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American Dream 2.0
by Dr. Arnie Gotfryd

Once, as a child, the Mitteler Rebbe was asked to explain why the assembled chassidim appeared morose. He replied, "It is clearly alluded to in our prayers: 'Atzabeihem kesef vezahav...' (their idols are of silver and gold, the handiwork of man). The word 'atzabeihem' can also be interpreted as: 'Their depression stems from silver and gold, (i.e., because their thoughts are focused on acquiring another ruble).'" - Sefer HaSichos 5705, p. 10

Somewhere along the way, the American Dream turned into a colossal nightmare. In principle, the idea is still intact. No one really contests the constitutional notion that everyone has a divinely bestowed inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. But the American Dream came with an icon, a timeless symbol of 'making it', of getting there. What has always been that premiere emblem of personal prosperity and material security? Home ownership.
Today that icon looks more than a little tarnished. An unprecedented three million American homeowners faced foreclosure in the past year, and nearly double that number are in arrears. Real estate values are plummeting and over one in five homes are "underwater", meaning that the mortgage is more than the value of the home.
In the midst of this nightmare, Chris Suellentrop is issuing a wake-up call.[1] He's an editor at the New York Times whose family has joyously embraced the change from ownership to rentership. Why tie yourself to property of questionable value when you can have at least as much security, less headaches and more cash as a tenant?
He says it's liberating to never worry about property taxes, maintenance, insurance, and home improvements. After ripping on home ownership, he proceeds to question the whole notion of ownership in general. It's been revolutionizing home entertainment (NetFlix, Zune) as well as automobile access (Zipcar). Even lawn mowers, vacuum cleaners and tools can be easily accessed and returned relatively affordably and conveniently (Zilok, SnapGoods).
And if you are lucky enough to have holiday time, why throw a mound of cash at a vacation property that you may neither want nor be able to maintain down the road, when you can join a time-share (RCI) instead and go somewhere new each vacation without the hassle of buying, selling, furnishing, insuring, and maintaining a property?
That op-ed piece got me thinking. Not that I'm looking to get rid of my house or car. Nor am I short on appliances. And as far as TV, movies and exotic vacations are concerned, they aren't even part of my lifestyle. What really got me going was the concept. How attached am I to the things in my life? Do I even know how to let go? How much less would I enjoy life if it wasn't really my house, my car, my stuff, if instead I owned no more than the opportunity to have shelter, to get around, and to use things.
The truth is that a home of your own is more than a symbol. The Talmud says that a man who doesn't own his home is lacking, that one should rather sell all his chattels than divest of his primary residence for cash.
While all this is true, there is another side to the story. According to Jewish Law, when one buys real estate in the Land of Israel, it should revert to the original owner in the 50th or Jubilee year. Every seventh year, your produce is ownerless. Every seventh day, you have to give away for G-d. Your home, your stuff, your time, your money isn't entirely yours. Ultimately it all belongs to the Creator and all these practices serve to remind us that we don't own any of it, we just have right of use.
When Moshiach comes, and it will be soon, our values will change. All luxuries and delicacies will be available as dust, and valued as dust as well. We will all be joyfully celebrating divine revelations, immersed in the knowledge of G-d as waters cover the sea.
Without really knowing it, I think Chris Suellentrop is a harbinger of that era. He sees the silver lining in the heavy clouds looming over the American Dream and realizes that a solution is already at hand. Once we are free of worrying about our properties being "underwater" we can then let go and immerse ourselves in an emerging era of infinite abundance on demand.
The American Dream 2.0 has all the same rights, liberties and pursuits as before but without the need to amass endless stuff. Whether this dream becomes reality is anyone's guess. But Torah's dream of true prosperity will surely come about with the coming of Moshiach NOW!

[1] Wired Magazine, November 2010, p.33-34.

Dr. Aryeh (Arnie) Gotfryd, PhD is a chassid, environmental scientist, author and educator living near Toronto, Canada. To contact, read more or to book him for a talk, visit or call 416-858-9868



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