Parashat Mikes- Inconspicuous Consumption
We read in Parashat Miketz of the devastating drought that ravaged Eretz Yisrael and the surrounding countries during the time of Yaakob Abinu. As the famine tightened its grip, Egypt was the only country that still had large stockpiles of grain. Yosef had predicted the seven years of drought that would follow seven years of surplus, and urged Pharaoh to prepare for the famine by storing the surplus grain. People from the surrounding countries flocked to Egypt to purchase food provisions, which were scarce, or unavailable altogether, in their homelands.
The Torah relates that Yaakob Abinu, too, sent his sons to Egypt to purchase grain. When he proposed the idea to his sons, he asked them, "Lama Titra’u?" (42:1), which literally means, "Why do you make yourselves conspicuous?" The commentaries explain that Yaakob and his family still had food provisions at this point; they had not reached the point where they needed to purchase grain from Egypt. However, Yaakob was concerned about what the surrounding peoples would think upon seeing him and his family enjoying financial stability while they were without food. Everybody else was forced to travel to Egypt to buy food. If they saw Yaakob and his family enjoying relative stability while everybody else in Canaan had nothing and had to buy grain from Egypt, they would naturally feel envious and resentful. Yaakob, wisely, knew he had to avoid these hostile feelings. He therefore said to his sons, "Why should we make a spectacle? Why should we appear wealthy while everyone else is struggling? Why draw this kind of attention to ourselves? Why evoke the resentment of the surrounding nations?" And he sent his sons to buy grain in Egypt – not because they needed grain, but in order not to look wealthier than the surrounding tribes.
Yaakob’s remark to his children conveys a critically important message specifically for our day and age, when, by and large, we enjoy prosperity and material comforts. Contemporary society teaches, "If you have it, flaunt it." Yaakob Abinu, however, teaches us to do just the opposite. He instructed his sons to appear poorer than they were, as opposed to today’s culture which encourages us to exhibit our wealth to the greatest extent possible. Yaakob understood what far too few people today understand – that showing off material success, especially in periods of financial instability, invites hostility, not admiration. When a person flaunts his wealth, people around him become resentful – not his adoring admirers.
This is an especially important message for Orthodox Jewry in America. We, like Yaakob and his sons, must be wary of how the nations around us see us. And they will not take to us too warmly if they see us flaunting our wealth. They will become envious, hostile and resentful, and will accuse us of taking what they feel is rightfully theirs. When two women are sitting together at the hairdresser reporting to each other their latest purchases and luxury vacation plans, they must realize that the non-Jewish hairdressers and other customers are listening and paying attention. And when a Jewish businessman is always keeping up-to-date with the latest clothing fashions and luxury cars, his non-Jewish associates are watching, observing, and becoming jealous.
We have to be very careful not to be too conspicuous in our consumption. There is certainly nothing wrong with enjoying the material benefits with which one has been blessed by God. But this must be done privately, with discretion. We must avoid giving an outward appearance of wealth and luxury when the gentiles around us are struggling. This will only invite hostility. Let us learn from our great patriarch, Yaakob, and exercise extreme caution in the way we use our material blessings, and do whatever we can not to arouse the jealousy and resentment of our non-Jewish neighbors through whose ongoing grace we are blessed to live peacefully and comfortably on these shores.