American Orthodoxy

Rabbi Lamm, Sukkot, and the Spiritual Perils of Materialism

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Tzvi Sinensky

The rise of materialism in the Orthodox community has become an urgent topic of discussion. Tradition recently dedicated a full-day summit to the subject. Rabbi Jeremy Wieder’s “Kosher Money” podcast, in which he expressed grave concerns about levels of Orthodox consumption and exhibitionism, went viral. Yeshiva University’s most recent YU-to-Go was entitled “A Material Matter: Jewish Affluence in Contemporary Times,” and featured articles on Gvir Culture, materialism in the book of Kohelet, and the implications of Orthodox wealth for dating and marriage. Nor are the concerns limited to adult members of our community. In a 2008 symposium convened by ATID entitled “Setting an Agenda for Modern Orthodox Education,” Yossi Prager wrote on the subject of “Affluenza and its Complications.”[1]

Of course, this is hardly the first time the Jewish community has grappled with this subject. The issue extends back to at least the time of Humash; in Parashat Eikev, Moshe Rabbeinu warns of the spiritual challenges posed by prosperity. But we need not go back nearly that far. During his tenure as a congregational rabbi, particularly during his time serving as rabbi of The Jewish Center, which was dubbed a “rich man’s club,”[2] Rabbi Norman Lamm confronted a roughly analogous set of difficulties. While the circumstances of Orthodoxy at that time were quite different from our own, many of the themes Rabbi Lamm expounded upon continue to resonate today. He spoke on the theme of materialism in many of his Sukkot sermons, arguing that the essential theme of the holiday is the Jewish attitude toward material comforts. But as we will see, Rabbi Lamm did not suffice by reminding his congregants to be moderate in their consumption. He dug deeper, pointing to key consequences, causes, and solutions of the Jewish attraction to materialism in an era of affluence. For in the end, according to Rabbi Lamm, the challenge of materialism in the modern age goes hand in hand with the challenge of finding faith.

The Perils of Prosperity
Rabbi Lamm weaves the theme of materialism throughout his discussions of numerous central elements of Sukkot, including the sukkah, four species, reading of Kohelet, and Shemini Atzeret.

Rabbi Lamm twice explicitly identifies the holiday with the abandonment of an overreliance on the material. In one context, he notes an irony: while his apartment-dwelling Upper-West-Side congregants are unable to build their own sukkot, “it is specifically for sophisticated, secure, twentieth century, middle class citizens that the message of Sukkot is most relevant.” Citing the debate between R. Akiva and R. Eliezer as to whether God protected the Jews in the desert with literal huts or Clouds of Glory (Sukkah 11b), Rabbi Lamm proposes that the rabbis are not arguing; instead, each emphasizes a complementary theme. R. Akiva suggests that the literal huts teach just how little we require in order to live; we can get by on bare subsistence, even in a mere hut. R. Eliezer agrees, but he stresses the inverse: while we can flourish without many unnecessary material goods, there are spiritual goods – represented by the Clouds of Glory – that we cannot live without.[3]

In this sense, Rabbi Lamm contends, Sukkot extends the central theme of Yom Kippur. Yom Kippur teaches us to get along without food and clothing; Sukkot teaches us to go without shelter and to thereby prioritize matters of the spirit over creature comforts.[4]

Elsewhere, Rabbi Lamm elaborates:

I take the purpose of Sukkot to be a continuation of that of Yom Kippur. Just as on Yom Kippur, the various deprivations or afflictions teach us to rely upon God and be independent of material satisfactions… so on Sukkot do we learn that it is, after all, possible to do without our well-built apartments, our beautiful homes, our well appointed chambers; that even in a mere hut or booth we can attain simhah (joy) if we rely upon God. So is it true of all our worldly possessions: they are good to have, but they are not necessary for survival or even for the attainment of happiness.[5]

For Rabbi Lamm, this is the central message of the holiday: just as Yom Kippur teaches that we can manage without physical pleasures, Sukkot teaches us that we can get along without our fancy homes or material possessions. There is nothing wrong with them, he stresses time and again, but nor are they essential for our survival or happiness.

Elsewhere, he inverts the argument: not only are our worldly possessions not essential for our well-being, but we are not essential for the success of the world. His lavish home and complex society will continue without him. For those who run businesses with multiple employees, others can carry the load for a time. Leaving the sukkah reminds us that we can leave our sources of security – especially our jobs – for a week, and, unexpectedly, everything will turn out okay! This is both humbling and liberating: humbling because it suggests that we may not be essential for our businesses’ success, and liberating because it means we are free to explore other facets of our lives beyond the boardroom.[6]

The four species, in Rabbi Lamm’s telling, also represent the importance of maintaining a proper balance between our material and spiritual values. We make two consecutive requests in Hallel: “Anna Hashem hoshi’ah na” and “Anna Hashem hatzlihah na.” Oddly, on Sukkot we seem to preference the former by only waving the four species during hoshi’ah na, not hatzlihah na. Why? Rabbi Lamm explains that yeshu’ah refers to spiritual success, while hatzlahah refers to material success. Hoshi’ah na, spiritual success, is on a higher level than hatzlihah na, material success.[7] The manner in which we wave the four species, then, reinforces the importance of assigning proper weight to spiritual and material success, respectively.[8]

Of course, this theme is also emphasized in the book of Kohelet, which we read on Sukkot. Material accumulation, Shlomo urges, does not engender happiness; it merely threatens to distract us from the greater purpose of religious living. True happiness is standing in the presence of God.[9]

At the holiday’s end, Shemini Atzeret, too, returns us to the test of prosperity. Rabbi Lamm stresses that humanity is caught between poverty and prosperity. Our challenge, he urges his congregants, is to rise to the challenge of prosperity. This is why yoma demitra ke-yoma de-dina, the day we pray for rain is a day of judgment: we are judged for whether we utilize our material goods toward merely accumulating more material goods or toward higher spiritual ends.[10]

Keeping materialism in proper perspective, then, runs through Rabbi Lamm’s rendering of Sukkot from beginning to end.

The Implications of Materialism
But Rabbi Lamm goes further, pointing to two important implications of materialism. One is the tendency to measure success in artificial ways. From an outsider’s perspective, he observes, we might measure a shul’s success materially: by its numbers, size, and furnishings. But instead of using externals as measures of success, we should instead define a synagogue’s success by utilizing a more “internal” lens. From this perspective, more important are the depth of the worshipers’ experiences and its effect on their souls. True, spiritual success is difficult to quantify. But if we measure a synagogue’s success merely with observable data, we allow materialism to color our aspirations in ways that are inconsistent with the spiritual ideals that lie at the heart of synagogue life.[11]

Turning to a second dimension of living in a material age, Rabbi Lamm also notes the spiritual danger of preoccupation with business matters during the holiday. He cites the Gemara (Yoma 21b) which teaches that before taking leave of the Temple at the end of Sukkot, the people would look to the direction the wind blows as a mysterious indicator of their anticipated prosperity in the year to come. Yet, Rabbi Lamm warns against permitting our worries to distract us from enjoying the holiday. We must remain present in the moment and not look beyond the holiday, lest we detract from our joy. Mindfulness, to put it in 21st-century terms, is a means for combating the tyranny of preoccupation with material matters on holidays and throughout the year.[12]

The Search for Meaning
Yet, Rabbi Lamm refuses to let the matter rest by simply pointing repeatedly to the perils of prosperity and some of its major ramifications. Consciousness-raising is important, but it merely draws attention to the problem without offering solutions. If we wish to make progress, we must go to the root of the matter and inquire why we are so deeply attracted to materialism. Clearly, this is a complex question that cannot be answered in a single sermon or even a series. And while Rabbi Lamm does not provide a catalog of reasons for the attraction of materialism, in a discussion of the book of Kohelet, he notes that we often relentlessly pursue material to fill a hole in our spiritual lives. The author of Kohelet lived an incredibly opulent life. But did it help him attain the happiness he sought? Of course not. “Buying all your heart desires, attempting to distract yourself from the harsh realities of life by multiplying possessions, simply will not work.”

If material excess is often a (wrong-headed) way of seeking to either distract oneself or find some happiness and meaning, it stands to reason that a generation awash in opulence – albeit alongside acute scarcity and financial struggle – is in desperate need of deeper authentic spiritual meaning. Precisely because material overconsumption at least partly stems from the universal human desire to find meaning and happiness, Rabbi Lamm suggests that channeling that desire toward more important, authentic religious experiences is a way of constructively addressing overconsumption in the Jewish community.[13]

For this reason, Rabbi Lamm refuses to simply rail against the dangers of materialism. Instead, he points to two foci, one more intellectual and one experiential, that can serve as bulwarks against the temptation of material indulgence: faith in God and authentic religious experience.

The first is faith. Rabbi Lamm cites a classic Zohar (Tetzaveh 186b) which teaches that the sukkah provides tzila di-meheimnuta, shade of faith. This, Rabbi Lamm avers, is the essential theme of the holiday. In other words, for Rabbi Lamm, the central motif of Sukkot is not merely that we can get along without our material possessions; it is that we can get along without our possessions if we trust that our financial success ultimately depends on divine beneficence. Nor, he adds, is this only true of financial security. Our material success, after all, does not ensure we have overcome our basic insecurities. We are also afflicted by physical, spiritual, social, and societal insecurities. Faith in God is the only way toward attaining lasting emotional equilibrium.

What is more, faith in God is only half the equation. Here Rabbi Lamm returns to the debate as to what material God used to protect the Jews in the desert. If we maintain that He protected the Jewish people in literal huts, we can understand why Sukkot is a testament to the Jews’ faith in God: they trusted in Him to protect them even in “an impermanent, thatched-roof tent.” But according to the view that God safeguarded the Jewish people in supernal Clouds of Glory, what sort of faith was required of the Jews while they were enveloped by the divine presence? Rabbi Lamm answers that, according to this opinion, the Zohar refers not to our faith in God but to His faith in us! On the phrase “Keil emunah,” a faithful God (Devarim 32:4), the rabbis accordingly remark that God believes in His creations.

But this is not a naive faith that God loves us and that it therefore does not matter what we do. Quite the opposite: it is the sort of faith that demands of us to justify His faith. Will we rise to the occasion and vindicate His belief in us? This, alongside our faith in God, is the question posed by Sukkot. To the extent we succeed in maintaining our faith and living up to His faith in us, we will learn the lesson of Sukkot and feel less invested in overinvesting in material matters for their own sake.[14]

In other words, Rabbi Lamm is observing that, intellectually speaking, faith and materialism are inextricably bound. Some wealthy people relentlessly pursue further wealth due to fear of insecurity. But ultimately, as the sukkah reminds us, Judaism teaches that God is the only true source of security, financial or otherwise. The more deeply we cultivate mature and profound trust in God, and the more we dedicate our efforts toward justifying His faith in us, the less deeply we will feel compelled to invest in materialism in unhealthy ways.

The second point Rabbi Lamm makes is that an unhealthy overemphasis on material pursuits is often a way people seek to compensate for a lack of spiritual experience. After quoting John Kenneth Galbraith, who called his generation “the affluent society,” Rabbi Lamm poses a series of questions that remain eerily relevant in 2023:

Are we fulfilled or serene? Look at the picture: a dreadfully high rate of mental disease, an increased suicide incidence, growing crime and delinquency in our cities, a “beat” generation that considers all of contemporary culture a silly joke, and intellectuals who wallow in the deepest despair. And all this not because we have a great deal, but because we have not a clear conception of what is enduring and what is ephemeral in all that we have. We have failed to discriminate between the essential and the expendable, between what we can do without and what we can not and ought not be able to do without. The proper appreciation of the meaning of Sukkot can, therefore, make the difference between a life of happiness, contentment, serenity, and meaningfulness on the one hand or disillusionment, hunger, misery, and a sense of futility on the other.

Overindulgence, in other words, is often a futile attempt at filling an empty hole in one’s spiritual life. In a world filled with high rates of depression and suicidality, the stakes are alarmingly high.[15]

Instead, Rabbi Lamm recommends that we leave our homes and live in temporary dwellings to escape and focus on higher matters. In this context, Rabbi Lamm mentions the Breslov “dead hour,” in which members of that hasidic group used to designate one hour daily when they were “dead” to the world, freeing them to focus on personal reflection. “One dead hour a day,” Rabbi Lamm pronounced, “can make all of life worth living!” Leaving our homes for the sukkah similarly helps us reflect on and reinforce our priorities, rededicating ourselves to living lives of not only intellectual faith in God but also genuine spirituality.[16]

Achieving Authentic Joy
Rabbi Lamm’s treatment of materialism offers us new ways to think about the opportunities and challenges of Orthodox affluence today. In closing, three points are worth underscoring.

First, Rabbi Lamm did not hesitate to confront the subject. Reminding one’s congregants – who are also one’s employers – of the pitfalls inherent in the lives they have chosen is risky. Yet, instead of coddling his congregants, he thoughtfully challenged them to reflect on their priorities. We too must not shy away from tackling today’s challenges directly.

Second, Rabbi Lamm did not deny the value of material wealth. He regularly emphasized that Judaism does not denigrate the legitimacy or value of material goods, even noting that the high priest was required to be rich in order to occupy his position. This was genuinely consistent with Rabbi Lamm’s own worldview, and helped ensure that his congregants, of whom many were well off, would lower their guard and be more receptive to his message, which only concerned the relative value of materialism and spirituality.

Third, and most important, even though he only offers relatively brief treatments of the subject, Rabbi Lamm recognized that overindulgence is not only a cause but also a symptom of a lack of faith and meaning. The potential implications for our community today are far-reaching. Typically, we discuss materialism as a challenge in its own right. But if we wish to make headway on these issues, Rabbi Lamm’s sermons suggest that we should not only discuss the implications of materialism but also seek to provide something deeper in place of material goods: faith and authentic connection to God.

Ultimately, Rabbi Lamm concludes, happiness means

the knowledge that I am not alone in my difficulties, that God sympathizes with me, that my pain is not senseless. Simhah means that there is hope; or better – that there is meaning in life. For, better pain that is purposeful than pleasure that is pointless. Better a hard life hallowed by a touch of holiness, than a soft life in which man sinks into swamps of sensuality and which ultimately drives him insane from solitude.[17]

The question of materialism, Rabbi Lamm reminded his congregants, is first and foremost a quest for meaning. This, for Rabbi Lamm, is the deeper significance of Sukkot. And because the search for meaning is timeless, Rabbi Lamm’s mid-twentieth century insights remain every bit as relevant in 2023.

[1] The increased attention to this subject in no way diminishes the very real challenges of poverty in the Orthodox and wider Jewish community, as well as the cost of the North American Orthodox lifestyle, which is increasingly prohibitive and severely stressful for so many.

[2] See Jacob J. Schacter, “A Rich Man’s Club”? The Founding of The Jewish Center,” in  Zev Eleff (ed.), A Century at the Center: Orthodox Judaism and The Jewish Center (Toby Press: Jerusalem, 2019), 211-251.

[3] This, Rabbi Lamm suggests, is why one who is uncomfortable (mitzta’er) is exempt from the mitzvah of sitting in the sukkah. Sukkot teaches us to manage with a bit of discomfort and strive for higher religious goods. If we cannot do so, we have failed to learn the purpose of the mitzvah, and we may as well return inside.

[4]On Doing Without,” 1960. All sermons cited in this essay appear in the Lamm Heritage Archives,

[5]Sukkot Without Suffering,” 1975.

[6]Indispensability: Myth and Fact,” 1963. Elsewhere, he uses this idea to propose another explanation for the exemption of mitzta’er. People who suffer or are sick often quickly recalibrate and focus on the most essential things in life. One who learns that she has a day to live will often radically reorder her priorities. For a similar reason, the mitzta’er has already been reminded about life’s ultimate priorities. Such an individual has therefore learned the lesson of the sukkah and is exempt (“The Ark and the Tablets,” 1962).

[7] He uses this to explain the classic passage in Shabbat (31a), which enumerates six questions we will be asked at the end of our lives. We are asked not about our material success per say but about our honesty in going about our business dealings. We are asked tzipita leyeshuah, whether we anticipated salvation. The invocation of yeshuah, derived from the same root as Hoshiah na, reinforces the spiritual meaning of the term.

[8]Save and Prosper,” 1959.

[9]What Happiness is Not,” 1964.

[10]Betwixt and Between,” 1955.

[11] “Save and Prosper.”

[12]Which Way the Wind Blows,” 1966.

[13] “What Happiness Is Not.”

[14]In the Shadow of Faith,” 1959.

[15] “On Doing Without.”

[16]Indispensability: Myth and Fact,” 1963.

[17] “What Happiness is Not.”

Tzvi Sinensky is Director of Judaic Studies and Upper School Principal at Main Line Classical Academy, and Director of the Lamm Heritage Archives at Yeshiva University. He earned his PhD in Jewish Philosophy on the subject of rabbinic conceptions of manhood at Yeshiva University's Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies. A popular lecturer and author, Tzvi completed three book-length series published by Yeshivat Har Etzion’s Virtual Beit Midrash, is editor of a forthcoming posthumous edition of Rabbi Lamm's halakhic writings, and is writing a book on the overarching themes in Rabbi Lamm's oeuvre. He has served as Lehrhaus editor for over four years, and lives in Lower Merion, PA, with his wife and three children.