Your Inner Billionaire
One of my favourite comments by Rashi, the premier commentary on the Torah, appears in this week’s Torah portion. Rebecca, Isaac’s wife, is having difficulties with her pregnancy. Her Ob-gyn was not available, apparently on vacation, so she is forced to seek a spiritual resolution to the extraordinary rumblings in her belly and looks to the local prophet to the meaning behind her discomfort. She is prophetically told that these tremors are an indication that she is having twins, and not just any twins but “two nations are in your womb; two regimes from your inside shall part ways.”
The spelling of “nations” (goyim)– גוים – in the Torah verse is odd and actually reads gayim גיים –which means “great ones”. Commenting on this anomaly, Rashi cites the Talmud that it refers to two great nations, Israel and Edom/Rome that will arise from Jacob and Esau respectively. And that these powerful nations will be personified by two great leaders who would arise from Jacob and Esau. Namely, Antoninus (Antoninus Pius or more likely Marcus Aurelius) and Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi – Rabbi Judah the Prince, the author of the Mishna. These were two very powerful, wealthy and successful individuals and in fact close friends.
The Talmud then goes on to describe the extent of their wealth, the Bill Gates of their times. How does Jewish tradition describe their vast riches? Yachts, gold, silver, cattle, castles? No, the Talmud says that they had lettuce and radishes all year long. Yup, you guessed it, lettuce and radishes were right there on their table 365 days a year… whenever they wanted it! I mean, does that blow you away or what?
So you are probably scratching your head and not very impressed. And indeed in our day and age the idea of having lettuce and radishes readily available all year long is not very impressive. But think for a moment and transport yourself back 2,000 years ago. You had to be super wealthy in order to have fruits or vegetables that were out-of-season at your disposal all year long. Back then you had to have access to ships to travel the world, a whole infrastructure of employees (slaves?) as well as storage facilities if you wanted certain things throughout the whole year. There was no such thing as a global economy the way we have it today and certain foods being available all the time applied only to the privileged few super wealthy and powerful. Most people only ate whatever their local agriculture could support in any particular season. This is what the Talmud is getting at when it describes the vast wealth of these two men in terms of radishes and lettuce.
Now contrast this to today where you just walk over to your friendly grocer and get all the radishes and lettuce you want for a few dollars and plunk them in your fridge to have whenever you like. I mean, Terry the homeless guy who used to hang out in front of Aish could afford and get this and a whole lot more whenever he wanted with the few bucks that he collected after morning minyan.
Statements like this one from the Talmud give us a window into how utterly amazing and good we have it today. People always say, “If only I had ____” (fill in the blank), then I would be happy. But that is completely false because we have way more than anyone could ever dream of or imagine in previous generations and yet we still walk around miserable. Happiness and joy does not come from any particular thing but from the continual awareness that we have amazing gifts and wealth right in front of us all the time. The problem is that we lose sight of this simple truth and forget to see it in the context of world history or through the lens of how people live outside our first world lifestyle.
For some unknown reason – maybe it makes people feel important if they are going through percieved hardship – people like to complain, no matter how fortunate their circumstances might be. The simple remedy to this disease is merely to reframe the perspective and get a different viewpoint on it. For example, today it is common, acceptable and even expected to kvetch about plane travel. Tight seats, overcrowded planes, they charge for luggage, no food service to speak of in coach, flight delays – it goes on and on and on. On the other hand I recall a comedian who had a great line about air travel: “Think about it, you are 35,000 feet up in the air, you are speeding along at 500 miles an hour, you’re sitting in a seat and you are not dying!!!”
Imagine if someone from a hundred years ago would hear us complain how difficult it is to fly to Israel: “The flight attendant wasn’t nice, the screaming kids are a pain and the flight was sooooo long – it took us 13 hours! And on top of all that my TV wasn’t working! (Note to self – ask Dan’s Deals if I can get some of my ticked refunded from El Al for the broken TV.) A nightmare!”
If our great grandparents and a hundred generations behind them heard such conversation, they would be awestruck. “It takes just a little over a half-day to reach Eretz Yisrael that was promised to our forefathers and foremothers, the land we prayed to return to for thousands of years, the land we wept and longed for? Less than a day and your are magically there??!!”
But more, when you get there, lo and behold Israel is not a desert or wasteland but a built-up, vibrant bustling country where you can stay in 5-star luxury like King Solomon did during the golden years of Jewish history! Generations of Jews would have given the world to have the opportunity to experience what we grumble about on a regular basis.
And we all know that the same can be said for so many blessings we have in our day and age that people could not have even imagined years ago. So the next time you feel like complaining about some inconvenience, stop for a moment and enjoy your lettuce and radishes because, in truth, you are dining at the table of a king and you are a billionaire.
So you grab a piece of something
That you think is gonna last
Well you wouldn’t even know a diamond
If you held it in your hand
The things you think are precious
I can’t understand