The problem with taking my children to Disney World is that upon returning home, they kvetch about wanting to return to the Happiest Place on Earth. The thousands of junky Disney calories and hundreds of amusements lead my children and, I must ruefully confess, me, to “grow fat and kick”,” in the words of the poem of Deuteronomy 32.
We begin to resent our everyday lives, despite the plenty with which so many of us live. And when everything is so easily provided to us, the gratitude that comes from effort expended diminishes to vanishing.
As we know, poverty is a way people can be tested. One in eight Americans struggles with hunger. In St. Louis, where I live, 26% of Jews are poor or near poor. But wealth is also its own test—one we would all prefer, given the choice, but a test nonetheless, reminds Rabbi Yehoshua Sheinfeld (Likutei Yehoshua on Ps. 27:6, quoted in Itturei Torah, by Rabbi Aharon Yaakov Greenberg on Dt. 32:15).
We know that hunger and famine can lead to political instability, and eventually, to rebellion and revolution. But when the Sifre, the earliest rabbinic commentary on Deuteronomy poses that “satiety leads to rebellion,” it’s not suggesting a Marxist revolution of the workers against a bloated bourgeoisie. Rather, it’s reminding us that having plenty can lead, paradoxically, to ingratitude, to entitlement, and to forgetting and ignoring the roots and fact of our privilege, and to distance from and rebellion against God.
The generation of the flood, the generation dispersed at Babel, the wicked of Sodom, the Israelites in the wilderness—all of these rebels and rebellions came out of abundance of food and drink and ease of life, argues the Sifre. Even in the days of the Messiah, the rebellion will come from having plenty of food and drink. This is not a problem that will go away, the midrash insists (Sifre Deuteronomy 318), even when all our other problems are solved.
Thus, the song Moses sings at the tail end of the Torah, looking forward and looking back at Israelite history, can serve as a warning and corrective for each of us in our own lives.
As someone who loves food, who plans his vacation itineraries around pizza and gelato, I’ve always been particularly arrested and challenged by verse 15:
So Jeshurun grew fat and kicked—
You grew fat and gross and coarse—
He forsook the God who made him
And spurned the Rock of his support.
This verse speaks to me, and each of us, on an individual level, as I think it is intended. Notice that while most of the verse is in the third person, the second line is in the second person, speaking directly to each of us, rather than about Jeshurun, a collective name for Israel.
Living in America in the 21st century, unless we take evasive action, our natural tendency is to gain a few pounds a year. And that increases as we age. But this weight gain is not only physical; our sense of justice and our outrage and willingness to take action in the face of injustice are sapped every day by our acclimatizing to a comfortable, consumerist life of plenty, where the fights for fairness, equity and justice are not for me because I already have more than I could use.
But this verse of critique can also be read on a communal, national level. In the 1870s in Germany, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch wrote on this verse, “Such has been the history of the people of Israel. It failed to utilize its abundance and surplus for increased spiritual and moral performance, for a more complete fulfillment of its task. Its moral progress lagged behind its material prosperity, and it did not understand how to remain master of its riches and its prosperity; it did not use them for the achievement of its moral duties. Instead, it allowed itself to be overwhelmed by wealth and prosperity, and it allowed its better, spiritual and moral self to be drowned in them.”
Will each of us, and the Jewish community as a whole, in our collective wealth and privilege, become (or remain!) entitled, growing “fat, coarse and gross?” Or will we pass the test of our wealth, remaining grateful, rebelling against injustice rather than God? Only history will tell. But let’s try to be on the right side of history, this time.
Rabbi Noah Arnow serves Kol Rinah, a Conservative congregation in St. Louis, Missouri.