A Chanukkah Morality Tale

By Joel Lazar – JAA Education Director

Chanukkah has arrived and the age-old tradition is upon us: giving gifts or gelt. As I consider the early 90s pop CDs and dollar coins I received as a child, an alarming thought comes to me – about money and possessions. After a quick scan of the spaces in which I live, I notice that with 80% less ‘stuff’, my life would be the same. Why then do I have it all? Was it ‘wrong’ that I had it?

I have some money, so I purchase with it. Innocuous. A pen-holder because, otherwise, my pens would lie there – unheld. A bedside table, two lamps, the other bedside table, the red backpack and the black backpack – one for day trips and the other for uni – three jackets (the waterproof one, the mild-melbourne-one, and the warm-warm one with a splash of woollen lining), and twelve back-up pens accumulated over the years lest the first eleven fail at a critical time.

The realisation that I had spent my money on such a large number of objects was a shock, but it wasn’t immediately clear why. Everyone has piles of objects and surely I had a right to fill my life with them if they were purchased fairly, with money I earned.

Then it began to crystallise. At thousands of points in my life I had spent money on now-neglected items, insignificant experiences, and frequently in flippant and almost unconscious ways. I realised that I had failed to ascribe sufficient moral value to my money and the potential it represented.

Are the choices we make with money a matter of mere taste and preference, provided we cause no harm and break no laws? Or should they be viewed in terms of ‘Right’ and ‘Wrong?’ Is it right to spend $150-a-head on a wedding or $3,000 on a wedding dress? An extra pot because the other three were too big, small or not as good as we hoped them to be? A new car because the current one is not up-to-the-minute equipped? Is it immoral to buy a new pen?

The Against Malaria Foundation distributes hundreds of thousands of long-lasting insecticide-treated nets (LLINs) every year. Malaria killed around half a million people in 2013. Malaria nets, when hung around living quarters, prevent the pernicious advance of that winged disease and the deaths around which it dances. Each net costs $5.06. At the trendy end of Brunswick, that’ll get you a latte.

What about vaccines? Research produced by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation reveals that “an estimated 1.5 million children die each year—one every 20 seconds—from vaccine-preventable diseases.” As of this week, the price of an Apple iPad 2 would save the lives of 4,000 children from polio.

Charity and giving are not the only useful and meaningful ways to spend money. Our children’s education, our mental and physical health, life-tools that allow our spirit and selves to grow. These are all good causes. I have no metric to decide what thoughtful spending might consist of – but unquestionably there are better and worse ways to spend, and that is the substance of my reflection: How often do I consider: “Is this a meaningful way to spend this dollar? Could I direct it to something better?”

I’ve come to believe that spending goes to the very heart of our moral culture, the creation of our identities and pursuit of lasting meaning.

Research shows that we spend in order to increase well-being and that most often our consumption results in only short-term satisfaction, followed by a void that we attempt to fill by buying something new or novel. The research also provides a solution, suggesting that focusing on the needs of others, rather than our own wants, provides a far deeper and long-lasting sense of meaning and satisfaction. The gift-giver often feels far greater joy than the recipient.

Further, our identities and social positioning has roots in our spending. The brands we buy, suburbs we frequent, and level of comfort we pursue all become creases in the face we show to the world. This is natural. The challenge therefore becomes: What have I sacrificed in the acquisition of this identity?

On a broader, social scale, how would we even relate to spending as a moral act? Naturally, we educate ourselves and one another away from legal and social crimes (theft, violence, hate), because they erode the social order and threaten our happiness, freedom and collective capacity for self-fulfilment. We condemn immorality in order to promote better, more productive behaviour. In that vein, perhaps the ill-considered use of money is immoral, when we come to realise its better uses or the great suffering it fails to avoid when directed to far less worthy causes.

To be clear, I’m not about to rid my life of everything but food and water, and direct all saved funds to disaster relief efforts. That would be debilitating, burdensome and unreasonable. These thoughts, however, have prompted me to adopt a spending pattern sourced in morality. Every financial act highlights the moral currency that money represents, a currency that can be traded for a vast array of objects and experiences.

The channukah miracle of a small drop of oil burning for eight nights is a powerful message in a time where bigger and more has become an accepted way of life.

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