Those of you of my advanced years might remember that Benjamin Kubelsky was the birth name of Jack Benny, and this was a part of one of his television monologues. Benny’s stage persona was one of being a tightwad. The reality of Jack Benny’s life was that he was anything BUT a cheapskate. Benny was, in fact, extraordinarily generous and over the years donated millions.
“My money or my life” is one of the challenges presented by Judaism in no less important a place than the paragraph which follows the Shema.
In my youth I was taught that the V’ahavta begins, “You will love the Lord Your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might”. Even the early Rabbis knew this was not an accurate translation, and Rashi, who died in 1105, combined their writings most clearly.
“Love God with all your heart” refers to our intellectual commitment to Judaism. “Love God with all your soul” really refers to our bodies, because the 685 times the Hebrew word nefesh occurs in the Bible, it never means ”soul”, which word does not appear until Rabbinic Judaism. “Love God with all your might” has nothing to do with strength; the Rabbis understood it to refer to our possessions.
There is something about possessions – owning and controlling physical objects – that leads us to abandon our values and our common sense. This happens to no lesser a person than Jacob in the thirty-second chapter of the Book of Genesis.
Jacob is about to reunite with his brother Esau, whom he has cheated out of the family inheritance. He is afraid that Esau still hates him and will want to kill him. So Jacob divides his family and possessions into two camps in order that at least half of his family will survive.
Then Jacob appears to turn his intellect off.
Jacob remembers that he has left some small vessels behind, and he goes out alone to retrieve them. These vessels were not sacred, they were not valuable – they were merely possessions. And Jacob risked his life, wandering out alone to make sure he did not lose them.
Although Jacob survived his foolish adventure, perhaps there is a lesson for all of us in this small event.
We all have possessions. It is human nature to want to have possessions. But at what cost do we value them? In the V’ahavta there is an order – intellect (our traditions), our lives, our possessions. How we should value all of these is set out straightforwardly. Jacob had it wrong but survived. Will we?
Let’s not be like Jack Benny’s persona who, in the face of a gun, says, “I’m thinking, I’m thinking”.
Rabbi Stanley Halpern