The Numbers Game

Southport Reform Synagogue
Esther Hugenholtz 

The Numbers Game 

This is a sermon that shouldn’t be delivered again. This won’t be original nor will it be my best. It won’t be clever, complex or sophisticated. It won’t include intelligent commentary on the Torah or bring insightful citations from the Talmud. But it will be real. 

I wrote a sermon on a similar theme last year. the economy. Almost five years ago, in 2008, I started my rabbinical studies in the United States. My husband and I had plans to emigrate to America from the Netherlands. I moved to Los Angeles and hoped that he’d catch up soon and find a job in his field. 
‘Man plans and God laughs’, the Yiddish saying goes. The economy collapsed, my husband lost his job back home and couldn’t find one in the USA. We were forced to maintain a long-distance marriage for the two years that we struggled to keep me in school despite dwindling funds and stalling opportunities. Eventually, we had to face the music and pull out of rabbinical school and return to Europe. 

I left a country that had been reduced to shambles, going from bad to worse: middle class Jewish ‘doctor-lawyer’ families found themselves unemployed and cutting into their pensions in order to pay their kids’ school fees, Jewish charities found themselves struggling and synagogues merged, closed down and couldn’t employ new rabbis, leaving many colleagues in dire straits. And this was within a privileged section of solidly middle class American society. 
Far more chilling were reports of sprawling tent cities populated by the working poor, grating stories of foreclosed homes, of the sick and elderly not getting the healthcare and help they needed and unemployment rates numbering in the millions, reaching double digit percentages. I dare not think of the consequences of this crisis for the millions and millions who are truly vulnerable, to whom the crisis makes the difference between malnutrition and actual starvation, between indentured servitude and outright slavery, between ethnic tension and full-blown war. With the euro teetering and countries like Greece brought to the brink of both bankruptcy and fascism. 

Man plans, it seems, but I don’t think God is laughing. 

My husband and I got very lucky. We returned to Europe and I transferred to Leo Baeck College in London where I was warmly received. We were forced to remain long-distance for two more years, as I studied in London and he managed to rebuild his career. Things aren’t easy or secure but we are OK. We have a lot to be thankful for. 

And yet, when I look beyond my immediate concerns, I’m angry. Furious. 

A few months ago, I read a shocking statistic. A twenty-one with twelve zeros. 21 trillion US dollars. Or 13 trillion pounds sterling. This is the amount that the super-rich have hidden in secret bank accounts, according to a report by Tax Justice Network . 

I saw the number spread across my computer screen as this article made a brief cameo appearance in the news. And then it disappeared almost without a trace. Where was the moral outcry, the righteous indignation? 

Let me read you some snippets of the report. Rarely did I find a financial report such riveting reading: 

“At least $21 trillion of unreported private financial wealth was owned by wealthy individuals via tax havens at the end of 2010. This sum is equivalent to the size of the United States and Japanese economies combined. There may be as much as $32 trillion of hidden financial assets held offshore by high net worth individuals according to our report... We consider these numbers to be conservative. This is only financial wealth and excludes a welter of real estate, yachts and other non financial assets owned via offshore structures.” 

As if this isn’t enough, I quote: 

“This hidden offshore sector is large enough to make a significant difference to all of our conventional measures of inequality... For most countries, global financial inequality is not only much greater than we suspected, but it has been growing much faster. It turns out that this offshore sector—which specializes in tax dodging is basically designed and operated... by the world’s largest private banks, law firms and accounting firms headquartered in First World capitals like London, New York and Geneva. Our detailed analysis of these banks shows that the leaders are the very same ones that have figured so prominently in government bailouts...” 

I know I’m on thin ice here. Sermonising on the moral corruption of a tiny, ultra-rich minority? It seems to be dangerously close to declaring a partisan position or stirring up class war, although I must emphasise that the Tax Justice Network is an initiative support by civil society groups which emerged from the British Houses of Parliament - hardly revolutionary. However, not speaking out for fear of giving an overly-political sermon holds even greater moral peril. If ethical monotheism cannot have a fire-and-brimstone moment to condemn grave social injustice, then what can? As Progressive Jews who echo the ethics of our Prophetic tradition, we can wonder what Hosea, Amos and Isaiah would have said. 

We can only imagine what those financial resources could do. Feed, clothe, educate and protect the entire world’s population multiple times over. Be invested in fundamental research in curing debilitating diseases and solving environmental crises. There is a messianic ring to this absurd number, to quote Jeremiah, ‘a future and a hope’. 

Apart from the obvious moral indictment, there is a deeper layer, most relevant for this solemn season. The fundamental inequality in our world doesn't only provide us with a moral crisis but also a spiritual and theological challenge. Every day, executive decision made by very powerful and influential human beings hangs the lives of other human beings in the balance. The owners of the 21 trillion inscribe the rest of us in the Book of Life and Death. This is blasphemy and idolatry, a violation of both the meaning of God and the image of Man. 

Let’s take a look at one of the most central prayers of our High Holy Day liturgy, the Unetaneh Tokef: 

“For all who pass away and all who are born, for all who live and all who die, for those who complete their normal span and those who do not – who perish by fire or water, by the violence of man or the beast, by hunger or thirst, by disaster, plague or execution, for those who rest and those who wander, for the secure and the tormented, for those who become poor and those who become rich, for the failures and the famous.”  

The Unetaneh Tokef is God’s numbers game, His economic report. It is a powerful yet grim text that cuts to the core of life’s most harrowing existential question: who lives and who dies and by what criteria is this determined? It is a question that is both universal and unanswerable. It is a question that, even in the best of circumstances, none of us can avoid. 

The Unetaneh Tokef could be dismissed morally reprehensible. A moral atheist may conclude that this is not the God he or she wants to believe in. Can we and must we believe in a God Who micromanages our existence? A God Who toys with the lives of people? We can reinterpret the metaphor because the alternative is far more disturbing. It is saying that it is OK for human beings themselves to have this divine power. Instead of God casting the dice, we do. God, then, is not the dictator Who controls our every move and condemning or redeeming us as He chooses. 

The Unetanek Tokef, rather, by giving God sovereignty over our lives, even in ways that modern sensibilities deem both unrealistic and disturbing, makes God the placeholder of humanity’s dignity and the guarantor of the inalienable worth of each human being. It is a rallying cry for social justice and a reminder that both the Reality of God and the Idea of God reign supreme: not the power, greed or money of Man. If we take God seriously, then we should take human beings seriously. This is, to paraphrase Abraham Joshua Heschel, the duty of the religious person. 

The most important number in the numbers game then, is not the 21 trillion, or the mere 100,000 people holding 9.8 trillion of that wealth (0.001 % of the world population, yes, I did the math). The most important number is one. One. For the One God Who gives us the moral impetus to condemn cruelty and injustice in His Name and in Whose image each one of us is created, making not high the wealthy or low the poor. One. Because every person matters. One, because no human life can ever be expressed in economic terms. This is the economy that matters. 

It is not up to us to inscribe or deny each other in the Book of Life. It is up to us to create a world where each of us may be written in the Book of Life and none of us will be denied. I pray, bemeirah beyameinu, speedily and in our days, that I do not need to give this sermon again next year. 

Shana tovah.


Popular posts from this blog

The Aftermath (Sermon for the Poway Chabad Synagogue)

Pour Out Your Wrath/Love

Broken Tablets - The Torah of Trauma