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‘Lo Tachmod’ and Consumerism

The second half of the Aseret Hadibrot catalogs heinous moral sins such as murder and adultery. The list concludes with a crime which may not be as horrific as these cardinal sins, but is morally corrosive and almost impossible to avoid. Human beings are desirous creatures who crave that which they don’t currently possess. Yet, despite our innate “longing” for more, the Torah—by issuing the issur of “lo tachmod”—bans us from coveting the property or goods of others. How can the Torah prohibit an emotion which is so powerfully rooted in human nature?

A famous solution was suggested by the legendary 12th century Spanish philosopher and biblical commentator known as “the Ibn Ezra.” Generally, our desires are only sustainable if they are attainable or feasible. Objects of our desire which are unattainable do not hold much sway upon our imaginations. Without any reasonable chance of fulfillment, our desires fade. To illustrate the relationship between feasibility and desire, the Ibn Ezra narrates a parable about a pauper and a princess. Despite her allure, the pauper is unlikely to covet the princess because the chances of a union are highly improbable. She is completely “out of his league” and lies beyond his boundaries.

By casting another person’s wife or possessions as “beyond the pale” or as unattainable, my covetousness is dampened. Setting boundaries and accepting limitations checks our desire and is Ibn Ezra’s recommended route to “lo tachmod” discipline.

The Ibn Ezra’s recipe for avoiding covetousness, however, doesn’t factor in an important and conflicting personality trait which is crucial for religious success. Growth in general—and religious growth in particular—is driven by ambition. Ambition smashes boundaries propelling us beyond our current limits. Ambition teaches us not to surrender to limitation, but to transcend it. Ambition convinces us that nothing should be seen as unattainable or unfeasible. Ambition is almost the antithesis of the Ibn Ezra’s “lo tachmod” program!

Perhaps, the Ibn Ezra’s parable was effective in a society of rigid hierarchies and less upward mobility, which left little room for ambition. Locked into built-in socio-economic hierarchies, the pauper would never dream of marrying the princess, and so, he abandons any desire.

By contrast, an “ambitious pauper,” one we would admire, would never capitulate to social constraints, but instead, would plot ways of transcending his current limitations. Placing the princess or any other goal “out of bounds” would be a lazy surrender. The “lo tachmod” challenge is complex, because ambition is so vital to our religious development. Without ambition, we court complacency. Once ignited though, uncontrolled ambition easily morphs into toxic covetousness. This is, precisely, why religiously motivated people often struggle with desire and covetousness.

Our Chazal remarked that the greater and more religiously accomplished the person, the harsher his battle with his yetzer hara. Less motivated people do not burn with religious passion and do not seek much beyond the here and now. Complacent with their current state, they face less of a “lo tachmod” challenge. Religiously passionate people, however, are constantly searching for new opportunities, and constantly pushing their horizons. That search often leads them to illicit desires.

The goal cannot be repression of ambition. Suppressing ambition in the service of “lo tachmod” precaution would be tragic. Ultimately, the “lo tachmod” prohibition forces us to calibrate ambition and acceptance, to delicately balance between drawing boundaries and breaking them. There are goals—generally religious and moral ones—which must be passionately and ambitiously pursued without setting any limits. Regarding material experiences, however, it is crucial to formulate boundaries and look inward rather than upward. Ambition must drive personal and religious achievement, but it shouldn’t flood us with unrestrained covetousness. The prevention of the “lo tachmod” violation is most easily accomplished by stifling ambition. However, without healthy ambition, our religious lives become flat. It is not always easy to thread the needle, maintaining healthy ambition while avoiding desirous “lo tachmod.”

 

Consumerism and Lo Tachmod

The emergence of capitalism has reformulated the modern “lo tachmod” struggle. Capitalism unleashed human freedom and created a free market economy. By extending wealth and prosperity more broadly and equitably, it has dramatically upgraded our standard of living.

Any free-market economy is propelled by supply and demand. Without healthy consumer interest, markets will shrivel and innovation will dwindle. Consumer interest generates demand which, in turn, drives supply. Consumer interest is the energy which fuels the entire market economy.

To stimulate consumer interest or demand, modern economies have devised elaborate advertising and marketing methods. These methods have overstimulated consumer interest, creating a social phenomenon called “consumerism.” Capitalism encourages innovation and discovery, consumerism encourages endless and thoughtless purchasing.

Every human being needs to consume to survive. Our “consumerist culture,” however, muddles our “wants” and our “needs,” convincing us to consume or purchase goods we have little or limited use for. Instead of purchasing for functionality, we purchase in pursuit of inner happiness—believing that acquisition of goods will assure personal happiness or social status. In reality, the purchase of goods provides neither. Ironically, the process of longing for something is more gratifying than the actual purchase. As soon as we acquire the object we have longed for, it loses its mystique, and we begin to long for our next purchase.

Consumerism has been exacerbated by the transition from a cash-based economy to a credit-based economy, a shift which has greatly simplified the purchasing process. The internet and online shopping poured kerosene upon the consumerist fire, by creating a painless and an almost automated shopping experience. We can effortlessly order online and have it immediately delivered to our doorstep.

Consumerism has overtaken religion, as religious holidays have become consumerist festivals. Thanksgiving—once dedicated to family and to expressing gratitude to God—has now become engulfed in Black Friday sales. It was ironic that, this year, Amazon’s annual “Prime day,” coincided with Bastille Day in France. Two hundred and fifty years ago, on this day, French citizens sacrificed their lives for lofty ideas of democracy. Our generation, meanwhile, was busy on this day searching for deals on tablets and ear buds. Consumerism has colonized national and religious holidays, emptying them of any substantive symbolism or content.

Additionally, our consumerist culture distorts our identity. The unending discussion surrounding the impact of “consumer price indexes” or “consumer confidence” convinces us that we are all just consumers. We were not placed on this earth primarily to consume, and it must not become our identity. Hashem expects us to be producers—people of mission summoned to divine responsibilities. Despite the seductive whisper of Amazon and Madison Ave., we aren’t, fundamentally, consumers.

“Lo tachmod” was always a complex prohibition. As our lifestyles have changed, the challenge has been reformulated. Indulgent consumerism may not violate the actual legal prohibition of “lo tachmod,” since we do not long for another person’s possessions. We can easily buy a different iPhone, without coveting someone else’s unit. However, unrestrained consumerism certainly violates the spirit of “lo tachmod.” The Torah doesn’t demand that we live minimalist lives, but, by issuing the prohibition of “lo tachmod,” it does urge us to temper our desire for acquisitions. Indulgence in rampant consumerism is incongruent with religious identity.


The writer is a rabbi at Yeshivat Har Etzion/Gush, a hesder yeshiva. He has semicha and a BA in computer science from Yeshiva University as well as a masters degree in English literature from the City University of New York.

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