakov Yosef of Polnoye taught that the human being is a ladder, planted on the earth with its top reaching heaven. The ladder suggests a dynamic. The soul is always ascending or descending. In the course of life, we nurture the soul or we starve it. A soul that is starving leaves us listless, bored, depressed. Nurturing the soul yields a sense of purposefulness, meaningfulness, and joy. Once every seven days, and once every seven years, we step away from the tasks of sustaining the body, to nurture and grow the soul.

This task is particularly important at this moment in history. Every year since 1950, we Americans have experienced a rapidly growing economy. Economic growth has become part of our culture. We have come to expect it. We measure our personal success by the growth of our material wealth. Each generation expects to surpass the prosperity of the previous generation. That prosperity is projected into a faith that ours is a universe of ever-expanding opportunities. But something is changing.

Since 1980, real per capita income has increased 65%. But, while we are richer on the average, there is a pronounced skew in the distribution of income - the rich are becoming richer than the rest of us. In actuality, the typical person's income has declined in the last 10 years. For the whole economy, the rate of income growth is falling fast. Growth in average per capita real income is less than 1/3 of what it once was.

The recession is coming to an end. But we will not return to the way things were. The jobs that have been shipped overseas are not coming back. The rapid and dependable economic growth we grew up with is not coming back. Limited world resources and international competition now set limits on income growth. Our economic future is going to be more trying than anything we've known in the past.

What happens to young people who grow up in a world of shrinking opportunities, dwindling possibilities, declining prospects? Where will they find fulfillment? What happens to young people who will never reach their parents' standard of living? How will they measure their success? What happens to a culture that is always seeking more, in a world that can provide only less?

Learning to cultivate the soul has become a matter of our survival. The mall as a way of life is a dead end. Only in the life of the soul will we find the resources to live well, fully, happily, in this new world.