In the 1500s and 1600s, the experience of two countries seemed to defy all that had gone before. Spain had amassed the largest supply of gold in history thanks to its New World conquests, but saw inflation and near bankruptcy as a result. In Holland, the Dutch were gaining greater wealth than most any country on earth by trading in fish and other mundane items – in the beginnings of a strange new way that came to be known as a market economy:
During the seventeenth century, the Dutch extracted tons of herring from waters that washed on English shores, had the largest merchant fleet in Europe, drew into their banks Spanish gold, borrowed at the lowest interest rates, and bested all comers, in the commerce of the Baltic, the Mediterranean, and the West Indies. Dutch prosperity, like Dutch land, seemed to have been created out of nothing. The inevitable contrast with Spain, the possessor of gold and silver mines now teetering on the verge of bankruptcy, only underscored the conundrum of Dutch success. Joyce Appleby – The Relentless Revolution
The Midrash on Lamentations is filled with fantastic tales of the greatness that was Jerusalem’s before the destruction of the Second Temple. Although there are numerous stories describing people’s great material wealth, there are far more tales of the incredible brain power in Jerusalem. They are tales of a different form of wealth. They are tales of a people with absolutely everything they needed to succeed and thrive, and yet they failed, disastrously so.
These Midrashim are the stories of creative people, entrepreneurs, who expended effort after effort only to fail. They are the story of gifted people who did not know how to manage failure. They lost faith in their gifts. They did not appreciate their unusual form of wealth. They were exiles long before they were exiled. They lost their connection with their gifts. They lost their connection with themselves.
Theirs are the story of the student who struggles with Talmud study and does not become known as a Talmud Chacham, and never experiences the joy of Torah. He may possess numerous gifts, but he desires the one that all others honor; he desires the Spanish gold, rather than enjoying his particular gifts.
Theirs are the stories of the people who pray every day, and work hard to fulfill all the commandments but never experience joy in their prayer and observance. They want to pray with the same passion and insight as the great rabbis and Tzaddikim, and perceive themselves as spiritual paupers when they cannot. They have forgotten that there are many forms of wealth, and that rather than focus on accumulating Spanish gold they should begin by identifying their particular strengths; their form of wealth.
We can better prepare for Tisha B’Ab by focusing on what makes us, “Rabbati Am,” – great and unique among others. We can better repair the destruction of Tisha B’Av by refusing to be exiled from ourselves, by focusing on our gifts and strengths; the wealth that is ours and can only be lost when we define our wealth by the parameters of others.
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