* to encourage a reasoned awareness of how our beliefs impact the way we interact with the world around us
* to foster intelligent and open dialogue
* to inspire a sense of spirituality that has real meaning in day-to-day life

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Numbers 21: Cause and Effect Relationships and the Human Imagination

It's tempting to brush past some portions of the biblical narrative because they seem somewhat redundant to what has gone before.  Knowing that the archaeological record paints a different picture than the actual scriptures can also feed a dismissive attitude.  It helps to recall that the point here is to draw some spiritual truth from what is written, even if that truth is contrary to the point of the narrative.  In Numbers 21, there are some stories about how the Israelites were victorious in combat because God wanted them to be, and there is the story of the magical bronze snake.

There's a reason that we say that history is written by the victors.  Whether we're talking about one nation conquering another or someone getting fired from a job, the people who remain in control in a certain context get to decide how to frame events.  Sometimes we misremember events, and sometimes our perspective is different enough from someone else's that we interpret events completely differently.  Mixed in with that faulty memory and difference of perspective are the occasions in which we blatantly lie, usually because we believe that we need to protect ourselves somehow.  That protection may be as simple as not wanting to look foolish, but when we proclaim an altered history, we miss an opportunity to learn from the actual events.

Many times, we just become so convinced of something that we can't really see things through a different lens.  Once we completely believe that a friend has betrayed us, it's hard to shake the idea and trust that person, whether there's actually been any betrayal or not.  When we believe something, it affects the way we act and the way we see other people.  If you believe that you're ugly, you'll assume that everyone else thinks so, too.  You might be suspicious if someone asked you out on a date.  If you think you're doing a lousy job at work, you'll either assume that everyone else knows it, or you'll try to hide it.  When every comment that a co-worker makes gets filtered through that lens, it's tough to have honest and productive relationships.  If you believe that a supreme being is completely in charge of all that happens, you'll look at events differently than someone who assumes that there is a scientific explanation for everything.

A big problem with unexamined beliefs is that there is no challenge that can threaten them.  We assume that we are right, and we manage to justify everything that happens through a belief that may or may not reflect reality.  The Israelites had a belief in a god that was so powerful and vindictive that he sent plagues against anyone who did things he didn't like, but this god was also a mighty ally to those who were willing to obey.  Therefore, every good thing that happened in the life of the Israelite community was considered to be something that God caused to happen, and everything bad that happened in the life of the Israelite community was viewed as evidence of their failure to be obedient.  Later on in the Old Testament, this becomes a real concern when the Israelites are conquered and the temple is destroyed. 

For now, the Israelites trust God and their enemies fall before them, "enemies" being the word used for people who had occupied the land for generations, but whom God didn't like.  It's easy to write that history.  "God leads his people to victory against all who oppose them" makes a great headline.  Except that there are still complaints being made to Moses about the quality of the food and the lack of water.  So, there is a plague of venomous snakes that starts killing off the Israelites.  It's easy to write that headline, too.  "Complain and die."  But God tells Moses to make a bronze snake and put it on a pole, so that anyone who gets bitten can look at this snake idol and be spared.  Bizarre.  The writer of Hebrews uses this scene as a clever allegorical connection to the cross, but the whole scene is a bit strange.  Golden calves are bad, but bronze healing serpents are fine.

Cause and effect are not always what we imagine them to be.  Do we believe that poison can be alleviated by looking at a particular object?  Some would say, "Well, if God wanted it to work, then it would work."  It's primitive witchcraft, but it is justified because the belief in the community is strong enough to overlook the disconnect.  Flipping the calendar forward to the 21st century, we aren't just looking back at a relatively unsophisticated people and their primitive beliefs.  We are in a world of colliding beliefs that are unexamined and basically unchallengeable. There is an incredible number of people of varying faiths who believe that their god sanctions violence against other people.  We are essentially living in a technologically advanced era with a primitive worldview when we accept violence against the people our god doesn't like.  And let's face it, we assume that our god doesn't like the people we don't like.

If we assume that a supreme being is in control of all that happens, we remove personal responsibility from the picture.  Except that we still want to convince other people to behave the way we think God wants them to behave.  If God is in control of everything, isn't he completely in control of everything we might want to complain about?  And if we're complaining about how God is handling things, aren't we at all afraid that he will send venomous serpents after us?  If God is in complete control, then God is in control of abortion, homosexuality, suicide bombers, who gets killed in the wars that God has obviously sanctioned, unemployment, the distribution or concentration of wealth, ... everything.  There is nothing to complain about.

When we start to look for other causes for the effects that we see around us, however, the simplistic answer of "God said so" becomes replaced by a complex set of circumstances that aren't always easy to address.  Rather than tell people God disapproves of their behavior and expect that to change the course of their lives, when we set aside the simplistic belief that God is the cause for every effect, we may find that there are actual human beings with needs and beliefs of their own, and that we have some opportunity to have a significant impact.  It's not easy to make a real difference in someone's life while you're looking down your nose and pointing a judgmental finger at them.  There really are people who set aside simple answers that eradicate personal responsibility, and in seeking the actual causes for the things that disappoint them about the world, create something truly meaningful. 

The good news is that we all have the power to examine our beliefs and decide if they make sense or not.  We can keep convincing ourselves that there's a supernatural reason why looking at a bronze serpent can cure snakebites, or we can reevaluate what we believe based on the evidence around us.  Even evidence is subject to our beliefs, though.  As a friend of mine often says, "Statistics don't lie... but you can lie with statistics."  What we actually know may be completely different from what we choose to assume.  We all have beliefs, and many of those beliefs are nothing more than assumptions we've chosen.  Recognizing that we have a choice in what assumptions we're alright with is where wisdom comes into the picture.

What do you believe?  Not just in the big picture, "what's the meaning of it all?" kind of beliefs.  What do you believe about yourself?  About the people around you?  Are some of your beliefs in conflict with other beliefs?  Are you happy with the assumptions you're making?  You have choices.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Numbers 18-20: Tithing as a Priestly Pyramid Scheme and the Smoke Screen of Religious Rhetoric

In between all the stories about the Israelites complaining and getting punished for it, Numbers 18-20 describes how tithes were to be distributed and tells the story of the first passing of the high-priest torch.  On the surface, it looks like a sweet deal for the Levites, who get temple-related jobs.  They get to keep everyone else's tithes, the 10% of their wealth that the Israelites were obligated to offer to their god.  And 10% of that tithe went specifically to Aaron, the high priest.  Of course, the Levites were presumably doing work for this payment, and since doing tasks for the temple didn't have as direct a source of payment as raising livestock, this was a way of making working at the temple a reasonable career.  One might even say lucrative, since 10% of the community’s wealth was being concentrated in less than 3% of the population.

The chronology of establishing the priesthood is a bit odd.  After the Israelites leave Egypt, Moses counts everyone except the members of his own tribe, the Levites, presumably because they were going to guard the tabernacle.  When the Levites were finally counted, they were tallied differently than the rest of the Israelites.  All the other tribes were looked at as warriors, so only able-bodied adult males were counted.  Of the Levites, every male one month old and older was counted, and still they wound up being the smallest tribe at 22,000 official people.  This was roughly equal to the number of first-born males in the whole Israelite community, so back in Numbers 3 a justification was made to set apart the tribe of Levi as a priesthood.  One potential priest for every first-born male, at least at that moment in Israelite history.

So, at this point, the Levites did the temple-related work, and everyone else paid them to do it.  This is essentially what the tithe was.  It was a tax.  The Israelite government was a theocracy (much like Egypt), with the dictatorial Moses at its head and the remainder of his tribe handling the management of the tabernacle, which was the central feature in Israelite life.  What went on at the tabernacle affected life and death of thousands of people through supernatural means that the average Israelite couldn't hope to understand.  Moses' brother Aaron was the high priest over all the other Levites, so they levied a tax on the other tribes.  If an American doesn't pay taxes, the worst case scenario is that the offender could be imprisoned while the IRS takes the money to which it's entitled by force.  If an Israelite didn't pay the required tithe, a hole could open up in the earth and swallow them.  Or they could die from a mysterious plague.

Later on, it will be clear that the Levites were expected to have other sources of income.  There wasn’t really enough temple-related work to occupy the entirety of the tribe.  Levites are recorded as being doctors, teachers, judges, musicians, and law enforcement officers.  A part of the tithe also went to support people in the community who were no longer able to earn a living, essentially a form of social security.  So, although the Levites were entitled to a share in the community’s wealth, they did provide important services for the community.

Even though it's not necessarily a familiar way of setting up a society, it certainly makes sense.  The one thing that seems odd is how apologetic Moses is about the whole thing.  Instead of just saying, "I'm in charge, and this is how it's going to be," he sets up God as the source for all of these proclamations.  Maybe that's something he learned from the Egyptians.  Maybe he thought it would keep people from complaining about things.  But no matter how many plagues or fires killed off groups of dissatisfied Israelites, people kept complaining.  They complained about Moses, and they complained about God.  On the surface, they may have used language that suggested they were giving a tithe "to God," but they knew at some level that they were paying what amounted to a tax to the Levites.  Just as taxpayers feel entitled to complain about their government today, the Israelites felt entitled to complain about the way they were being governed, even if it meant being irreverent to the point of risking death.

At the beginning of Numbers 20, they complain again.  Miriam dies, and in the next sentence the Israelites complain that there isn’t any water.  It’s tempting to tie this back into the purity laws of the previous chapter regarding cleaning oneself with water after handling a dead body, but it doesn’t really seem like that was the chief complaint.  They needed water to drink just to stay alive.  In this famous story, God commands Moses and Aaron to go and command a rock to provide water.  Instead, Moses takes personal credit and strikes the rock with an angry admonition toward the Israelites.  His sister had just died, so one can understand his irritability in the face of more complaints.  Water flowed forth, and everyone was satisfied for the moment.

Everyone except God.  Moses and Aaron were admonished because they took credit for the water.  In the story, God told the two leaders that they would not enter the Promised Land as a punishment for not treating him as holy in front of the Israelites.  There are plenty of lessons that could be extracted from the 12 verses that comprise this story, but you can draw spiritual lessons from nearly any source if you are looking for them.  It’s likely that tales like this were initially told to create a justification for the names of the places involved.  This particular tale also creates a reason for why the leaders of the Israelites died before the community reached its goal.

Aaron dies just a short time after that scene at the rock, and the mantle of high priest is passed on to his son, Eleazar.  Since it was no secret that this time would eventually come, Numbers 19 is essentially a training ritual for Eleazar.  It’s a special sacrifice that involves all of the things that a high priest should be able to do confidently, and it’s specified that Eleazar will preside over the ceremony.  One chapter later, Eleazar is made high priest and Aaron dies.  The "Ordinance of the Red Heifer" was his final exam, even though the text doesn’t quite put it that way.

Just before Aaron dies, Moses sends word to the Edomites, asking for safe passage through their lands.  Not surprisingly, this request is denied.  The Edomites were the descendants of Esau, whom Jacob tricked out of his inheritance.  When Jacob ran away and came back fourteen years later, Esau attempted to rekindle their brotherly relationship, but Jacob was fearful and basically avoided his brother’s lands.  Whether the story is true or not, any Edomite who identified with his forefather Esau would understandably be suspicious of any descendant of Jacob asking for any favors.  So Aaron dies on the border of Edom, with armed Edomites prepared to defend their borders against an Israelite invasion.

Religious rhetoric provided a colorful context for early Israelite society, and it didn't prevent people from being involved citizens, vocal about their concerns and disappointments.  Some people today are more cowed than the Israelites were by the idea that God has commanded something.  It has perhaps become more dangerous than a physical plague.  Certain segments of our society hear a person claim to know what God wants and they accept it without question.  This is not a thoughtful or enlightened way to participate in one’s society.  When we take away the “infallible absolute authority” as intermediary, the people who ask us to think, spend, or vote a certain way are required to explain their platform much more clearly than a simple “God said so.”  It becomes much easier to judge ideas based on their merits and their potential benefits to society when the smoke screen of religion is taken away.  The cynic in me suggests that there are some leaders who prefer having the smoke screen, for whatever reason.

Perhaps it would have gone exactly the same for Moses if he had controlled the early Israelite society through some other means.  If he had said, “We’re going to collect a 10% tax from everyone, and that tax will be used to pay for doctors, teachers, and the officials that will settle disputes in our community,” would there have been a great public outcry against that?  Abraham knew about the Mesopotamian practice of collecting a tithe, so the concept was nothing revolutionary.  Even claiming that a god (i.e., a particular priesthood) was entitled to a portion of a community’s wealth was nothing new.  Maybe I’m crediting the Israelites with more sophistication that they actually possessed, but the real revolutionary idea would have been to say, “This is what will be best for our community, so this is what we will do.”  Then again, (if the biblical account is to be believed) Moses was never really comfortable with the idea of being responsible for so many people’s well-being.

Have we matured enough as a society to be honest about our ideas?  Are we able to set smoke screens and emotional rhetoric aside to consider the actual merits of our ideas?  Can we discern between what is the best for our society and what is simply a personal preference?  And if we have that discernment, do we also possess the integrity to put personal preferences aside for the greater good?  Whatever the answer, the way to strengthen our discernment and integrity is to expect it of ourselves and of one another.  There are ways to gently invite the religious and emotional rhetoric to be put aside for a moment, to reassure an individual that ideas can be considered without resorting to personal attacks.  We don’t always have the opportunity to have such frank conversations with our leaders today, but they also don’t have the power to make the earth swallow us whole.  As often as we do share ideas with one another, though, we have the opportunity to become more discerning and honest – to be better citizens of our society, and more effective participants in our own lives.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Numbers 16-17: The Endless Pursuit of Preserving Power and the Art of Interpreting Divinations

Moses didn't grow up in a democracy.  He also didn't grow up in expansive, politically unaffiliated pastureland.  Moses grew up in Egypt, where powerful families passed localized absolute political power down from one generation to the next.  His example of governing or leading people was rather one-sided, unless one counts the example of his father-in-law, about which we know almost nothing.  The nice thing about absolute rulership is that one never needs to learn conflict management or communication skills.  Everyone else is simply expected to fall in line behind your orders.  If they don't, bad things will happen to them.  We see the frustration that brings about time and time again in the story of Moses' leadership, not least in Numbers 16, which records two back-to-back challenges to Moses' authority over the Israelites with a combined death toll close to 15,000 people.

One could draw a few different messages from this.  Assuming that we accept the suggestion that God killed all those people because they challenged his chosen leader, we can interpolate a great many things about how believers should engage in the political spectrum.  It would appear that God is in favor of granting absolute political power to a single individual, and it would appear that challenging the person God places in charge is sinful to the point of being deadly.  We can assume that people who happen to be in the position of dictator were placed there because God wanted them to be, so revolution is an ungodly endeavor, even if the person in charge is doing a less than admirable job.

This actually fits with the biblical depiction of the "Pharaoh" character as well.  God never suggests that the Israelites should overthrow him, or effect regime change through an assassination attempt.  Pharaoh’s role as ruler of his little patch of Egypt was never contested or portrayed as unjust.  And it is with that example in mind that the governance of the Israelites emerges as an unassailable dictatorship.  As every gangster film ever made has taught us, it's difficult to hang on to that kind of power.  When the Bible tells us that 14,700 people died from a plague because they complained that Moses had just killed 250 people for complaining, God is the one who is clearly responsible for the deaths.  According to the story, Moses didn't really kill anyone.  But placing that sort of behavior on God has some other dangerous implications.

Why are some people so convinced that God is in favor of democracy?  He supposedly had the chance to tell Moses exactly how to do things, and he apparently didn't mention democracy once.  Even so, how can some Christians in the United States rail against the president and cry for impeachment when they know that God kills people for that sort of thing?  If a divine power appoints leaders that are not to be criticized, why are some believers so convinced that God wants them to be involved in politics at all?  And if God punishes people with death for complaining against the behavior of their leader, why do some Christians get so up in arms when a dictator abuses his power somewhere in the world?

There is something within us that recognizes that we are all connected as human beings.  We call it human rights, and we refer to human dignity and such, but whatever terminology we use, there is something within us that is offended by a politically powerful person hurting less politically powerful people.  We know that there is something wrong with genocide.  We know that there is something wrong with testing weapons on innocents.  We have started to become a bit jaded by this point, but a part of us knows that there is something wrong with using violence to solve our problems.  Even people who vehemently defend preemptive aggression know in some part of themselves that there's something wrong with that course of action.

We don't just intuitively know that there's something wrong with using violence to preserve or challenge power.  We also have piles of historical evidence to support that belief.  From the aforementioned gangster movies to gang violence in urban America to drug cartels south of the border to Middle Eastern warlords that have been at each other’s throats for millennia, violence begets violence.  This is not a new idea.  This is nothing original.  And yet, we are often quick to promote the easy and reactive solution to the world's problems.

It's interesting to note that the people who were challenging Moses' authority in Numbers 16 weren't out for blood.  They wanted to be given equal consideration, and they wanted leadership that would benefit the Israelites beyond just scraping up unidentifiable "dew flakes" from the desert generation after generation.  And when the first complainers got killed, the mob that rose up in their defense wasn't trying to knock Moses completely down off his pharonic pedestal.  They were just saying, "We don't approve of you causing those people's deaths."  I guess the example of divine violence in response to those complaints is what gives many believers today the impression that violence is a holy ideal.  It isn't.

People don't always want to do what they know is right, though.  Even when we recognize the endless and futile vendetta cycles that violence provokes, we still want to be violent.  Even when we realize that some complaints about our leadership have merit, we still want to defend ourselves rather than admit that we've made a mistake.  Sometimes we want permission to make decisions that go against the deepest truths that we know.  Sometimes we just want permission to be thoughtless – to make a choice and then not be held responsible for the consequences.  And so we perform little acts of divination.

For Moses and Aaron, it was a matter of whose incense would be lit or whose staff would blossom.  For us today, we may interpret divine approval from getting a particular piece of mail just after a significant phone conversation, turning on the radio just in time to hear something important, or running into someone at a neighborhood supermarket.  I know some Christians who literally believe that God will provide answers to their personal problems if they just let their Bible fall open randomly.  Hitting all green lights on your way across town does not mean that some supernatural overseer approves of your destination.  When the man in your television set looks out into your eyes and points, he's not literally speaking to you personally.  And if he is, it's a clever trick.

Whether someone is dealing out tarot cards, casting bones, reading tea leaves, or treating scripture like a fortune cookie, divinations work because of what we already know.  We already know what we believe is right in a given circumstance, and we already know what we actually want.  We use divinations of various kinds to give us permission not to think too hard about it when a conflict arises between what we believe and what we want in the moment.  When we actually take the time to consider what we believe and what we want, we stand a pretty good chance of learning something about ourselves.  We might reconsider our beliefs, or they might be refined a bit.  We might realize that what we want is superficial or petty compared to beliefs that are very important to us.  Either way, we grow a bit when we actually work out those conflicts instead of relying on some kind of divination to give us an easy answer.

These chapters of the book of Numbers reveal some prevalent tendencies we slip into very easily.  We want to save face.  When someone challenges us, our impulse is to defend ourselves.  And when we experience self-doubt or internal conflict, we often want easy third-party permission instead of in-depth self examination.  We know that these things don't ultimately serve us, but they are starting point behaviors from which we can grow.  Imagine a leader who could handle the criticism of 250 people without resorting to having the earth swallow them up.  Imagine a leader who could admit that he exercised poor judgment in a particular instance instead of letting thousands of people die to keep his position of power intact.  That would be an impressive leader.  And imagine what life would be like if more people took a moment or two to think about their actions instead of letting random meaningless symbols determine things on their behalf.  It wouldn't mean that people always made wise choices, but it would certainly encourage personal responsibility for those choices.

As with all change, it starts with you.
Keep growing.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Numbers 15: Crime and Punishment, Abundance Thinking, and Orchestrating Delayed Gratification

Tucked in the middle of the Israelites' narrative in the book of Numbers is a chapter with more about what sacrifices to offer in atonement for disobedience, followed by a couple of short anecdotes.  One of these anecdotes is about a man who was collecting wood on the Sabbath.  The Lord had just finished telling Moses that if someone sins unintentionally, they have to make a specific atonement sacrifice to be forgiven.  If someone sins intentionally, however, they are to be ostracized -- cut off from the community.  So, what happens to this man who is collecting wood on the Sabbath?  They kill him.

We aren't told of any opportunity this man is given to make any sort of atonement, and they don't just cut him off from the community.  They take him into custody because they aren't sure what should be done to him.  Although God just told Moses what to do with people who sin -- intentionally or unintentionally, native Israelite or foreigner.  So they ask God what to do with the man, and instead of repeating what he just finished telling Moses, God declared that the man should be stoned to death.  There are certainly other places in the biblical narrative where the death penalty is asserted as just punishment for nearly any law-breaking a person might commit, but this was not one of those passages.  The appearance of this story at this point is honestly a bit baffling.  It serves as another implication that there is something unpredictable and unreliable about the god the Israelites worship.

Somewhat interesting in Numbers 15, as with other passages that describe what offerings must be made, is that most of the sacrifices are food products.  The Israelites have been complaining about the lack of food, have died from disease when they ate the "gift" of quail that got blown in from the sea, and have been told that they'll have to keep wandering in a wasteland until a generation of people passes away.  And yet, all of this time, the sacrifices that they have been ordered to make for nearly everything have been things like the firstfruits of their flocks or herds or fields or orchards.  Why were they complaining about food if they had bulls and goats and doves and grain and olive oil to sacrifice?

Obviously, based on the amount of space the subject is given in the first books of the Bible, sacrificing things is an important symbolic contractual practice in Israelite culture.  It isn't at all odd that one would offer the best fruits of one's labor as a sacrifice to atone for disobeying God.  It's unthinkable, though, that the Israelites would sacrifice all of their food (which the priesthood would eat) while complaining that they had nothing to eat.  Never is the complaint voiced that they have no food because they sacrifice it all to God or because the Levites get all of it.  The only logical answer to this strangeness is that this cultural practice of the Israelites was written back into the tale of their wilderness wandering years, implying that sacrifices were a part of their spiritual identity ever since their god first gave them rules to follow.  For the orders about what should be sacrificed to make sense in the context of a food-deprived nomadic people, they wouldn't include mandates to sacrifice things to which the people had no access.

So, assuming that the prescriptions for offering various foods to God were contemporary with the Israelites having those foods to offer, there is something rather interesting imbedded in the practice.  Sacrifices have at this point been commanded for nearly anything imaginable.  Even if a good Israelite managed to go through life without breaking any actual laws, there are supplemental offerings that everyone is supposed to make.  It would be difficult to wallow in a scarcity mindset and maintain a practice of giving over a tenth of what one possesses.  When the Israelites were eating something unidentifiable from the ground in the desert, it was understandable for them to say, "we're not going to have enough."  And no amount of holy punishment could wipe away that fear.  But when you have something to give up, and you give away a fraction of it and still have enough, the fear of starvation -- or not having "enough" of something -- loses its teeth a bit.

Once we start accumulating things, it's natural to want to accumulate more things.  Or at least better things.  What we have isn't good enough for very long.  If we didn't have anything to begin with, it would be easy to slip into the mindset that we would always be struggling, that we would never have enough.  But there are a lot of people who have very little and seem to be able to appreciate what they do have without worrying about what they don't have.  If you have enough that you can give something away, you have enough.  The people who realize that, and actually practice giving a little bit away, are more likely to appreciate what they have than the people who always want more.

Our culture doesn't value sacrifice.  We are often loathe to give up things that we don't even really need, perhaps because of the irrational belief that we have to protect our possessions.  And we're not even talking about food and shelter and survival-level things here.  I'm talking about unused exercise equipment, clothes that will never fit us, books we'll never read again, that fourth television set we had to have.  The bottom line is that we are capable of examining our lives if we choose to do so.  You know whether or not your survival is realistically in jeopardy.  If you find that you normally consider yourself to have more than enough -- that you live an abundant life -- you probably also give things away on a regular basis.  Generosity and abundance thinking seem to feed into each other.

If, on the other hand, it seems like you are never satisfied with what you have, that you never believe that you have "enough", your scarcity thinking is most likely based on some irrational fear.  You can combat that by developing a practice of giving away a few things.  You don't have to sacrifice them to God the way the Israelites did, but you can if that works for you (adhering to local fire restrictions, of course).  You can also just give things away to other people.  People you know or people you don't know.  You'll quickly find that if you are honest about what you need and what you won't ever really use, your generosity will reveal that you have plenty.  More than enough.  Without imposing any household austerity measures.  You probably live in enough abundance that you wouldn't miss giving up 10% of what you possess.

Sometimes, our scarcity thinking comes from short-sighted greed that gets in the way of us acknowledging the things that matter most to us.  So many things we just want to accumulate have little real value to us in the long run.  The Israelites had a clever way of reminding themselves not to focus on fleeting, short-term satisfaction that distracted them from long-term goals as a culture.  They put symbolic tassels on their clothing to remind themselves what their culture stood for as a people.  Like permanent strings tied around their fingers.  It wouldn't be a stretch for us to create some of our own reminders about what matters most in our lives.  What would remind you that you have plenty?  What would remind you to keep things in perspective?  To make decisions that reflect what's actually important to you?  If it's tassels on your clothes, start stitching.  If it's little notes to yourself scattered around your home, start writing.  There are some things that are more important to you than just accumulating more stuff.  When you know what those things are, there is no reason not to orchestrate your life around those values.