Last Friday night at our Sabbath dinner table I was asked by one of our esteemed guests, Governor Jon Corzine of New Jersey, what I thought of Bergen County's Blue Laws. Roughly stated, the Blue Laws here in my county of New Jersey -- one of the largest shopping mall Meccas in the United States -- mandate that, in the words of the ordinance of the borough of Paramus, the 'physical, intellectual and moral good of the community requires a periodic day of rest from labor.' All stores, with rare exceptions, are closed on Sunday, America's Sabbath.
I told the Governor, a man of unique sincerity and humility, that the consensus among all economists is that the American economic collapse came about through greed, reckless spending, and reckless borrowing. What better way to remedy it than to give our citizens the gift of a day of saving rather splurging, suffused with peace rather than clogged with traffic, a day where remedy our inner emptiness not through the impulse purchase but through prayer at Church, bike-riding with the kids, and lunching with friends.
At this my soul-friend of eighteen years, Mayor Cory Booker of Newark, a rising political superstar, interjected with an objection. 'But Shmuley, then Bergen County's retailers lose revenue from all the shoppers who are going to go elsewhere to buy what they need.'
It's rare that I disagree with Cory. But here I countered, "President Bush thought that the answer to 9/11 was to encourage not sacrifice but shopping. (His exact words, on September 20th, 2001, were, "Get down to Disney World in Florida. Take your families and enjoy life, the way we want it to be enjoyed.") He is a religious man, but he forgot to remind us to reconnect with family and rediscover our spiritual center. And the economy didn't turn out too well with that message, so we have to try another."
Of all the remedies to the American consumer insatiability that so undermined our national character and finances over the last few years none is as effective, nor as direct, as America simply rediscovering its lost Sabbath. Last year I launched a national program called "Turn Friday Night into Family Night" for all American families of every religious, ethnic, and political persuasion to create a weekly family dinner event. Our public service announcements, featuring leading celebrities and politicians endorsing the idea, are already airing on television, courtesy of the Discovery networks, and thousands of families have already signed up.
But beyond a weekly family feast, we need a national Sabbath.
As a kid growing up in Miami I often went to the mall with my friends on Sundays. It was weird, standing around, looking for things to do, at best grabbing a movie. Thankfully, I was never fully bitten by the shopping bug and today I am bored to death whenever I go shopping, as every self-respecting man ought to be. Not because I'm less materialistic than the next guy, but, having discovered the joys of riding my bike by the Thames when I lived in Oxford, or taking long walks in the woods by our home here in New Jersey, shopping is a mediocre substitute by comparison. As a parent I have learned that one of the best gifts I can give my children is a love for being free and outdoors rather than being indoors at a department store where nothing is free.
Every human being begins life experiencing an inner emptiness. And the steps you take to fill that void will constitute the single greatest determinant of character. The notion that a person's truest self is most revealed in the disposition of his 'play' time is anticipated in the Talmud (Eruvin 65b) which declares that a man's character can be tested in three ways: be'kiso, be'koso, u've'kaaso, what he spends his money on, what he says when he is intoxicated, and what provokes him into anger.
But there is a further opinion in the Talmud: Af Be'sahako, 'also, in his "play.' A person is known by how they use, or abuse, their leisure time. Victor Frankl says in Man's Search for Meaning, "There is a kind of depression which afflicts people who become aware of the lack of content in their lives when the rush of the busy week is over and the void within themselves becomes manifest. Such widespread phenomena as alcoholism and juvenile delinquency are not understandable unless we recognize the existential vacuum underlying them.... Sometimes the frustrated will to meaning is vicariously compensated for by a will to power, including the most primitive form of the will to power, the will to money." Or, in the case of modern America, the will to spend money. In this Frankl was prophetic. Studies show that the number one cure to depression in America is shopping.
Summing up the negative consequences of inactivity and how this can lead to toxic dispositions like greed and insatiability, the ancient Rabbis declared, "When there is nothing to do, you do what you ought not do." How odd that a country with such a noble heritage like the United States has now been reduced to finding meaning through material acquisition.
I recognize, of course, that an economy needs people to consume and that stores need people to shop. But given the spendthrift and wasteful ways that have not only eviscerated our national treasure but have also made Americans into a world caricature of material indulgence, a spiritual renaissance is called for.
I believe in the tension of the weekdays. Inner pressure leads to external action and internal unease motivates us to maximize our potential through professional achievement and hard work. But I believe equally that if that tension and individual effort is not balanced by a day of peace and communal sharing our lives will fall into a state of toxic imbalance. We will lurch, as we have already, from being a country of great wealth to a country that has stared the prospect of bankruptcy in the eye. And not just financial bankruptcy but the far more insidious personal bankruptcy of an empty life, devoid of purpose and meaning. No wonder then that all work and no play makes Johnnie a dull, boring, and broke, boy.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach launches his newest book, The Blessing of Enough: Becoming Materially Satisfied and Spiritually Hungry, on June 1st. Follow him on Twitter as RabbiShmuley.