by Rabbi Yonatan Neril
The Exodus from Egypt contains some profound insights into Divine-aware living. In this dvar Torah I will present a Jewish perspective on material consumption rooted in lessons from the Exodus. It is based primarily on the teachings of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov’s main student, Rabbi Natan, in his book Likutei Halachot.
Rabbi Natan said that Egypt was the heart of materialism-and was pervaded by a lust for money so intense it became idol worship. This powerful material desire led to the enslavement of the Israelites to build Egypt’s material infrastructure. Egypt’s abundance-due to the fertility of the Nile River valley-was not used toward a higher purpose. The wealth was used in idol worship and in gratifying the elite’s feeling of power. For example, sheep were worshipped as gods because of their value, and Pharaohs were buried in pyramids with much gold and silver. The Egyptians even risked and lost their lives by pursuing the Israelites into the sea, in order to regain the wealth the Israelites had taken and to recapture the slave population. This irrational and spiritually unhealthy attachment to property is what Hashem wanted the Israelites to leave behind when they departed from Egypt.
Hashem commanded Abraham to go to Egypt, according to Rabbi Natan, in order to rectify Egypt’s gross misuse of wealth. Abraham elevated the wealth he brought out of Egypt primarily by helping other people, as seen in his preparing and serving food to total strangers. This was a proper use of material possessions (in his case food and wood) because it furthered the Divine ideal in the world by increasing righteousness and spreading kindness.
Hashem also charged the Israelites with the task of uplifting the wealth they took from Egypt through its holy use. Rabbi Natan explains that “Israel was exiled to Egypt in order to purify the wealth from there, because in the wealth… there fell all the [holy] sparks…” Everything contains potential holiness, if used in the right way. The first step in elevating this material abundance was for each Israelite to donate some of the wealth to build the Tabernacle, which was made of gold, silver, and other materials. The Israelites built it in the desert as the dwelling place for Hashem in the world.
Yet the people sinned and used some of it for a corrupt end-to build the golden calf. This idol worship was an attempt to replace Hashem. Anxious about the spiritual space required to let Hashem into their lives, the people made something physical to assuage their fears. Worshipping and believing in something physical was a corruption of the gold, since it was used in a way that denied Hashem’s presence in the world.
After the sin of the golden calf, the people’s donations to the Tabernacle atoned for this misuse of wealth. They brought out the holy potential in their gold and silver by creating a physical vessel-a portable Temple-for Hashem’s presence. After building the Tabernacle they were to elevate their remaining wealth by using it according to the commandments in the Torah to do mitzvoth and practice kindness. Thus, when the Israelites emptied Egypt’s wealth-the greatest resources available in the world at the time-they brought those physical things towards the purpose for which they were created, i.e. serving Hashem.
What does all this mean for us today? Rabbi Natan says that “an essential aspect of Pesach is to repair material wealth-to elevate it…from impurity to holiness.” That is, Pesach is not just a holiday; it is a unique opportunity in the year to learn to use material things in the holiest of ways. But what does this mean in specifics?
First, we can connect to getting rid of chametz and eating matza as spiritual symbols. Yeast makes bread puff up. A closer look reveals that bread is mostly air. So too, a person’s basic material needs get puffed up. Matza, by contrast, is just flour and water. Eating it can help us think again about what we really need. We can ask ourselves, do we need everything that we have? Do others have everything that they need? Are we using our material resources to further the Divine ideal in the world?
A second way that Pesach enables us to internalize this message about materialism is through telling the story of the Exodus and understanding what it teaches about the proper use of wealth. The way Abraham and the people of Israel used the wealth they took from Egypt (helping others, building the Tabernacle, and doing mitzvoth) should serve as an example to us concerning its proper use. Seder night is prime time for this narrative.
Third, spending time in nature-especially the desert-can help a person gain perspective on their true material needs. According to Rabbi Aryeh Strikovsky of Jerusalem, the Torah mentions “bread you [the Israelites] did not eat and wine or intoxicant you did not drink” (Deut. 29:5) to teach that Hashem weaned Israel from Egyptian materialism by teaching them to be satiated with manna for 40 years in the desert. Thus Pesach is a great opportunity to be in nature and grapple with one’s materialistic tendencies-one that may be lost in Pesach resorts or cruises. While physical chametz is surely out of sight, the spiritual chametz of consumer society remains present.
Finally, giving charity is a way to break the wealth desire. Giving tzedakah, a mitzvah from the Torah, represents an elevation and proper use of wealth. Rebbe Nachman teaches that donating to people in need is an effective way to break a mindset of just wanting to increase one’s own material comfort level-to have a nicer house, a fancier car, a more luxurious vacation. Such a worldview is related to the golden calf, of seeking security and pleasure in physical things instead of being reliant on and happy with the Master of the Universe.
Now, I’m not saying that a Divine-aware life demands living like an ascetic or in poverty. Rather, a Jew should consume as a means to serving Hashem. Such a person might live more modestly than an average American, while definitely living comfortably and meeting their basic material needs. I’m taking issue with consumption as an end in itself, or as a means to self-gratification. When a person uses the physical world as a means to serve Hashem, they will almost certainly consume less because they will be more aware of what is needed vs. what is excessive. Imagine how beautiful it would be if we elevated the physical-if, for example, when we ate we contemplated how our food gives us the strength to bring the Divine Ideal into the world?
The spiritual work of Pesach regarding materialism has implications far beyond the individual. Rabbi Elchanan Samet explains that in the view of Philo, a Greco-Jewish philosopher in first century Alexandria, “the family, the land and all of humankind can ultimately be destroyed as a result of failure to suppress desires for various pleasures.” What is this link between individual consumption and bigger issues?
A recent study researched how many acres of biologically productive space the average US citizen uses per year, in terms of their food, water, energy, and other consumption. That is, how much land is necessary to support the lifestyle of one American? The estimate: Over one hundred and eight acres. How many acres is the earth believed to be able to produce for each of the 6.5 billion people in the world? Fifteen acres. That means the average US citizen consumes over seven times what the earth can sustain. Seven times! And multiply this by hundreds of millions of people and you can see how overconsumption is taking an environmental toll on the planet. Air and water pollution. Extinction of species. And a consensus of international scientists-i.e. the mainstream in science– state that human-caused global climate change is likely to bring on more severe storms, floods, and droughts, with major impacts on human societies. Global environmental problems will not be solved in any meaningful way unless billions of people decide to confront and elevate their desire for wealth.
Indeed, 21st century American consumer society represents a new epoch in materialism, making the material wealth of the Egyptians pale by comparison. I come from California, conceivably the conspicuous consumption capital of kol haolam kulo, where people drive their SUVs from Wal-Mart and Home Depot to multi-car garages in suburban houses filled with expensive furniture, multiple fridges, fancy stereos, digital cameras, Sony Playstations, I-Pods and much much more.
Pesach then is a special opportunity to improve ourselves, contemplate our consumption, and change our mindset from the material to the spiritual. And were the Jewish people to really embrace this spiritual work, we would undoubtedly be a light unto the nations and offer a model for satisfaction in Divine service over gratification in material excess. The rabbis of the Mishna teach that “in every generation we must view ourselves as if we had come out of Egypt.” I want to bless us to remove our spiritual chametz and, by so doing, come to a closer relationship with the Creator of the world.
Rabbi Yonatan Neril is the founder and director of Jewish Eco Seminars and the Interfaith Center for Sustainable Development. He holds an MA and BA from Stanford University and engaged in Jewish learning for seven years at multiple institutions of Jewish studies in Israel. He lives with his wife and son in Jerusalem.
 Likutey Halachot comments on Rebbe Nachman’s Likutey Moharan, connecting it to Shulchan Aruch.
 Likutei Halachot, Hilchot Purim, 6:1
 Midrash Shemot Raba 11
 Midrash Mechilta, cited in Rashi to Shemot 14:5
 Likutey Halakhoth, Shabbath 7:75, based on Bereshit 13:2
 Shemot 12:36
 Likutei Halachot, Purim, 6:9
 See Talmud Bavli, Masecet Avodah Zara 53b, and Rashi to Shemot 32:1
 According to the Ramban’s view that the events described are in chronological order.
 Likutei Halachot, Purim, 6:9
 Rebbe Nachman, Likutey Moharan 13:1, Likutey Halachot, Hilchot Tefillah 4:14
 Pesachim 116