Parashat Kedoshim

Stumbling Blocks

We need to learn to produce, sell, and consume fewer unnecessary products.

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By striking an older child who is likely to verbally or physically retaliate, the parent creates a situation in which the child may violate the biblical prohibitions of hitting and cursing one's parents.

Thus the fourth category:

Creating a situation or an emotional state which will lead a person to harm him/herself and others and/or lose control of his/her cognitive decision making abilities.

The Power of Consumption

I would like to focus on this final category. Contemporary society contains within it a severe and far-reaching stumbling block, which has led to abuse of the environment by endangering the earth's delicate ecosystems and limited natural resources. 

At the turn of the 20th century, the general population was too frugal and poor to purchase the many material goods from the over-production capabilities of the Industrial Revolution. To overcome this required a change in the spiritual and intellectual values of the people, from an emphasis on values like thrift, modesty, and moderation, towards a value system that encouraged spending and ostentatious display.

The solution was the strategy of consumerism--the creation of a public mindset that encourages over-consumption beyond people's actual needs. Consumerism equates personal happiness with purchasing and consuming material possessions. The businesses and governments who stood to gain from increased trade essentially "blinded" people into believing that happiness could be achieved through endless consumption.

In his book, Global Problems and the Culture of Capitalism, Richard H. Robbins explains that for consumerism to take hold in the United States the public's perception and buying habits had to be transformed.

Advertising aggressively shaped consumer desires and created value in commodities by imbuing them with the power to transform the consumer into a more desirable person. Luxuries became necessities. In 1880, $30 million was invested in advertising in the United States; today that figure has climbed to well over $120 billion. The concept of "Fashion" helped to create anxiety and restlessness over the possession of items that were 'new' or 'up-to-date.'

In addition to the rise in advertising techniques, workers were given higher wages to increase their buying power in order to create a consumer economy. The advent of the credit card in the 1950s enabled people to buy things that they would not normally consider purchasing. Originally meant to stimulate economic growth, credit shopping actually leads to increased consumer debt.

Individual home ownership, for example, is a concept that is not practiced in many developing countries, where extended families live together. Individual homes increase the amount of resources used, as well as increasing sales for related industries. In the 1920s, Herbert Hoover wrote, "A primary right of every American family is the right to build a new house of its heart's desire at least once. Moreover, there is the instinct to own one's own house with one's own arrangement of gadgets, rooms, and surroundings." Today, individual homes are only getting bigger.

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Carmi Wisemon is Executive Director of Sviva Israel, an educational-environmental organization based in Israel.