LIVING IN THE PRESENT

May 11th, 2023

Last month, a CNBC article revealed a new TikTok trend – popular TikTokers are urging their young followers to spend as much money as possible, and specifically on travel, so that they create life-changing experiences they may later regret not having had.

Unlike previous generations, whose money-spending habits were influenced by TV, print media, and their peers, millennials and Gen Z’ers are much more likely to spend money as a result of the ubiquitous influence of social media personalities and YouTubers.

The CNBC article fleshed out the new craze in vivid detail: “the popular ‘I’ll make the money back, but I’ll never be in my 20s traveling to [insert exotic location]’ trend features videos of young people embarking on grand adventures around the world — swimming in the Mediterranean, scootering through the streets of Paris, hiking up volcanoes in Guatemala and running through fields of flowers in Iceland.”

Understandably, older generations are shocked. They can understand the allure of lavish and memorable travel experiences, and they can even comprehend the attraction of wanting to get those experiences in while still young. Still, the cost of it all seems to defy responsible financial conduct – and especially in the current economic climate. After all, there’s record student loan debt, interest rates are constantly going up, rent prices are rising and rising, and inflation is at the highest it’s been for forty years. Is it really such a good idea for the younger generation to prioritize spending on fancy vacations over saving or investing their money for the future?

Truthfully, it’s an age-old dilemma. Should we hoard and stockpile what we have for the proverbial “rainy day” – or should we use what we have right now, and hope that the future will provide what we need when we need it?

The American essayist, poet, and philosopher, Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882), once proclaimed that “money often costs too much.” He was referring to people who become so focused on accumulating wealth for the future that oftentimes they forget to live in the present and enjoy life.

And there is a price to pay when you hold on to what you have and are overly parsimonious – and that price is not just that you are living a miserable life. The long-term impact of not spending money is actually bad for the economy. Economists refer to the effects of healthy spending habits as the “multiplier effect.” This means that when people spend money, that money creates income for others, who now also have more money, leading to further rounds of spending, thereby creating a positive ripple effect throughout the economy.

Meanwhile, when people stop spending, the exact opposite happens. Any decrease in spending reduces demand for goods and services, which can lead to a decrease in production and ultimately, job losses. Consumer spending is an important driver of economic growth and job creation, which is why policymakers often try to stimulate consumer spending during economic downturns.

All of which seems to vindicate the seemingly profligate TikTok influencers – as it turns out, they are the ones on the right track, and the fiscally conservative older generations are just a bunch of party-poopers.

There is a curious verse that relates to this phenomenon in Parshat Behar, in the passage about shemitta – the seventh year of the agricultural cycle, during which farmers are not permitted to do any work in their fields. Instead, they must leave their fields fallow, and can only recommence cultivating the land in the eighth year.

In an agrarian economy entirely reliant on crops, the idea that every farmer desists from any agricultural activity for an entire year must have been a very frightening prospect. Unusually, God responds to the anticipated resistance – and this is long before anyone had ever observed shemitta, or even set foot in the Promised Land (Lev. 25:20): וְכִי תֹאמְרוּ מַה נֹּאכַל בַּשָּׁנָה הַשְּׁבִיעִת הֵן לֹא נִזְרָע וְלֹא נֶאֱסֹף אֶת תְּבוּאָתֵנוּ – And should you ask, “What are we to eat in the seventh year, if we may neither sow nor gather in our crops?” To which God responds: וְצִוִּיתִי אֶת בִּרְכָתִי לָכֶם בַּשָּׁנָה הַשִּׁשִּׁית וְעָשִׂית אֶת הַתְּבוּאָה לִשְׁלֹשֶׁת הַשָּׁנִים – “I will ensure My blessing for you in the sixth year, so that it shall yield a crop sufficient for three years.”

So there you have it: a firm commitment from God that the crop in the sixth year – by which time the land should have been at its very weakest – will be miraculously bountiful and plentiful, enough for 3 years: the sixth, the seventh, and the eighth.

But although this sounds wonderful, many of the commentaries are confounded by the logical flaw at the heart of this projected exchange between God and the doubters. In the projected scenario, before God’s promise, if the yield in the sixth year is normal, as expected, why would anyone be concerned about food in the seventh year? Their storehouses will surely be full of everything they had gathered during the previous year’s harvest. And why the promise of a harvest in the sixth year that will last through the end of the eighth year? Won’t things be back to normal in the eighth year, with the farmers hard at work and the land producing crops as normal?

Rabbi Shimon Sofer (1820-1883), chief rabbi of Cracow in the latter half of the nineteenth century, offers a compelling interpretation that reveals his acumen as an expert on human nature. Yes, the storehouses will be full in the seventh year, but with no harvest that year, people will want to hoard as much of it as they can to use the following year – which is why they will ask “What are we to eat in the seventh year?”

To which God will respond, “Don’t worry, there will be enough of a harvest in the sixth year that it will last you for that year, and two more years – your reward for observing shemitta.” So no need to hoard, and no need to worry. As long as you continue to work the land as God instructed, your material needs will always be met.

The message yielded by this curious aside is how important it is for us to remember that our material well-being is not solely reliant on meticulous financial planning. Of course, it is always wise to save and prepare for the future, but we must never forget to enjoy and appreciate the present. What’s more, sacrificing our current quality of life for the sake of future financial security will inevitably cause us to lose sight of the fact that our ultimate provider is always God.

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