Let’s begin with a few stories and statements:
• Chuck Feeney, a philanthropist who has just finished giving away $8 billion in resources, much of it to social justice causes, said recently in an interview about his simple life style, “You can only wear one pair of pants at a time.”
• When I travel with rabbis to the developing world, they report that one of their worst moments is returning home and entering a supermarket that sells more than 50 kinds of cereal.
• We all, often, speak of what we need when we mean what we want. It is not that we should not have the item, it is that we should learn to distinguish between want and need.
• On average, although the United States has 4.5 percent of the world’s population, it uses 20 percent of the world’s energy.
• Americans throw out 200,000 tons of edible food daily.
• The richest eight people in the world have assets equal to those of the 3.6 billion poorest people in the world (half the total world population).
As you imagine, this list could go on and on, either with broad statements about the use of the world’s resources or with individual anecdotes about behavior that suggests excess in our own lives. But my core message is that these resources are being depleted in ways that jeopardize our future. While food excesses are common in parts of the world, close to 1 billion people go to bed hungry every night. When energy resources are used without limit, we create new problems for all societies. We cannot become overwhelmed by stories or statistics, and retreat in defeat. We need instead to think fiercely — as individuals and in family, congregational, and social settings — about this question of what is enough. Enough to live on? Enough to live a good life, whatever we mean by that?
Of course, no one answer works for all of us. There is, instead, the imperative of asking the questions, of discussing the options, and of then making decisions as to how we — individually and collectively — will respond.
All of us need to do an audit of what we use. Focusing on one area of our lives at a time, we need to ask ourselves whether we are living with excess, or whether we are living efficiently: Are we using more electricity than we need? Are we serving food to excess, throwing away leftovers with little regard? Do we excessively buy the latest design in pants — even knowing we only “wear one pair of pants at a time”? As we move through our self-audit, we should consider which areas warrant change, and whether that change should remain personal or be shared with others, encouraging them to join us. We would want to think about how to give the greatest significance to the changes we are making.
One example: Many people take the “food stamp challenge,” living for a week on a budget of $31 per person. I have done it, and it is appallingly difficult. I shopped differently. I realized that smaller-size cans yield larger corporate profits and that, often, the least expensive version of a product is on the lowest shelf, literally hard to find. I was hungry before the week finished.
No one should live this way.
The experience might ignite a fervor for advocating a hike in the minimum wage so that working families will have more money for food. The experience might suggest new ways to think about what we eat, when we eat, and how much we eat; how we treat leftovers and what example we set for children and friends about the difference between sufficiency — enoughness — and excess.
The same approach can be used with other purchases. Ask: “Do I really need this item?” and, “Am I helping my children think rationally about what they ‘must have’ in their closets?” Thinking through a lens of “sufficiency and excess” with regard to energy consumption takes four steps: auditing what we use, taking steps to lessen our consumption, recruiting others to join us, and investigating domestic or global policies that would improve the situation for others who have less than enough. As we develop our own guides to ethical consumption, we should follow our personal audits by engaging in policy advocacy to find ways to share resources more equitably.
Commenting on the phrase “Kedoshim tihiu” — “You shall be holy” (Leviticus 19:1), Rabbi Moshe ben Nahman Gerondi, known as the Ramban (1194 – c. 1270), teaches us that we should strive to be holy — that is, distinct and separate. The Ramban reminds us that the Torah urges us to “be separated from excess,” to not abuse the resources of the world — to refrain from indulgence, even in things that are permissible.