A number of years ago, the diagnosis of a curious disease was formulated. The symptoms can be defined as follows, and I quote: "[Affluenza is] a painful, contagious, socially transmitted condition of overload, debt, anxiety, and waste resulting from the dogged pursuit of more."
Now, we can be inoculated by the winter influenza bouts but getting immunised against Affluenza is considerably more difficult. A few years ago, a lethal manifestation of Affluenza took the lives of four innocent pedestrians when a Texan ‘rich kid’, Ethan Couch, high on beer and valium, drove into them.
As devastating as this accident would be in any case, it was made all the more so by the law’s initially callous response: the millionaire teen’s psychologists and lawyers were quick to plead mercy, claiming that what the young man needed was not prison, but therapy in a $400,000 a year rehabilitation centre and a much lighter sentence as he was suffering from ‘Affluenza’.
A psychologist who disagreed with this assessment expressed her concern, stating that entitlement among affluent youth is becoming a ‘social problem’ and that we are setting a ‘double standard for the rich and poor’.
Affluenza rages all around us and very few of us are immune.Many of us have varying degrees of privilege and we all know that life is not a level playing field. Whether we like it or not, inequality is very much part of our lives. The Torah tries to continually implement mechanisms, checks and balances, to redress this imbalance. Shabbat, Shmitah (the Sabbatical Year) and Yovel (the Jubilee Year) are the Torah’s ideal to push the reset button. Biblical scholars argue, however, that this was an ideal that was never actually implemented. Still, it betrays the Torah’s preoccupation with justice and equity.
A more concrete – and perhaps more successful – way to redress the balance is to cultivate a consciousness in which greatness and smallness, privilege and poverty, power and vulnerability, are held in a single thought. Through the Biblical narrative of the Exodus, we are encouraged and compelled to broaden our consciousness and weigh our values on the scales of justice. We could call it the Pesach Perspective.
Firstly, our tradition equates chametz with ego, the breeding-ground of Affluenza.
Moreover, one of the most interesting aspects of the Haggadah is that it oscillates between this very privilege and poverty, power and vulnerability, greatness and smallness. It’s a quintessentially Jewish theme. On the one hand, we sit at a grand feast, akin to the symposia of the Greco-Roman world, where we lean, converse and indulge, as free people. On the other hand, we ritually imbibe the ‘lachma anya’, the bread of affliction and ‘maror’, the bitter herbs of our slavery.
Our tradition plays with these polarities all the time and they teach us an important lesson: Don’t contract Affluenza.It is reflected in how privilege is overturned in family dynamics; it is often the smallest or youngest of sons who rises to greatness (think of Jacob, Joseph or even King David) and this metaphor can be applied to a peoplehood level as well: Israel, as one of the smallest cultures of Antiquity would bequeath an incredible ethical heritage upon the world (not that this, mind you, is cause for complacency – just read any of the Prophets to be reminded of our moral failures as a people!)
The reverse is also true: we are encouraged to dream big! Abraham, the childless and aged patriarch dreams of descendants (spiritual as well as biological) as numerous as the sand of the sea or the stars in the sky. Jacob casts visions for his progeny in Genesis which are reflected in the blessings Moses bestows on the twelve tribes at the end of Deuteronomy. We have to dance this dance of being humble, getting real yet dreaming of a better world. This is reflected in two paradigmatic texts from the Torah. In the Book of Exodus we read about how downcast we were as slaves and how we escaped by the skin of our teeth. It was a ‘leil shimurim’, a night of vigilance, that the Israelites observed before their escape – a vigilance that we are called to observe by defending the rights of the stranger who shares their fate: ‘torat achat yihyeh l’ezrach v’lager.’ – ‘There shall be one law for the citizen and the stranger.’
In the Ethan Couch case, this most basic of principles was flouted. But the Torah draws us back in. It is the Pesach Perspective that should immunize us against Affluenza. Another paradigmatic text from the Book of Deuteronomy audaciously states: ‘Adonai eloheichem avoteichem yosef aleichem kachem, elef pa’amim’ – ‘The Eternal your God, the God of your ancestors made you a thousand times as you are’. The verse then continues with the introduction of checks and balances for governance: to appoint ‘wise men of understanding’ to each of the tribes and to establish courts of law that ‘hear the causes between your brothers and judge righteously between a man and his brother and the stranger that resides with him.’ Tellingly, the text ends with: ‘you shall hear the small and the great alike; you shall not be afraid of the face of any man; for the judgment is Gods... and I will hear it.’
The Pesach perspective teaches us to face life head-on, including its power-play and its injustice. But it also teaches us restraint, modesty, a keen sense of justice, yet the ability to dream big dreams.
We are as great as we are small, as powerful as we are vulnerable.To carry this sense of knowing our place in the world – to pursue justice relentlessly, to shy away from complacency and to embrace our vision knowing that a Higher Principle, greater than any fad, travesty of justice and politicking operates in our lives. We are called to be the very best, let us rise up to greet it.
Rabbi Esther Hugenholtz
Image credits: Folkert Gorter