Thursday, November 18, 2010

Why Living in The Modern World is Difficult

Parshat VaYishlah
11 Kislev, 5770
November 18, 2010

We’re going to dredge up some of what we were taught in Philosophy 101. Yes, I know the class met unconscionably early. Yes, no college student should have to get up at 10:00 am. I promise it won’t hurt too much.

This piece of college trivia is about Aristotle’s four causes. Every object has these four causes. A chair, for instance, has a material cause (wood), a formal cause – the pattern of its construction (the shape of a chair), an efficient cause – what caused it to be made (a carpenter, tools), and a final cause – the reason for its existence (something to sit in). Every thing we own, every car we drive, every piece of food we eat, the jewelry we give – literally every material object can be defined in these four ways.

What’s confusing about contemporary life is that the efficient cause of things – how they get made and who makes them – is found very far away from us. There is often good reason for this: my beloved coffee grows much better in a South American climate than it does here.

But my delicious bean’s distance from me also means that the conditions of production can be easily obscured. And opacity makes injustice a whole lot easier. The following is from a French traveler in the 18th century (this is an old story):

“I do not know if coffee and sugar are essential to the happiness of Europe, but I know well that these two products have accounted for the unhappiness of two great regions of the world: America [the Carribean in that time] has been depopulated so as to have land on which to plant them; Africa [which provided the slaves] has been depopulated so as to have the people to cultivate them.”*

There was a time in which rabbis in the 19th and early 20th centuries protested the first matza-making machines (of all things), because of their effect on the poor in their communities (matzas were traditionally made by the Jewish poor). But in that case, the problem was right next door. We live in the world of globalism, and have to shoulder the added burden searching for justice at a distance.

But perhaps this is the reason for our most oft-quoted of Torah texts: Tzedek tzedek tirdof – Justice, justice, shall you pursue.” (Deut 16:20) Justice is elusive. One has to run after it.

For those who are interested in fighting this good fight, the work of Jewish World Watch (Adat Shalom is a member synagogue) on minerals and gems from conflict regions is extraordinary. P
Please get involved at

For those coffee-lovers who are worried about the efficient cause of their beans, look for the Fair Trade label.
*as quoted in Uncommon Grounds, by Mark Prendergast (17)

1 comment:

  1. Rabbi Perlo, I thoroughly enjoy reading your Mahshavot posts. I find them insightful, thought provoking, and motivational. I also appreciate the occasional bit of humor. After reading this post, I wanted to learn more so I went to the Fair Trade USA website at and the Fairtrade Labelling Organizations International website at On any given marketing trip, I spend a good deal of time searching for a heksher on the products I purchase. I would say that the Fair Trade label is equally as important. Thank you for bringing it to my attention.