The economy is showing flickering signs of recovery. Such was the news hesitantly delivered by Ben Bernanki, Chairman of the US Federal Reserve. Indeed, retail sales rose slightly in April. Auto and home sales are up again and major banks, desperate for bailout money a short few months ago, are recording record earnings for the first quarter of 2009. Wells Fargo posted a record three billion dollar first quarter profit. Citigroup, JP Morgan Chase and Bank of America all posted impressive profits.
Before we holler for joy we must consider the other side. Companies across the spectrum from Chrysler, Levitz and Circuit City to Sharper Image and Linens & Things are declaring bankruptcy. General Motors has shut down hundreds of dealerships and thousands of jobs are falling by the way side. The Fed now estimates that the unemployment rate in 2009 will reach 9.6. The New York Times ran a story as recently as May 20 on surging bankruptcies across the country. Banks are thriving, the TSX is rising, while companies are downsizing or folding and jobs are being lost. What is going on?
Is it possible that banks are allocating their bailout monies to relatively safe mortgages and auto loans, but are refusing lines of credit to major employers? Is this why home and auto sales are up though the larger companies continue to fold? In April, the New York Times reported that the volatile atmosphere in retail is discouraging banks from extending lines of credit. The net result, according to Al Koch, who helped steer K-Mart out of bankruptcy in 2006, is that companies fold while saddling other companies with huge debt.
The multi-billion dollar bailouts handed to the banks was intended to stimulate the economy, not to shore up the balance sheets of the banks. When the banks hold onto the money and decline loan applications, manufacture and retail companies begin to fail. Allowing these companies to fail is shortsighted. The banks benefit in the short term by buying up stock at affordable prices, but the economy suffers in the long term as it continues to spiral downward.
But before we jump on the "I Hate Big Banks" bandwagon, let us slow down and ask ourselves what might be learned from this.
Every project requires a purpose. Whether it is cultivating a relationship, raising children or building a business there are always steep climbs and difficult times. Success entails investment and investment denotes long days, grueling years and thankless tasks. We don't jump into the project without envisioning the goal upfront, but once we are in the thick of it, it is nearly impossible to keep our eyes on the goal.
Gardening is backbreaking work, but we do it because the image of roses in bloom is motivation enough to propel us out of air-conditioned living rooms and into the hot sun. But after several hours on aching knees, mud-caked arms and sweat-drenched brows, we lose sight of the roses and begin to question our sanity. This is when we need a "bailout"; a quick break, cool lemonade in hand, giving us a chance to refresh our vision, reclaim our enthusiasm and reconnect with our purpose. Thus, motivated, we return to the hard and grimy work.
What is true of gardening is true of everything in life. Raising children entails love, patience and constant discipline; it is enough to make any man (and the occasional woman) grow weary. When your children ignore your instructions, forget their homework and make a mess of the house you find yourself at wits' ends. That is when your gem throws his arms around you and rewards you with a loving smile. Your heart skips a beat and your tension melts away; a warm glow spreads through you and you remember why you are here.
Withholding Lines of Credit
The same is true in our relationship with G‑d. In theory we are prepared to believe in the beneficence of the Creator and in His unconditional love. But when life is beset by tribulation and every day is filled with challenge we rage inwardly at a G‑d who seemingly never shows His love. Give me a sign, we rail, show me that you care. And the next moment a miracle occurs; a car speeds around the bend and misses you by a hair's breadth. Your mind is racing, your chest is heaving; you try to slow your gasping breath. You sift through your jumble of thoughts and discover that G‑d is really there. Your faith has been restored. You have been bailed out.
These spiritual bailout moments are heavenly; cleansing and redemptive. But their purpose is not to provide us with short moments of ecstatic inspiration; they are intended to energize our drive and sustain our commitment in the long term. After the moment has passed and the tedium of routine has returned, these transcendent moments must nurture the embers of our passion.
This means that our thoughts during the moment of inspiration must be directed toward the future, to a time when this moment will pass and our enthusiasm will ebb. This will indeed compromise the fullness of the moment, but the purpose of the bailout is not the moment itself: it is the future. Ignoring the future to experience the moment is shortsighted. It benefits us in the short term with the fullness of experience, but it backfires in the long term when the moment has passed and we are left bereft.
Our sages taught that G‑d betrothed the Jews at Sinai; the holiday of Shavuot is thus our anniversary. Anniversaries are days for couples to reflect on their relationship and to conjure memories of their early ardor. But the anniversary should not be entirely devoted to reveling in memory lane; time and thought must also be devoted to the future. The purpose of the memories is to channel the joyous ecstasy of early love into the stable energy of continued devotion.
As the anniversary of our marriage with G‑d, Shavuot is capable of leaving a lasting impression. The transcendent inspiration generated by the chanting of the Ten Commandments and the exquisite memories of our storied relationship with G‑d remind us of our purpose and bring our bond with G‑d to vivid life. This renders Shavuot a "bailout holiday," but only if we utilize it correctly. The wisdom with which bailouts are applied is the sole determinant of their efficacy.
Let us apply it well.
Idea based on Likutei Sichos, XI, p. 8–13 and Sefer Hamaamarim 5649, p. 259.