From Entitlement to Enlightenment: The Plague of Living Beyond Our Means

In Bo, this week’s Torah portion, we build toward the climax of the exodus from Egypt with the last of the ten plagues. There we read:

Speak now in the ears of the people, and let them ask every man of his friend and every woman of her friend, jewels of silver and jewels of gold.”(Exodus 11: 2).

Why would God have the Israelite slaves take resources from the Egyptians? From one side we see this as completion of what was foreshadowed by and promised to Avraham in his sojourning in Egypt. From another side we see this as giving them the resources that they would need to build the tabernacle in the desert. On an even simpler level we can see this as some form of restitution for their lives of servitude. But why does have them “asking” for it?

The ninth of the Ten Plagues to be visited on Egypt was the plague of Darkness. There we read:

No person could see his brother, nor could any person rise from his place, for three days; but for the children of Israel, there was light in all their dwellings.”(Exodus 10:23)

What were the Children of Israel doing while the Egyptians languished in the darkness? Here the Midrash answers that the darkness provided an opportunity for the Israelites to circulate in Egyptian homes to determine the location of the valuables that they would later borrow. When Jews later asked to borrow these items, Egyptians could not deny owning them because the Jews would point to where they were hidden. (Midrash Rabbah, Exodus 14:4)

Today it feels that we are all similarly in the dark when it comes to the rising cost of Jewish living. How might we move forward?It seems paralyzing thinking paying for our children to have excellent Jewish experiences. While we have no trouble talking about those in our community who wealthy or poor, for a vast majority of us that are in the middle class it seems there is nothing to say. In many respects it seems that the middle class of committed Jews are plagued by shame and silence.

I do not think we can assume that any of us deserve Jewish life being given to us. There is no doubt that we will be struggling for years because of the unintended consequences of major philanthropists giving away large ticket Jewish experiences for free. In some ways the future of Jewish life is being held ransom to “free” Jewish life.

How might we switch from this entitlement to enlightenment?

In many ways it seems that we are creating amazing experiences to attract people to Jewish life that people who are committed to Jewish life cannot afford. We are adding many bells an whistles that price the middle class out of being consumers. As a thought experiment I wanted to suggestion an approach inspired by the Midrash quoted above. What would it look like to do an accounting of what we can all afford ( our gold) and only build experiences based on that? We would not have it all ( the tabernacle) , but we would be liberated to live within our means.

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