During the past year or so, despite difficult economic conditions, some companies have reported excellent earnings. Upon reading their reports it becomes clear that many of them achieved this without increasing sales revenues. Instead, rigid cost discipline allowed these firms to post profits. Many families have followed a similar culture of frugality. They are enduring a depressed economy by ruthlessly cutting their expenses.
We hope that things will improve and tough times will eventually fade away, though for many of us painful memories will linger. But maybe that is not all that will linger. While reaching for the stars, an awareness of restraint is healthy. It is good to balance the belief that we can do anything and have everything with an appreciation of limitations.
The affluent Beverly Hills family that raises its children with no obligation other than to accept the keys to a new car on their sixteenth birthdays seldom sees a successful younger generation. The company indulging in grandiose spending might practice profligacy with apparent impunity while the economy is booming. But when the tide turns, as it always will, management will lack the skills and character necessary for coping in a recessionary climate.
On the threshold of entering the Promised Land, ancient Israel could hardly have been riding higher. Forty years earlier they had seen their tormentor, Egypt’s Pharaoh, wiped out. They had defeated their enemy Amalek, received the Torah at Mt. Sinai, and successfully completed a forty-year desert journey. The land lay before them, triumph was assured and the future looked limitless.
Moses the beloved teacher and leader of Israel had one final task. He was to bless his people. (Deuteronomy 33:6-24)
Fortunately, Moses didn’t have to pull his blessings out of the air. There was a heritage of blessings which had been passed down by Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Not surprisingly, the blessings that Moses delivered to the twelve tribes in Deuteronomy were an echo of those delivered by Jacob to his sons. (Genesis 49:2-27)
After blessing each tribe individually, Moses blessed the people in its entirety:
May Israel live alone securely,
the fountain of Jacob
shall be upon a land of grain and wine,
and his heavens shall drop down dew.
This blessing echoed that which earlier Isaac bestowed upon Jacob:
May God give you of the dew of the heaven
and from the fat of the land
and plenty of grain and wine.
But wait! Isaac’s blessing to Jacob contains six elements: dew, heaven, fat, land, grain and wine. Moses’ blessing to Israel contains only five of these elements. Why did Moses omit fat?
Ancient Jewish wisdom provides an incandescent clue. Notice that Moses precedes his blessings of the individual tribes with a special name for Israel, Yeshurun.
He was a King in Yeshurun…
As the closing of these blessings we find:
There is none like the God of Yeshurun…
This term for Israel, Yeshurun, only occurs three times in all the Torah.
The word’s other appearance is when Moses delivers sad prophecies about Israel’s behavior in the future:
Yeshurun became fat
and kicked (rebelled)…
and it deserted God its Maker…
What scintillating clarity! We see that fat connotes luxury and that luxury easily slides into moral rebellion and spiritual failure. For this compelling purpose, just before they enter the Promised Land, Moses blesses them but omits the word ‘fat.’ On the eve of Israel’s triumph, Moses introduces a note of restraint. Long-term survival depends upon being able to live with restraint and limit.
Revised and reprinted from May 2011