Coming to terms with ‘need’ this Yom Kippur


It’s not that I’m greedy and want too much, there’s just a whole lot out there that I need, for myself and my family and even for the dog, Gus, that my kids brought home last year because they needed a dog, so they rescued him from the animal shelter in Van Nuys, for $650, and when I asked why they had to pay so much money for a rescue dog, they said this one was especially cute and the shelter auctioned him and we had to outbid everyone else because we felt Gus needed to be ours. 

The thing about “need” is, you don’t know you have it until it’s staring you in the face, or knocking on your door or, these days, popping into your inbox at 60-percent-off-for-the-next-12-hours-starting-now-only-for-our-special-customers. Once you get past the basics — food, water and a warm, dry place in which to sleep — the possibilities are endless. Like the 8,000-square-foot fixer-upper that Dodgers couple owned in Holmby Hills across from their 11,000-square-foot residence. In divorce papers, the wife said they needed the smaller place for “overflow laundry.” The husband, meanwhile, pretended he was broke so he could cheat the wife out of her half of the Dodgers’ $2 billion price tag, because, you see, he needed both billions to sustain just his own lifestyle. 

I said this to some friends at dinner the other night — how laundry seems to grow along with a person’s bank account — and they agreed that rich people have more needs, and are therefore entitled to more leeway, in their dealings with the world. We were talking about those businesses downtown that were raided last month by the FBI and Homeland Security, allegedly for laundering money for a Mexican drug cartel. Someone who happens to know one of the accused brought up the fact that those downtown businesses are often very lucrative; they need to deal mostly in cash to avoid paying taxes like the rest of us saps. Someone else suggested that one of the alleged money launderers owns a great deal of commercial property in the area. He probably needs the cash to renovate the buildings so he can raise the rent on his tenants. 

It’s not just a downtown thing, or an L.A. thing. It’s not just an American thing. People all over the world have needs that grow exponentially with their wealth. You can’t begrudge the wealth, or trivialize the need, or draw a line between what’s reasonable and what’s excessive. In some parts of the world, an entire family can live for a whole year on what my kids paid for Gus at the shelter; who am I to say, then, that Leona Helmsley’s dog didn’t need the $12 million she left him in her will? 

Beside, very often this need for creature comforts engenders greater, more elusive needs. Have you noticed how the very successful seem to need to achieve ever greater feats? Or how the very wealthy seem to need ever greater recognition, respect and admiration? The athlete who has to break his own record; the airline magnate who plans to land on the moon next; the rich friend who is more easily wounded if he feels he isn’t revered enough. It’s human nature, you say, part of our evolutionary drive, the reason we aren’t still living in caves. I realize that. I know I’m guilty of it, too, in my own, minuscule way. Most of the time, I thank God for it. That is, I thank God there are people out there who need to build better computers and fly faster jets and come up with better medication. From a purely selfish standpoint, as well as in the interest of humanity, I applaud and admire their zest. 

But from a purely selfish standpoint, I also wonder whether my own need to do more and to have more isn’t encroaching too much on the rest of me these days. It may have been happening for a while, but I’ve only noticed it recently, since my youngest child decided he needed to move out for good. In between moping around and feeling sorry for myself because I had become useless and without purpose, obsolete as a typewriter in the age of the tablet, I tried to focus more on myself and my work, and that’s when I realized I still need to see most parts of the world, win the Pulitzer and buy drapery for the bedroom. 

I don’t know if it’s something that’s happened with age, the dawning of the realization that I’m getting closer to the finish line and haven’t done everything I would want and don’t have time to do. I don’t know if it’s the fear of having my life shrink, in the way of most older people’s, a little at a time at first, and later in leaps and bounds, so that you go from being a person with a family and a job and many needs, to a lone figure in an empty room with a bathrobe and a pair of slippers and needing only your meds and three (small) meals a day. Maybe it’s just a fight with mortality — this need for a second billion dollars, $35 million in cash, or, in my case, all the dog toys I feel compelled to buy through Amazon

Because, you see, there’s something pure and joyful and hugely seductive about that quality of youth, before it’s been touched by the awareness of all that it’s going to need. I don’t know what to call it, but it’s the thing I adored in my own and others’ children, that I most long for now that I have time to focus on myself and Gus and all our needs. It’s that absence of wants and ambitions and should-be’s, the loss of the ability to draw pleasure or pain from what is, that I’m guilty of letting into my soul. It’s what I’ll be thinking about on Yom Kippur, what I’ll hope, and try to beat, this coming year.

Gina Nahai is an author and a professor of creative writing at USC. She will read from her new novel, “The Luminous Heart of Jonah S.,” Oct. 23 at 7 p.m. at Writers Bloc. More info at writersblocpresents.com

Don’t Win the Battle


A professor in seminary once asked us to find themost important section in all the Torah. We offered Creation, theShma, the Exodus, the revelation at Mount Sinai. No, he argued, it’ski teze l’milchama (Deuteronomy 21): “When you go out to war against yourenemies, and the Lord God delivers them into your power and you takesome of them captive, and you see among the captives a beautifulwoman, and you desire her, and would have her. You shall first bringher into your house, and she shall cut her hair and her nails, anddiscard her captive’s garb. She shall spend a month’s time in yourhouse, mourning her father and mother…and then you may come to her,and marry her, and she shall be your wife. And if not, you mustrelease her.”

 

“L’Amour,” by William Mortensen,1936.

 

Why would anyone think this the most importantsection of the Torah?

In my den, over my breakfast table, or in mydeepest thoughts, I can be a moral hero. It’s easy to be a tzadik intheory. Deep in the heart, everyone thinks of himself as a goodperson. But to moralize in the abstract is the height ofsuperficiality. Morality is what happens in the real world, in themarketplace, in the world of conflict and competition. And thechallenge of morality is not to recite pithy rules but to look deeplyat the darker parts of our own souls; to examine and know the drivesand desires that distract our moral vision; to appreciate ourinfinite capacity to rationalize, compromise and excuse our own moralfailures.

What is real morality? The Torah offers us a studyof the moral worst-case scenario: the most amoral of settings, themost unrestrained of moral actors, the most vulnerable of victims. Hesees her on the field of battle and desires her with all the lustsand passions of battle. With rape, looting and wanton acts ofviolence all around him, no one would know, no one would care. Afterall, what is she? A captive, an enemy, the spoils of battle. He wantsher. And just at that moment, in that most unrestrained and amoral ofall circumstances, amid the smoke and screams and confusion of war,the Torah says, Stop. She is not an object. She is a human being. Andyou must uphold her humanity and protect her dignity. All is not fairin love and war!

The genius of the Torah’s ethic, argued myprofessor, is found in this unique combination of realism andidealism. The Torah does not reproach him for his drives. It does notcondemn his desire. Desire is natural; it is not evil. But neitherwill Torah allow its untamed, savage explosion.

“Who is a hero?” asks Pirke Avot. “One whoconquers his yetzer, his drives.” One does not uproot the yetzer. Itis part of us. But neither is it given raw expression. Torah permitsthe expression of drives and desire only in the proper relationshipto human dignity. So this ingenious rite is followed by allowing thecaptive woman to mourn and heal, and by allowing our soldier’s ardorto cool and his judgment to return. She is actually made ugly — herhead shaved, her nails pared — and she lives untouched in hishousehold for 30 days. If, after that, he still wants her, he maymarry her and afford her all the protection of his household.Otherwise, she goes free. He may not sell her as a slave — thenormal fate of captives.

On all the battlefields we find ourselves — incorporate offices, in community politics, in the marketplace, inpersonal relationships — when passions are high and indiscretionsoverlooked, when anything goes, the Torah demands reverence for thehumanity and dignity of the other. What’s at stake, after all, is notjust the other but your humanity as well. Ki teze l’milchama, whenyou go out to war, don’t win the battle and lose your soul.

Ed Feinstein is rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom inEncino.

Read a previous week’s Torah Portion byRabbi Feinstein

SEPTEMBER 5, 1997 So Where Are You?

AUGUST 29, 1997 What’s Wrong with aCheeseburger?

AUGUST 22, 1997 Finding the AdultWithin

AUGUST 15, 1997 Make the Time Count

AUGUST 8, 1997 ‘What’s the Meaning ofLife

AUGUST 1, 1997 A Warning toRevolutionaries