“How Much is Enough?”

by Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Vayigash, Joseph dramatically reveals himself to his brothers and instructs them to bring his father Jacob, and the entire family to Egypt. Not long after, Jacob together with seventy souls of his family arrive in Egypt.

Jacob and his family members settle in the land of Goshen. At Pharaoh’s behest, Joseph gives his family possession of the best part of the land in the region of Ramses. The Torah then informs us in Genesis 47:12, “Va’y’chal’kel Yosef et aviv, v’et eh’chav v’et kol bayt aviv, lechem l’fee ha’taf,” and Joseph sustained his father and his brothers and all his father’s household with food according to the children.

Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, 1040-1105, foremost commentator on the Bible) notes that Joseph provided enough food for his family to satisfy the individual needs of every member of the household. The Shelah HaKadosh (R’ Yeshayah Hurwitz, 1560-1630, famed rabbinic leader, scholar and kabbalist of Poland, Frankfurt, Prague, and Jerusalem) reads into Rashi’s comments that Joseph supplied only the essential foods that were necessary for his family members to survive. Since Jacob and his family arrived in the midst of a severe famine, it would have been inappropriate to ask for more than the bare minimum. In fact, Jacob himself had established this principle when he had earlier told his sons (Genesis 43:2), “Go [back to Egypt] and bring us a little food,” implying that the family should be allowed to address only their hunger, but not fill their stomachs.

A number of commentators emphasize that Joseph’s directive (Genesis 47:12) specifies “l’fee ha’taf,” according to the number of children. Here we see that Joseph’s vaunted ethical sensitivity did not allow him to give his father or brothers any more than needed. They received only what was necessary for the children, lest others who were hungry be forced to go without food because of the shortage.

For those who have had the good fortune of living in the 20th and 21st century, it is hard to imagine what it means to go hungry, not to have food on demand or to feel a gnawing stomach pain. It is pitiful to think that our country has an obesity problem when so many hungry people in our own country suffer from malnutrition, and those in third world countries die daily of starvation.

The question that we need to regularly ask ourselves is, exactly how much is necessary in order to be content? What is the absolute minimum needed in order to survive? Are three full meals a day absolutely necessary? Must our coffeepots be constantly brewing, so the latte will be ready on demand? Is freshly squeezed orange juice with its succulent pulp truly essential when there are those who don’t receive even the bare minimum of liquids to drink?

Ironically, living now in a time of economic uncertainty has resulted in a change of many of our former perceptions and behaviors. People no longer take lavish junkets as they had done previously. Others have given up their gas-guzzling SUVs and pick-up trucks, not only out of concern for the environment, but because they can no longer afford the higher gas prices. Weddings, Bar Mitzvahs and other celebrations have been toned down. Even NJOP has decided to move its annual dinner from the lavish Waldorf=Astoria to the more modest Hilton. Many seek new venues to reduce expenses while maintaining quality.

I recently heard of an extremely wealthy observant Jewish businessman who made a lavish Bar Mitzvah for his son (reputedly spending $1 million). The Bar Mitzvah celebration consisted of two parts–-one in Florida, the other back in the New York metropolitan area. A plane was chartered, and selected guests were flown to Florida to celebrate a three day weekend including Shabbat at an over-the-top location. The Shabbat part of the Bar Mitzvah apparently consisted of unlimited celebration. There was food to feed an army, specially retained entertainment, and much liquor. A fabulous time was had by all. When the weekend concluded, the celebration resumed at a second party in New York a week later.

My first reaction was dismay and anger. I even thought of trying to find out which rabbis attended in order to publicize that, in these difficult economic times, these noted clergymen attended this indecent affair without as much as raising even a minor protest in reaction to the profligate extravagance.

I was bothered so deeply, that I decided to discuss the issue with several trusted rabbinic advisors. I wanted to find out from the point of view of halacha, of Jewish law, whether there was anything against extremely lavish celebrations, especially at a time of great distress and suffering.

Surely, I felt, the rabbinical authorities would all be appalled at the excess. To my surprise, one of the rabbis suggested that I look at the situation from another perspective. Perhaps, this million dollar Bar Mitzvah was necessary for business reasons, in order to project an upbeat image of the businessman and his company at a time when so many businesses face the skepticism of their clients and uncertainty in their future.

What I thought was an open-and-shut case against extravagance, had now been shown to have another side, one that I would not normally have considered.

But what about the need for selflessness at a time when so many are hurting? Upon pondering the circumstances, I wondered whether the wealthy host had indeed exhibited selflessness. Perhaps among the many guests that had been invited were those who otherwise would not have had a vacation, perhaps not even the bare minimum for a Shabbat meal. Of course, there were also many service providers who benefitted from the opulence, including the caterer, the kitchen staff, the waiters, the dishwashers and housekeepers at the hotel, and of course those who managed the chartered flights.

Suddenly, it struck me that the snap judgments that we often make so freely, are not at all simple. While I am fairly certain that had I an abundance of “disposable” funds, I would not have chosen to spend it in this manner, I nevertheless realized that the issue is not as one-sided as I may have initially thought. There is often another side in such cases that we often do not consider, probably because we often like to view ourselves as altruistic.

This, of course, begs the question: “Altruistic” in whose eyes?

Joseph felt that the proper thing for him to do was to show restraint with his family, and not favor them over the general Egyptian population. That was the right thing for him to do at that time. But, that precedent doesn’t mean that it is the right thing to do at all times. Each situation needs to be considered and measured according to present needs. Joseph made his decision based on the realities of his time. Similarly, we need to make our decisions based on the realities of our times.

How much is enough? It’s never a simple question.

May you be blessed.