“Let them eat cake!” Those infamous words, allegedly uttered by the young Queen Marie Antoinette of France, are considered to be the ultimate example of willful naiveté, apathy, and economic hubris all wrapped into one succinct package. It didn’t bode too well for Marie Antoinette, as we all know that the curtain came down on that scene with Marie’s head rapidly detached from her body and lying in a bucket next to a guillotine.
Here’s a bit of background to that story. Born Maria Antonia Josepha Johanna, the Archduchess of Austria, she became the Dauphine of France with her marriage at age 14 to Louis Auguste, son of Louis XV. When her father-in-law died in 1774, she became Queen of France at the tender age of 19.
It was not a good time to become Queen of France. The people were unhappy with the monarchy, seen as apathetic to the plight of the millions of desperately poor peasants of France, and the situation became even worse when in 1787, King Louis XVI, her husband, exiled the Parliament, which was seen as the only voice of the starving peasantry. This allowed the king to continue his profligate spending on things like frivolous week-long parties where rivers of food and spirits flowed through the palaces with reckless abandon.
Rumors abounded about her extravagance, with some saying that she adorned the walls of Versailles with gold and diamonds, while the people of France were literally starving to death. While it is very reputably disputed whether she ever uttered the words “Let them eat cake” (or more accurately “Let them eat brioche,” brioche being a rich French bread with a high butter and sugar content), that statement was attributed to her through the writing of Jean Jacques Rousseau, the famous philosopher who inspired the French Revolution, in his autobiographical book, Confessions. Here is the statement in its entirety, “Finally I recalled the stopgap solution of a great princess who was told that the peasants had no bread, and who responded: “Let them eat brioche.”
Among many other political concerns, this statement inflamed the masses against her, and when the French Revolution swept the country into chaos, she was one of the most hated people in France. In the end, she was tried and convicted of treason, paraded through the streets of Paris with her hair cut off, and soon thereafter, her head suffered the same fate as her hair.
While visiting France, one can see many artifacts from the French Revolution, from the stones of the infamous Bastille prison that was stormed at its onset, to swords of the National Guard and actual guillotines. To me, it would be fascinating to see a display of the rich bread and cake that Marie Antoinette was eating while the people starved to death. The stark contrast of the rich buttery breads and intricately decorated cakes the Queen ate while the people chewed on leather, would be a powerful reminder of some of the causes of the French Revolution, and the fate that fell on the royal family.
A few years ago, I felt like I did see such an exhibit, but from an entirely different era and country. I went to a charity event at the Detroit Institute of Arts, where I saw an exhibit called Fabergé: The Rise and Fall, The Collection of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. In this exhibit, one could see a vast array of items produced by the House of Faberge, the renowned Russian jewelry house, from the late 1800’s to early 1900’s. The highlight of the exhibit is the two Imperial Easter Eggs, two of only 42 known Faberge Imperial Eggs in the world. The Imperial Easter Eggs are exquisite masterpieces produced by Karl Faberge and presented to the Tsar each Easter. The Romanov Tsars would present them to the women of the house, usually the Tsarina or the Dowager Princess Maria Feodorovna, mother of the last Tsar, Nicholas II.
The eggs took a year to produce, and were not only made of rare and precious materials with unparalleled craftsmanship, but also contained all manner of hidden delights once opened. Delicate golden carriages, singing jeweled birds, blooming flowers, and rising family portraits are some of the delights the royal family would find in their Imperial Eggs each Easter. (Click here for a photo essay of nine of the Imperial Easter eggs)
The Faberge eggs are similar to the brioche of Marie Antoinette in that they represent enormous extravagances of a monarchy that took place while the peasants were starving to death in the country all around them. The people didn’t take too kindly to the Romanov’s extravagance, and as in France, a peasant’s revolution resulted in an overturned monarchy, and the massacre of the royal family.
Looking at the extraordinary eggs leaves one quite ambivalent. On the one hand, the eggs are so breathtakingly beautiful that it is almost impossible not to be swept up in their charm. On the other hand, when the larger context of their existence is brought up, the immense suffering of the millions of peasants whose taxes paid for those eggs, it is difficult to not feel revulsion at their beauty. (While we were leaving the DIA, my wife told me that she had just been to a class on the history of Jews in Russia, where she learned of the rabid and violent anti-Semitism of the Romanov family, and this only added to the feeling. Clearly, owning fine things does not a fine person make.)
The dissonance is horrifying. How can a Queen luxuriate at seven day parties when children with distended stomachs are dying throughout the country, outstretched arms begging for a morsel of bread? How can a king lavish his family with priceless gifts when peasants are unable to serve their entire families even a single potato for their daily meal?
But walking away from the DIA, I realized that this question inevitably turns itself back to me, and to many of us. On the one hand, we live in a time of enormous prosperity. No one we know has ever had to go two days in between meals like many of our ancestors did in the Russian shtetls or Polish ghettos. Thank G-d, we live in countries that allow us to make respectable incomes, and to live a lifestyle that most Jews of the last two millenia could never even dream of achieving. And that even applies to people with moderate incomes. Many of our people have seen the storehouses of heaven open wide above them, and have experienced a shefa, a Heavenly Flow of success that is beyond extraordinary.
On the other hand, the needs of our brothers and sister are still great. One in three children in Israel still go to bed hungry. Tens of thousands of babies are suffering from malnutrition, their parents forced to water down their formula, despite knowing the consequences of malnutrition at such an early stage of life which can include brain damage, developmental retardation, growth retardation, goitre, blindness, anemia, and a host of other tragic conditions. (Click here for a link to Feed a Baby for $1 a day) There are hundreds of families that recently lost everything to Hurricane Sandy, and are living at friends and neighbors with nothing but the clothing on their backs. Even in our community, many families are strenuously working to stave off foreclosure, and face the daily fear of having their heat or electricity shut off.
This brings us to the all important question: how do we use our wealth? How do we balance our Spend vs. Give equation? It is an enormously nuanced question, and one I struggle with all the time (especially after visiting the Faberge collection). While I normally try to present a clear defined concept in my Shabbos emails, here I cannot. I can only present to you some of the thoughts that race around my mind regarding this troubling question.
The extreme example of this question occurred during the Holocaust, and while it is obviously extreme, I will bring it here because it illustrates the dilemma in the starkest of terms. Late in the Holocaust, when the Nazi atrocities had been proven to the Jewish community beyond the shadow of doubt, there were rescue organizations that could literally save a Jewish soul from death for one thousand dollars, through smuggling, bribery, and various other means. But many Jews continued to buy new cars, larger houses, and other luxuries. We must ask, to what extent was one expected to give when the need was so great. Was someone expected to subsist on bread and water in order to spend every last dollar saving souls? Could one buy fish and meat when souls were on the market for one thousand dollars? On the other hand, how far was one required to endure poverty to contribute to saving others?
Today, we don’t have the exact same question. No one is dying in the streets of poverty. And no one will say that a person can’t buy fish and meat because people are hungry in Israel. But we do have to ask ourselves at what point do items become Faberge Eggs, needless luxuries while people are suffering. And obviously, each person needs to ask this question according to his or her wealth. Some may have to ponder whether to buy a new car for $23,000 or a used car in excellent condition for $16,000 and use the rest for charity. People of lesser means may have to ponder whether to buy their wives a $400 necklace for Yom Tov, or to buy a $250 necklace and give the rest to people who don’t have the money to buy fish and meat for Yom Tov. People of greater means might need to ponder whether to buy a $25,000 watch or an $8,000 watch and use the rest for charity.
This question becomes even more tricky when acknowledging the vast sums of money being given to charity already. A friend of mine from a very wealthy family received two Cartier watches as a wedding gift from his parents, an $18,000 Shabbos watch, and a $6,000 weekday watch. That may seem beyond the pale to many, but when recognizing that his parents give millions to charity each year, we have to wonder at what point have they given enough? (There is a separate question of Conspicuous Consumption vs. Inconspicuous Consumption but that is out of the scope of today’s discussion.)
We do believe that if G-d gave someone great wealth, it is partly so that they can give it away (tzedaka means justice, pointing to the Jewish belief that it is only just that one share of the wealth given to him by G-d), but also partly so that they can enjoy it. We also know that the Torah already prescribed a charity percentage of 10%, and the Sages of the Talmud (Ketuboth, 50A) said that one should not give more than 20% to charity. But that is balanced by the words of almost all commentators who qualified that as being a measure instituted so that people shouldn’t give too much away and eventually fall back to needing the community to prop them up, and that it doesn’t apply to people of extraordinary means. The Chofetz Chaim, (Ahavas Chessed Part II, Chaper 20) took that one step further and said that if the Sages said that one should not spend more than 20% even on charity , how much more so should one not spend their wealth on “frivolous items such as expensive clothing or extravagant jewelry.”
But the sources go both ways. The Talmud (Chullin 84A) talks about how one should spend his money, and says that if one has over 100 Maneh (a monetary unit of the time) one can have a pot full of meat every day, despite the clear indication that meat was somewhat of a luxury in those days, and despite the fact that there were surely poor people in the Talmudic Era. The Talmud also says (Eruvin 54A), “Hurry on and eat, hurry on and drink, for this world that we are leaving is is like a wedding banquet.” Most commentators explain that to describe the imperative to perform as many mitzvos as possible while in this world, because in the next world we will not be able to do any more mitvos. But Rashi explains it as follows, “If you have money with which to pleasure yourself, don’t wait until tomorrow, for perhaps tomorrow you will die, and have no more pleasure.”
This matter is extremely weighty, and is something that each of us should wrestle with on our own level, but as our nation gets into spending gear before the holiday season, it is a good question to wrestle with.
Are we eating too much cake?
Parsha Dvar Torah
In this week’s Parsha we see the difficulties Ya’akov encountered while dealing with Lavan, his father-in-law, who happens to have won the award for World’s Biggest Slimeball for 23 years running. From cheating Ya’akov out of the wife for whom he worked seven years, to switching his pay rate 100 times, this guy was a class act. He had every scam possible sitting securely in his pocket.
Finally, Ya’kov had enough. He waited until Lavan went to one of his Idol Fests, took his family and belongings, and headed back to Israel. When Lavan found out that Ya’akov ran away, he set out after him in a rage, and was ready to kill Ya’akov (his own son-in-law! Did I mention that Slimeball Award he won repeatedly?). Luckily, Ya’akov had G-d on his side. G-d came to Lavan the night before he approached Ya’akov and warned him very sternly that he better not touch Ya’akov or anyone in his family. The next day, Lavan approached Ya’akov’s camp and said the following, “It is within the power of my hand to harm you, but the G-d of your father spoke to me last night saying, ‘Guard yourself not to speak to Yaakov either good or evil’” (Gen; 31:29).
The commentators point out the fallacy in that statement. Lavan starts off saying that it is within his power to harm Ya’akov, when it is clear from the end of his statement that in fact he knows he cannot. This points to a human condition where a person clearly knows something to be the truth, but due to a whole life of living a different way, can totally ignore reality. Lavan was so used to thinking that he was in control that even once it was very clear to him that he couldn’t do what he wants, he still foolishly blurted out “It is within my power to harm you…”
Today we see it in the smoker who smokes through the tube inserted into his trachea, who sees the devastating effects of his ways, but cannot stop himself. We also see it in people (myself including) who really wish to add more spiritual content to their lives, but are so used to living as they do that they make excuses, and stay the same. Sometimes we are blessed to have a moment of clarity, a brief period where we feel like G-d is sending us a message. Let’s remember not to fall into the Lavan trap, where we ignore it the very next day, but rather let’s seize it, use it, and grow from it.
This week’s Parsha begins with Yaakov going to Charan to find himself a good non-Canaanite wife. As he heads down, he spends the night in the location that would, years later, be the site of the Holy Temple. He has a dream in which he sees angels going up and down a ladder. The angels of Israel were leaving him, and the angels of Chutz La’aretz (literally “outside the land” meaning anywhere out of Israel) were coming down to accompany him. In this dream G-d promises Yaakov that he will be guarded and protected in the house of Lavan, that he will come back to Israel in peace, and that eventually the whole Israel will be given to his offspring.
When Yaakov reaches Charan, he sees the local shepherds waiting around a well, and asks them why they don’t let their sheep out to pasture. They answer that they all gather around the well until they have enough people to be able to push off the boulder resting on its mouth. As Rachel, Lavan’s daughter, approaches, Yaakov sees with Divine intuition that this will be his wife, and he is filled with strength. He flips the boulder off the well, and waters Rachel’s sheep. Upon going back to Lavan’s house, Yaakov stays with Lavan for a month and works as his shepherd before Lavan asks him if he wants some sort of remuneration for his work. (Yep, Lavan the no-goodnik had Yaakov, his guest and relative, watching his sheep for a month without pay before finally offering him some pay.)
Yaakov tells him that he would like to marry Rachel, Lavan’s younger daughter. Lavan gives him his blessing on the condition that Yaakov shepherd his sheep for seven years, which Yaakov gladly does. However, Lavan the Lowlife switches the daughters and gives him Leah. Yaakov had been anticipating this, and gave Rachel certain signs which she was to give him on their wedding night. However, Rachel, fearing the incredible humiliation that Leah would undergo when Yaakov realized he was being given the wrong bride, gives Leah the signs even though that meant she would be left to marry Yaakov’s brother the Evil Eisav. This teaches how far one must go to prevent someone from being humiliated.
Yaakov is not happy with Lavan upon realizing that he has been duped, but Lavan offers a quick and easy solution – work another seven years for Rachel. Yaakov does so. Leah has four children, Reuven, Shimon, Levi, and Yehuda, after which she stops having children. Rachel has none, so she decides to give her maidservant, Bilhah, to Yaakov in the hopes of building a family through her children. This works, and Rachel names Bilhah’s two children Dan and Naftali. Leah, seeing that she stopped having children, also gives her maidservant, Zilpah, to Yaakov as a wife and she gives birth to two children, Gad and Asher.
Soon Leah has two more children, Yisachar and Zevulun, and finally, after many years of praying and yearning, Rachel has a son, whom she calls Yosef. After Yosef (who is destined to quash Eisav) was born, Yaakov is ready to head back to his land. However, after 14 years of devoted service Lavan is finally ready to cut a deal. If Yaakov stays, he will let him keep certain sheep based on their coats (i.e. ringed, speckled, spotted, or brownish). Over the next six years Lavan changes the agreement 100 times, but Yaakov manages to devise a system in which he still gets some sheep. G-d blesses his flocks, and in six years Yaakov becomes very prosperous.
Realizing that Lavan and his family are getting jealous of and angry with him, Yaakov tells his family that its time to leave their villainous Zeidy, and Rachel and Leah answer that they are only too happy to leave the father who didn’t treat them as daughters but as strangers. Yaakov leaves while Lavan is on a trip to one of his Idol Fests, and Rachel steals her father’s idols. When Lavan hears about the exodus of his daughters and grandchildren, and the theft of his idols, he becomes enraged and chases them down with the intent to seriously harm them. But G-d comes to Lavan in a dream and tells him that he better not do anything, neither good nor bad (as the saying goes, not from your honey and not from your sting), to Yaakov and his family.
Instead, Lavan comes and plays the hurt and abandoned grandfather, complaining that he wanted to see them off amid great fanfare. Then he accuses Yaakov of stealing his idols. Lavan searches all the tents, but Rachel hides them in her saddlebag and tells her father that she can’t get off her camel, because she is sick. In the end, Lavan makes a treaty with Yaakov and then peacefully departs in the morning. That’s all Folks.
Quote of the Week: The art of living lies less in eliminating our troubles than in growing with them. – Bernard Baruch
Random Fact of the Week: The mayfly’s eggs take three years to hatch. Lifespan: about six hours!
Funny Line of the Week: I had a stick of CareFree gum, but it didn’t work. As soon as the gum lost its flavor, I was back to pondering my mortality.
Have a Save-ory Shabbos,
R’ Leiby Burnham