The Rabbi and the Flood

Although many prosperity churches hold seminars on financial responsibility, Catherine Bowler of the Duke Divinity School alleges that they often offer poor advice. Rosin argues that prosperity theology contributed to the housing bubble that caused the financial crisis of 2007–2010. She maintains that home ownership was heavily emphasized in prosperity churches and that reliance on divine intervention caused people to make unwise choices.

Prosperity Theology page at Wikipedia

Once, I asked Garay how you would know for certain if God had told you to buy a house, and he answered like a roulette dealer. “Ten Christians will say that God told them to buy a house. In nine of the cases, it will go bad. The 10th one is the real Christian.” And the other nine? “For them, there’s always another house.”

-Hanna Rosin
“Did Christianity Cause the Crash?”
the Atlantic

As our forefather Yaakov (Jacob) prepared to encounter his brother Esav again after 34 years, he did three things: sent presents, readied for war, and prayed. He balanced his prayers and trust in G-d with appropriate “worldly” efforts. He neither trusted in his own efforts, nor expected G-d to protect him with open miracles.

Not everyone knows how to strike this balance correctly. At one end of the spectrum are the people who believe that everything is up to them, who panic when they encounter a challenge or pat themselves on the back when things go well. At the other end of the spectrum, perhaps, is the rabbi of a town seated downstream from a dam that was about to break.

-Rabbi Yaakov Menken
“Balanced Trust”
Commentary on Torah Portion Vayishlah
Project Genesis

I suppose there are Christian Pastors who preach a balanced approach to a life of faith, but I more often find such a lesson taught by Rabbis. It seems like, in our current and rather dismal economy, that the poorly-considered Prosperity Theology promoted at some of the rather famous megachurches, is just power-surging through Christianity these days. This phenomena reminds me of how some Christians believe people get sick and even die, just because they don’t have enough faith. After all, if you have enough faith, God will heal you of any injury or disease, right? The mother who died of breast cancer or the father who perished from a sudden heart attack just weren’t “real Christians”, right? There have been “men of God” such as Jimmy Swaggart, Jim Bakker, Benny Hinn, and Joel Osteen who have, at one time or another, preached the basic message that God wants all Christians to be wealthy in this lifetime and if we have enough faith, money and prosperity will drop in our laps like proverbial “pennies from heaven.”

That’s hardly the reality of the Bible. A quick look at any of the Prophets in the Tanakh (Old Testament) and the lives of the Apostles, including Paul and Peter, shows us that often a life of extraordinary faith is also one of extraordinary hardship. No, I’m not saying that a life of faith always results in hardship, but it’s ridiculous to believe that being a “true Christian” means always being “filthy rich”. God has a wide variety of paths for each of us. Some people are “rewarded” (seemingly) in this life and some, by faith, live in financial difficulty and believe they have a reward in the world to come (Matthew 6:19-21). Rabbi Menken uses Jacob as an example of a man who, through a lot of hard work and faith, did well materially, though not without sacrifice. Jacob was a man who, in spite of success, continued to struggle with the world around him and with the Divine, but who was balanced sufficiently to make his own best effort, to pray, and then to trust God.

Most of us aren’t that well-organized and, as people of faith, we forget many of the lessons God has taught us.

People, despite their wealth, do not endure;
they are like the beasts that perish.

This is the fate of those who trust in themselves,
and of their followers, who approve their sayings.
They are like sheep and are destined to die;
death will be their shepherd
(but the upright will prevail over them in the morning).
Their forms will decay in the grave,
far from their princely mansions.
But God will redeem me from the realm of the dead;
he will surely take me to himself.
Do not be overawed when others grow rich,
when the splendor of their houses increases;
for they will take nothing with them when they die,
their splendor will not descend with them.
Though while they live they count themselves blessed—
and people praise you when you prosper—
they will join those who have gone before them,
who will never again see the light of life.

People who have wealth but lack understanding
are like the beasts that perish. –Psalm 49:12:20

We cannot rely only on our faith nor only on our own efforts; rather it is a combination of both that God expects of us (James 2:14-26). But sometimes we get lazy and jump at the sort of message that says God will “do it all” as long as we “bathe it in prayer” and have enough faith. Lack of prosperity, in this particular spiritual framework, means it’s our fault when we don’t prosper, and we haven’t prayed hard enough or prayed some sort of “magical” or “secret prayer” someone wrote a book about, as if God could be manipulated to give us our wishes like a genie in a lamp.

The flip side is when we have success and attribute it entirely to our own efforts, ignoring the graciousness of God. We look at our own magnificence and tell ourselves that people who are destitute are just lazy slackers who want the Government to give them everything rather than really working hard, like we did. The examples of people who are out of balance in one way or another are just endless. Here’s the end of Rabbi Menken’s story to illustrate my point (and I’m sure you’ve heard this joke before):

The sheriff found the rabbi sitting calmly on his front porch, studying. “Rabbi!” yelled the sheriff, “it’s a flood, we have to evacuate!”

“Don’t worry,” said the rabbi, “G-d will help me. I don’t need to go.”

Soon the water flooded the town, and firemen in motorboats were picking up the stragglers. One of them noticed the rabbi, and called him to come with them.

“Don’t worry,” said the rabbi, “G-d will help me. I don’t need to go.”

But the waters rose, and rose, and by the time a helicopter was sent to find the last residents, the rabbi was calmly sitting on his roof. Yet once again, the rabbi refused to go.

Once in Heaven, the rabbi demanded an explanation. “I followed Your ways, I learned Your Torah, I did Your will… why didn’t You help me?!”

“What do you mean?” came the response. “I sent a car. I sent a boat. I even sent you a helicopter, but you refused to be helped!”

The reason the joke is so well-known is because it tells something true about people of faith who only have faith. We look for supernatural miracles as the only answer to prayer, but often God sends us very real-world solutions to our dilemmas which require that we take some sort of definitive action. God opens the door, but we still have to get up off of our rear ends and walk through it.

Rabbi Label Lam at Torah.org quotes the pre-World War II treatise of Rabbi Elchonon Wasserman ztl, “The Epoch of the Moshiach” as an example of how many of the Jews in Europe trusted in the powers of the world around them for safety and prosperity and instead were led into the Holocaust.

“Before the redemption, the Jews will err after various forms of idol- worship… “Any matter which appears to man as a controlling factor independent of HASHEM’s will, and as capable of doing good or evil is included in the definition of idolatry. (Sanhedrin) …

He writes, “Let us now review all the “idols” which were worshipped in the last one hundred years. The Enlightenment of Berlin promised a great salvation. As soon as the breeze of liberalism began to blow, the Jews hastened to stand in the ranks of the foremost exponents. After Liberalism had made its exit, they turned to Democracy (worship of public opinion), Socialism, Communism, and to other “isms”… To these idols they made sacrifices of blood and money- and were betrayed by all of them. Not even one justified the faith that was pinned on it…”

Anything can become an idol if we depend on it beyond God’s will, even faith itself. Having faith in a “system” of Government or economic strategy can and has led to tragic consequences, but walking out in the middle of a busy street, standing directly in the path of a speeding truck, and expecting God to send His angels to rescue us from our own folly is also a kind of idolatry. Whether it’s some corrupt “holy man” telling us what we want to hear or we are telling ourselves the same foolish message, we are not so strong that we do not need God, nor can we neglect the responsibilities God has given us and not expect to collide with the consequences. Like Jacob, we must do the equivalent of “sending gifts, praying, and preparing for war” in every challenge we face. Only then are we fully equipped and worthy children of our Father.

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9 thoughts on “The Rabbi and the Flood”

  1. The prosperity we should be seeking is the gift of God Himself. It is a call to a spiritual life…to live in the spirit in love and wisdom. The presence of God is what we seek, for only through Him do we even begin to understand how we should be transformed. If anything else gets in front of this divine quest and rite, then the believer will know. We should not want anything more than a closer walk with God. He will take care of the rest by leading with His Holy Spirit. That is a promise from the lips of Jesus as well. All manners of service, and blessings, and corporate change can begin…but we should never be distracted by our primary essence: a relationship with God.
    So if a mega-church preacher is spouting on about Prosperity Theology ideas, we must understand that it shouldn’t take a real believer very long to see the error in their ways…BUT maybe that was a door that that particular person chose, and another person chose a different door because they did not want eternal damnation, and another because he saw love, and so on. Should we not all end up at the same point: that this life is a relationship with God! Nothing more and nothing less. He created us to enjoy us and love us! So whatever door a man walks through, even with questionable motives, he eventually will encounter the Truth…and have to make a decision: my SELF or my GOD.
    Thank you for a magnificently written post. I enjoyed it, agreed with most of it, and I love seeing your perspective…A very intelligent and honorable perspective. God bless you.

  2. Thanks. I appreciate you reading and commenting on my blog.

    It’s true that our motives can be questionable at one point or another in our lives and I doubt that any of us has a perfectly selfless perspective on our relationship with God and what to expect from that relationship. In fact, as you point out, it is our “self” that God wants from us; our wholehearted devotion to Him and to His desires. Matthew 7:7-12 is just one example where Jesus teaches that God will give us not only what we need, but what we want, so it’s not to say that we can’t ask to be prosperous in this life. However, for most of us, material wealth would only distract us away from our relationship with God, probably even more than abject poverty.

    If however, we can keep the goal of Christ in focus, regardless of our circumstances (Philippians 4:12-13), then we are better able to “tolerate” either wealth or poverty and not have those states significantly interfere with who we are as believers and in fact, those states may be the means by which we are able to serve God.

    Hard economic times can bring out the best or the worst in us. It’s enormously tempting to want God to make us feel secure in this life by providing material security and maybe He will do that for some, but when in doubt, under dire stress, the best prayer to offer is sometimes just, “Help!”

  3. I just wanted to say “thanks” to those people who clicked the “like” button, not only on today’s “morning meditation” but for anything I’ve written that you may have enjoyed. I appreciate it.

  4. One of the greatest challenges to my faith has been how God never reveals Himself to me directly, not even in dreams. I have gradually had to come to terms with the fact that, unless we’re prophets, it’s just not that easy. As long as we’re on this Earth, we are meant to live in the present and walk the tightrope of faith.

    1. God reveals Himself to us constantly! His Holy Spirit dwells within us and speaks to us…we only need to learn the language of the spirit and how to truly see with our hearts. I know it sounds sappy, I know it sounds ridiculous, but it is true. Maybe I am just really blessed, but I doubt it. Most of the divine and infinite truths that cross our path every day are largely missed. We are too busy “managing our lives” to notice the incredible life forces and processes that magnify God’s glory. We must seek with all our heart, the revelation of God of Himself to us. He is a rewarder of them that diligently seek Him. I have only begun to taste of His love and beauty and longsuffering. But one thing I am beginning to understand…being in the presence of God creates nothing more than the desire for more of Him! He loves that and that’s why we love Him.

  5. I agree, Andrew. Even during those times when we believe we have had a spiritual revelation, we still must examine the experience to see we are perhaps just fooling ourselves in order to justify making decisions that satisfy our personal desires. It’s not easy to know.

    In spite of what I just said, I believe I’ve had two dreams over the course of 30 some odd years that I can attribute to a spiritual encounter (one from way before I was a believer, which is all the more amazing) and one experience of an uncharacteristic (for me) sense of peace in a time of trial when I was praying. Naturally, there’s no way to “prove” that these experiences were from God since they’re completely subjective, but if they’re just between God and me, I guess I don’t have to (it’s not like He gave me a message to deliver to other people).

    Faith is a struggle, like Jacob and the angel. We continually wrestle between the secular and the Divine, trying to keep our balance and to find the right path. The comforting part for me is that since there continues to be a struggle, that means God continually is engaged with me in that struggle. Even when the fight is very hard, I always know He is with me.

  6. I suppose, at least from my point of view, it depends on how you define God revealing Himself. I don’t think we have experiences with God on a daily basis that are exactly the same as Abraham, Jacob, Moses, and Isaiah, for example. On the other hand, I can see your point is that God can be “talking to us” in very small and subtle ways all of the time. These little “messages” may be too small and mundane to always directly be attributable to God.

    One of my favorite “stories” along these lines is one where I was driving while intermally “complaining” to God about the various hassles I was having at that point in my life. I pulled up to a stop light and noticed that the car ahead of me had a bumper sticker that said, “Stop whining!” Since it was too great a coincidence to ignore, I chose to believe that was God’s way of responding to me, and I started to think in a different direction. Now, there are times when I’ll be “complaining” to God and remember that bumper sticker. I think this means, among other things, that God has a sense of humor.

    Do I really know this was a direct message from God? No. I think we live in a universe where God chooses not to control every single movement of a particle of dust in the air and that some things happen just because they happen. It could have been a coincidence. I chose to respond to it otherwise, but I suppose thousands of equally mundane events could also have been sent from God and I treated them as ordinary, mundane events rather than Divine communication.

    If we choose to view literally every event that happens as a Divine sign, I think it would drive us nuts. If I accidentally choose the wrong color socks to wear one morning because I’m dressing in the dark, is it a sign from God? If I get a flat tire, is God trying to tell me to slow down? If it starts to rain while I’m walking to the library during my lunch hour, is God saying I should have used my car that day? There are people that choose to experience life in this manner. There are also people who choose to believe that nothing in their experience is from God. I try to live somewhere in between, but finding that balance, which is the point of today’s “meditation”, is no easy thing.

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