The Merriam-Webster definition of inflation is ““a continuing rise in the general price level usually attributed to an increase in the volume of money and credit, relative to available goods and services.” In human speak, inflation is when everything seems to be getting much more expensive, way too fast. When a loaf of bread that used to cost $3.49 now costs $4.99, when a gallon of gas, which just two years ago cost $2.19 now costs $4.29, and when my heating bill for the month costs $230 and it used to cost $80.
There is no question that inflation is on people’s mind, with 59% of Americans telling Gallup that they worry about inflation a great deal, and an additional 24% saying they worry about it fairly often. Only 17% of Americans are sanguine about inflation. And there is good reason to be concerned about inflation; the reports for February inflation (which came in early March) showed a 7.9% year over year rate of inflation, and that didn’t factor in the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the subsequent spike in energy prices! That was the highest rate in over 40 years, and likely only the beginning of more inflationary pressure in the months to come.
How did we get here? For starters, we need to look at the supply of money. Like anything else, there more availability something has, the lower the price. There are very few authentic Louis Vuitton bags produced each year, and that’s why they cost so much. There are millions of fake Louis Vuitton bags produced each year and that’s why they have so little value. Dollars have lately become like fake Louis Vuitton bags, the US government has been printing dollars like drunk counterfeiters with almost no restraint. The US national debt has almost quintupled in the last 20 years, from 6.2 Trillion in 2002 to 30.4 Trillion in 2022.
But debt alone is not the problem, it’s the shell game that the US has been playing that is the problem. The dirty secret (it’s definitely dirty, but maybe not that secret) of the US economy is that demand for US debt has been plummeting in recent years. Since 2014, China has been reducing the amount of US debt it holds, and many other countries are following suit.
The Chinese government, evil as they are, are no fools, and when they saw that the US just kept printing more dollars, they asked themselves, why should we give away goods and services for a commodity that is not fixed and keeps being devalued through the constant printing of money? So they stopped buying US debt and instead started buying hard assets all over the world; ports, farmland, mines, railroads, things that you can’t just print more of.
But if other governments aren’t buying as much of the US debt anymore, who is buying it? The answer is…. The US government! In 2009, the Federal Reserve, the central bank of the United States, started buying US bonds, and in 2022, just thirteen years later it has created over $9 Trillion dollars of new money. No one wanted US Debt, so we bought it from ourselves. If it sounds crazy, it’s because it is crazy. Economists can certainly explain it away with fancy words like Modern Monetary Theory, or liquidity injections, but the child who sees the emperor passing by in his carriage yells out, “But the emperor is wearing no clothes!”
The result is that US keeps creating money we don’t have, and spending it at a dizzying pace, often in the most reckless of ways in spending bills with price tags that in end with the word trillions. These bills are thousands of pages long, and no one, not a single Congressman has any idea of what they’re voting to approve! So the US economy speeds up as it heads toward crisis. Asset prices like homes and cars grow by more than 20% in a single year, food prices soar, and people keep buying because the printer is still going burrrrr…. We enslave future generations with unimaginable mountains of debt, while we party with our newly printed money.
When inflation hit 7.9% in February (and that’s according to CPI, a controversial measurement that many economists feel underrepresents true inflation), suddenly the country starts wondering how we got here, but the reality is that the signs were there the whole time, we just refused to deal with them realistically.
Next week is Pesach, the Yom Tov that celebrates Geulah, redemption. The original Pesach 3,334 years ago is when we were redeemed from the slavery, and every year we go back to the same place in the calendar, and we have the opportunity to experience redemption anew. The ultimate symbol of redemption is the Matzah, a simple flat piece of bread. What is so great about Matzah? Why is the focal point of our Seder? Why is it specifically the Matzah that we hide away for the Afikomen?
The greatness of the Matzah is that it has no inflation. It doesn’t show itself to be more than it is. On the other hand, a piece of chametz, like a big puffy Challah, shows itself to be a lot more than it really is, because it is filled with air pockets. While the Matzah lives a life of humility, getting by on what it has, taking up no more space in the world than it should, the Chametz is busy inflating itself and taking up more and more space. People with a Chametz attitude step over others, shove others out of their way, and take what isn’t rightfully coming to them, their ego keeps growing and they don’t care about who or what gets hurt in the process.
If we want to experience the true redemption of Pesach, we have to be able to Matzify ourselves; recognize our limitations, humbly appreciate all the gifts being showered on us by the Good Lord, and make sure to pass them on to others all around us. When we are flat and small, there’s plenty of room for others in our space, we welcome other’s participation, we don’t think we have it all figured out. We don’t spend on vanities and luxuries that we can’t really afford, and we don’t hurt others by showing off what we have, even when we can afford it.
This Pesach, let’s deflate a bit. Let’s take up less room and give more room for others. Let’s recognize that our success comes not from our greatness but from G-ds. Let’s be the Redemption we want to see in the world!
Parsha Dvar Torah
This week’s parsha, Metzora, begins with the laws of how one purifies himself from tzara’at the spiritual leprosy we discussed last week. As part of the purification process, the metzorah is commanded to bring a number of items that symbolize messages he needs to inculcate. The one trait that characterizes any gossiper is arrogance, as this gives him the callousness to hurt other’s feelings. Therefore, the metzorah brings some hyssop branches, a lowly plant meant to remind the metzorah to become more humble. Additionally, he brings a piece of crimson wool, whose dye is made of a pigment from a lowly snail, which also reminds him to lower himself.
The third thing he brings is a piece of cedar wood, which is quite baffling, as the cedar tree is anything but lowly. Au contraire, it is a very tall tree reaching heights of 120- 180 feet tall! Rashi (in Arachin, 16A) explains that the cedar wood reminds the person of the haughtiness that he needs to purge from his character. But that leaves us with the question of why it is wrapped together with the hyssop that symbolizes the opposite pole?
My Rebbi, Rabbi Shmuel Brazil, once offered the following explanation, which is very instructive for anyone on a pathway to personal betterment. There are two ploys used by the yetzer hara (the evil inclination, the little red guy in our heads with the pitchfork) to prevent us from growth. The first one he uses is inflating our ego to the point where we believe that we are just fine the way we are, and we don’t need to change anything in our lives. When we feel this way, we can come to the sin of slander. Such a situation needs a spiritual affliction, such as tzara’at, to wake us up to the reality that we do need to change. As far as the evil inclination is concerned, strategy #1 works just fine for most people, and for that reason most people live their lives without a constant, urgent drive to change.
But what does the evil inclination do when he bumps up against those individuals that are really bent on change? He changes gears, does a 180, makes a U-turn, flips a turn about, or if you have French in your blood, pulls a volte-face, but I think you get the point. Now he comes to that same person and tries to minimize him, put him down, and tell him that he is a nobody, he is weak, he can’t possibly change anyway so why try. Or he tells the person that they are so insignificant that what they do make no difference to G-d or to the world.
After a review of the two possible thought patterns that can deter a person from change, we understand what the cedar wood is doing in the metzorah’s purification process. He has two items (hyssop and crimson wool) to remind him to be humble, as arrogance led him to gossip and slander in the first place, and it is clear that he saw himself as above others. But there is still a fear that he will swing to the other extreme, and begin to say, “I’m just a nobody; my words don’t make a difference to anyone,” or, “I’m such a bad person, so steeped in my ego that I will never be able to really change for the better!” To counteract this, there is also a piece of a towering tree involved in his purification to remind him that he has unlimited potential, that he can grow and soar and ascend to heights he never fathomed reaching!
Parshat Metzora begins with the sacrifices brought by the metzora upon the completion of his isolation and repentance process. He brings two birds to remind him that his excessive chirping like birds caused him to get tzara’at. (P.S. If you know of any metzoras, please send them to my house, we have a few birds that wake me up real early and I wouldn’t mind donating them to any local metzoras!) He also brings a piece of cedar wood (a very tall tree) to remind him of what his haughtiness caused, a hyssop (low bush) and a tongue of crimson wool (in Hebrew this translates into a word that also means worm) to remind him that he can remedy it by being humble like the hyssop and the worm. The metzora then waits another week, and brings a second round of sacrifices to the Temple, after which he is finally clean and pure, and he can go back to rejoin society – hopefully, a transformed man.
The torah next discusses how tzara’at can afflict a house. Although we explained above that tzara’at of the house was the first step to awakening someone to change, the commentators note that affliction of the house was actually a gift from G-d. When the Cannanites saw the Jews coming to conquer their land, they hid their money in the walls of their homes. Since part of the purification of a house with tzara’at involves cutting out the afflicted parts of the wall, the occupants would then discover the hidden treasures! If you are wondering why someone seems to get rewarded for sinning, I’m glad. A. Because you’re still reading, B. because you’re thinking critically about what your reading. Please go out, get an answer and email me back with it, or email me that you’ve given up, and I will send you the answer!
The last part of the Parsha deals with different kinds of discharges from the human body that are spiritually contaminating to different degrees, and the various purification processes used to rectify the contaminations. Being that today there is no tzara’at to keep us in check, let us try to be more vigilant of the way we talk about others, and ensure that our tongue is never a weapon, only a tool!
Quote of the Week: Absorb what is useful, discard what is not, add what is uniquely yours. – Bruce Lee
Random Fact of the Week: The country of Andorra has a zero percent unemployment rate.
Funny Quip of the Week: Human beings use only 10% of their brains. Could you imagine how much we could accomplish if we used the other 60%?
Have a Marvelous Shabbos,
R’ Leiby Burnham