Why are some countries rich while others are poor? Why do some countries attract immigrants while others lose citizens who flee in large numbers? Why do some countries enjoy relative tranquility while others are seething cauldrons of violence?
Posh and politically correct universities shrink from discussing these contentious questions because they fear the answer might refute their deepest beliefs.
Though largely ignored in academia, numerous books have been published dealing with this perplexing puzzle. To mention just three—The Wealth and Poverty of Nations by David Landes; Why Nations Fail by Acemoglu and Robinson; and Civilization: The West and the Rest by Niall Ferguson. While conceding that climate, geography, and natural resources carry some influence, they along with almost everyone who has studied the disparity of societies concludes that the wealth/poverty gap is chiefly due to culture.
A culture is bound up with the language with which it communicates. We tend to associate French as the language of romance, whereas Russian lends itself to brooding epics about the darker side of human nature. As God’s language, Hebrew gives us understanding into what God wishes for us to find important.
I would like to offer one small insight which grants us a spiritual strategy with practical application in our lives. English clearly distinguishes between winning a lot of money and earning a lot of money. Not all languages do the same.
winning money = ganar dinero = earning money
winning money = gagner de l’argent = earning money
Unfortunately, I am not fluent in these languages and I am sure there are ways in which the context clarifies whether someone won the lottery or earned a fortune. Nonetheless, there are cultural implications when a language fails to distinguish between acquiring money randomly or through hard work. Is it out of the question that in some very small way, this could be linked to the launching of the industrial revolution in 18th century England rather than Spain or France?
Here is another example. What can we understand from the fact that Hebrew possesses more words than any other language for moral transgression?
Here just some of the words:
avel-(Deuteronomy 25:16); avon, chatat-(Deuteronomy 19:15); aveirah-(Deuteronomy 17:2); pesha-(Genesis 50:17); ma’al-(Leviticus 5:15); oshek-(Proverbs 14:31); chammas-(Psalms 55:10); nevalah-(Deuteronomy 22:21)
There are many more, and remember, there are no synonyms in Hebrew. Each word reflects a separate subtle nuance.
Sadly, the lofty Hebrew concept of always being alert to the possibility of sin and never straying “after your heart and after your eyes…” (Numbers 15:39) has been trivialized by comedic mocking of Jewish guilt. The truth is that feeling guilt for wrongdoing and then trying to atone is a competitive advantage and one that you can easily adopt to dramatically improve your own life.
One type of moral wrongdoing is not living up to your own goals. Imagine you set yourself a professional or a self-improvement objective; say a sales target, a be-nice-to-spouse week, or a weight-loss plan. Ordinarily, were you not to meet your aspiration, you might shrug your shoulders and move on. Or you might wallow in guilt. Either way, spiritually, your self-disappointment remains.
Once you remember the value of acknowledging and expiating guilt, you can set yourself a minor consequence or penance for not achieving that to which you committed yourself. You might run five times around the block or memorize a poem. By tying an action to your disappointment, you will find that your body and your soul smoothly cooperate in both moving on and also making it more likely that you achieve the next goal you set. If you repeatedly miss your goals, pay attention: it is a sign that deeper analysis is needed.
Carrying the weight of failed expectations can crush us. While the Torah uniquely highlights one day a year to recalibrate our internal monitors, the lessons from that day can be used year-round. Listen to my audio CD, Day for Atonement and let me know how it helps you look hopefully ahead rather than being trapped by the past. Download or order it at half-price right now.
Read this week’s Susan’s Musing: Gut-Punch: Too Old for a Transplant?