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The Shabbat Stick Gatherer: A Lesson in the Ills of Capitalism

I cannot claim to be anti-Capitalist. Target is my safe space. Amazon is my right hand man. Shopping is one of my hobbies. I like to search the sales. At the same time, I am not happy with our current form of Capitalism in how is functions to create and perpetuate inequality in our society. I do not like the ways it can lead to human suffering and the rape and desecration of our planet. In this week's Torah portion, Shlach Lecha (Numers 13:1-15), the story of the the man who gathered sticks on Shabbat (and his public execution) informs us as to one of the core ills of capitalism and why it can be so dangerous for a society. Taking advantage.

32 When the Israelites were in the wilderness they found a man gathering wood on the Sabbath day. 33 Those who found him gathering wood brought him to Moses and Aaron and to the whole community. 34 They put him in custody, because there was no clear instruction about what should be done to him. 35 Then the Lord said to Moses, “The man must surely be put to death; the whole community must stone him with stones outside the camp.” 36 So the whole community took him outside the camp and stoned him to death, just as the Lord commanded Moses.

What was the sin that warranted a public stoning by the community leaders-- while the entire community was forced to look on? What is the great sin the requires a public execution? He gathered sticks on the Sabbath.

Yes he deliberately broke a Torah law by working on the Sabbath. But for this type of punishment it is clear that there is an even deep violation that occurred that no offering, no animal sacrifice, no amount of penance can absolve? This is the violation: he took advantage of the fact that the rest of the community was following the rules. He broke the laws of God and community for the sake of personal advantage.  He got a leg up, a head start, he put himself above all the other people and for THAT he was executed. 

Gaining advantage over others by breaking rules, creating rules that give you advantage or skirting the rules degrades society.  In the Jewish tradition, it breaks core conventional notions of the sacred relationship between God and humanity. In the wilderness it was six days a week  that the people worked, gathered manna and wood, but on the seventh day we were commanded to rest, to stop our gathering. Manna would rot if you gathered more than what you needed in order to gain advantage on your neighbor. Manna, the food that came straight from the Divine, was designed so that you could not hoard it. There is nothing holy about hoarding sustenance. Each got what they needed, no more or less. There was enough for all. There were probably enough sticks for fire too. The great sin in this story is the desire to heed the call of greed.

One of Trump's primary campaign promises was to roll back regulations that impede profit making for American businesses. He seeks to roll away layers of protection for workers and the environment. Advantage, gaining and taking advantage, is the religion of many people in our society, many of of our leaders. They do not questions even for a moment the fact that their motive, their profit motive and their lust for advantage is proudly profane. It is the opposite of holy. It is a sin for which  Torah demands the ultimate punishment--public execution before the community.

I do not seek any kind of public execution. I do seek social change and this desire to see change is my religious and spiritual imperative. 

  • If you work full time and still can't pay your bills...

  • If you serve the community but are impoverished because of your student loans...

  • If you live in poverty or on the cusp because you can't afford child care, health care, housing, water, electricity, heat...

You are the victim of ADVANTAGE. Someone is taking advantage. And the response is usually for the DISADVANTAGED to try to find some advantage in order to climb the American prosperity ladder. But the system is rigged-for the advantage of people who have the most.  When the disadvantaged attempt to seek their own advantage it can take the form of crime, violating more regulations, even more dehumanization of workers and even greater raping of the earth. Everyone is trying to climb on the backs of the other in order to get higher and higher. Reaching not towards God, not towards a vision of a world at peace, not towards mutual love and respect but towards wealth and power. 

Living in Israel I witnessed a society obsessed with not being taken advantage of, not being a "Friar", a weak person who does not look out for their own interests. This attitude has increased as Israel has moved from socialism and exclusively towards an American brand of Capitalism. In Israel this is how people  often approach each other--how are you trying to screw me? This is what happens when a Jewish society allows Capitalism to define their economy--everyone sees the other as a stick gatherer, assuming no one follows the rules and that even your neighbor will go out of their way to create advantage for themselves--over you. I love Israel but this attitude is one thing  I cannot tolerate. The overt distrust. I hope this will change as Israel evolves as a democracy and a Jewish state.

In America we have a similar attitude. Except here, because of our legacy of racism, we also just assume that some people are naturally entitled to less. We hold onto our racism as a way to justify advantage and extreme wealth hoarding. Is there no greater way to find advantage in this world than slavery? Even animals are not allowed to be treated the way Americans treat each other on a daily basis. Stealing the labor, the energy and spirit of other humans so that you can profit? Treating other souls, another group,  as a simple means to the end of profit seeking is THE experience that birthed the Jewish people. We cried out to God. The situation was intolerable. Our cries were heard by God and a great mass liberation occurred. In this wilderness, on our way to our promised land, on our way to build a society where people do not take advantage of each other, we find this guy picking up sticks on the Sabbath. And he is made an example of. But we did not learn the holy lesson of the story. We are still learning the holy lesson of this story. We must learn the holy lesson of this story. Our survival depends on it. 

We refuse to grasp the dangers of advantage. Our relationship to the earth and our environmental crisis, the fact that I do not know if this planet will be habitable for my future generations, is proof. Why is our earth in danger of becoming a place where life might no longer thrive? It is because we take advantage of the earth. We gather when we should refrain from gathering. We pollute our own water. We make ourselves sick through our greed, our desire for more even when we know we have enough. 

Psalm 11:10 – The yirah/standing in awe and respect of HaShem/God/The Mystery of the Universe-- is the beginning of wisdom. 

When we take advantage, when we actively and knowingly SEEK advantage, we blot out God's spirit from this world, we blacken the light of Holiness in the world. It is a sin. It is wrong. It must stop. The Shabbat stick gatherer story could not be clearer.  It is through mutual regard, living in a brit/covenant relationship with each other and earth, that we will find our saving grace. It is the power of  human generosity and our ability to give up advantage that defines us as good people, people who walk the path of light and Godliness. 

We are not able to disconnect from our economy and this current form of Capitalism. That is true for every last one of us. Given this reality, we must place the rights and health of our communities and the earth at the top of our religious and spiritual agenda. We can do better, for each other, the planet and God. We can do better. We can put our foots down. We can begin to change our ways. We can resist the normalization of greed. We can work to eradicate the racism that is at the base of our economy. We can move our society towards a better place, towards that promised land where all live in prosperity, where everyone has enough and just what they need. That is the path of Judaism and for Jews and all people of good will, it is our sacred duty. 

Rabbi Kinberg


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Ran across this five years later, but very much appreciated it. You might like this complementary take:

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