By Rabbi Mordechai Levin
Ambition can be viewed from different perspectives. On one hand, ambition motivates us to eventually reach our goals. But on the other hand, ambition for the sake of ambition can be a negative, and may drive people to the dark corners of jealousy, dishonesty, and even crime. According to the Biblical account of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11:4): “And they said, Come, let us build us a city, and a tower with its top in the sky, to make a name for ourselves.” Blind ambition can lead to a constant sense of striving without achieving. The art is to maintain the equilibrium.
How much do we need? Today, there is a growing gap between the wealthy and the poor. This is evident at both the global and national levels. Every person has the right — and should have the opportunity — to meet his or her basic needs: food, clothing, housing, education, health care, work. But after acquiring these things, how much more do we need? And what price are we willing to pay for it?
There is a story by the Russian author Leo Tolstoy, titled, How Much Land Does a Man Need? In the story, a man is offered a gift of land. He can have all the land he is able to walk around in one day. The man plans out his walk. He figures out how far he can walk in a day, if he keeps up a brisk pace.
The man sets out, but before he has gone too far, he spots a little patch of land, just outside his planned journey. It’s a pretty little piece of land and will take but a few minutes to walk around. Without too much extra effort, he will still finish the walk in the allotted time, so the man adds that little bit of extra land to his original plan. He goes on further and sees another little bit of land to add to his original plan. Later, he adds a third piece. With each addition, the man has to pick up the pace, but he is confident that he can still get back to the start in time.
It is late in the day and now he can see the finish. He runs to make his goal and falls down dead just as he reaches it. Tolstoy answers the title’s question, “How Much Land Does a Man Need?” in the very last line of the tale. “Six feet from his head to his heels, that’s all the land he needed.”
What do we need? How much do we need? What is a genuine need and what is a desire? Ben Zoma taught: “Who is rich? Those who are happy with what they have.” (Mishnah, Avot 4:1) In the new Jewish year, may we find blessing in what we have and not be driven by what is missing.