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Fundamental Life Lessons, from Barter to Bitcoin

Fundamental Life Lessons, from Barter to Bitcoin

There is a funny thing about the world, and its name is money. It captures our attention for most of our lives; we need it for almost all of our most basic necessities; we invest incalculable amounts of time in its acquisition, and yet… in reality, it doesn’t have any value at all! That’s the amazing thing about money, it’s all smoke-and-mirrors. It’s only real value is the one that we give it, and we are a very fickle master. Let me illustrate what I mean.

When Economy Works

In a world with a functional economy, in which people have more money than they have expenses, people tend to invest in beautiful stuff: diamonds, art, remodeling houses (by the season…) and more. It gives us the ability to take pleasure in something that we appreciate, beauty. However, in reality, we don’t have a physical need for this. There’s something to beauty that we appreciate with our soul.

When Economy Fails

During WW2, in the Warsaw ghetto, there was a scarcity of food. If a person was a millionaire, they held millions of Zlotys, or even millions of US dollars, yet there wasn’t all that much that they could do with that in order to survive, except maybe to burn them to stay warm, or to pay a whole lot of them for even a tiny amount of food. (This concept isn’t new. We find it also in megillat Eichah as well, but that’s the most-recent example). If you had diamonds, then you could trade them for something to eat, so that you wouldn’t starve.
See, that’s the thing about money, you can’t eat it. But it’s not only that.
Before there was paper money, for most of the history, the value we gave to money was in the precious metal that they were made of. Gold was worth more than silver, silver more than bronze, and bronze more than iron. You could have a treasure trove of gold, silver and precious stones, but if you had no firewood, you could easily freeze to death. It is for this reason (and more) that the Gemara in Tractate Gittin 54a says that during the destruction of the second Temple (the third should be rebuilt speedily, in our times!) that out of the three major storehouses in Jerusalem, the most important of them was the one with the firewood.
But it doesn’t stop there.

Money Is Just Another Form of Barter

Before money, the most basic form of trade was barter: I have something that you want, and you have something that I want, and based on the supply and the demand; we establish a value to what I have, in contrast to what you do, and in this way, we figure out who or what has more value. However, at the very least, up until today, all of that which was traded was either a skill or a thing. You were clearly giving something and getting something back in return. In the modern world, we have taken it a step further.

Barter In An Ephemeral WorldPictured here as an actual coin, yet ... they're nothing but blips on a computer somewhere

With the advent of the Internet, and the ability so synthesize virtual worlds and realities, we expanded our concepts of “property” to include the ephemeral. We gave value, and created a demand for things that have no reality other than the value that we accord to a few blips on a computer chip. Amazingly enough, this sense of property and value took off, until we find something like Bitcoin, which, despite its ups and downs, has been accorded tremendous value, in many ways beyond anything that we have seen in human history until today.

The Profound Lesson Here

This has taught me a profound lesson about life, and about property. It’s not just about supply and demand. It’s really all about value. Yet, the most important thing about stuff in life is its value is entirely based on what you ascribe to it, and there’s the rub. We desire the things which we value the most in life, and we abstain from the things that are either of no real consequence, or that their price is too high for us to be willing to pay it. Our values, and the things to which we ascribe value, are based entirely on our perception of things. Objectively, when it comes to the things to which I ascribe value, there exist only two possibiliies. Either they are things, which HAVE intrinsic value, or they have NONE, yet I ascribe them value nonetheless. That is our entire life.

Why We Value Things That Have No Value

I’ve given this issue a lot of thought, especially in light of all the hours that I spent as a kid playing video games. I played for so many hours, and the games weren’t even very good, and yet, I continued to play them, at my own expense… why? What was it about these games that I enjoyed so much that kept me coming back for more?
After much thought, I realized it was because of the score. I enjoyed the feeling I got from being good at the game, and the score that I was making. I would rush after the things that added to my score, and I would avoid, as best I could, those things that took away from it. Yet, what was so good about the score? Social status aside, I got no real benefit from them. The points that I acquired couldn’t be used for anything; being first gave me no added rights other than the hope no one would outstrip me and take my place. So, why DID I like it so much?
Then I realized, that the more points I made, the more I felt accomplished. I achieved something to which I ascribed value, and that kept me going back.

Video-game Psychology, Does It Apply To Life?

Years later, after I became frum, while I was thinking back on this, the thought came to me, “Wouldn’t it be great if whenever we did a mitzvah a speaker plays an upbeat noise, and a huge “+20,000 points” would appear above our heads? An aveirah? “-10,000 points” or something like that! It would be awesome, right? Utilizing the very same psychology of video games, we would be spurred on to do more Torah and mitzvos, and to avoid more aveiros? So, if its such a good idea, why didn’t HaShem do that?
The reason is, because it isn’t really necessary.
Do I do mitzvos? It’s because I have allotted them a certain value. The more value I give them, the more motivated I am to do them. Do I abstain from aveiros? It’s because I have given them, a value that is negative, and I am not willing to pay the price. The same holds true for everything. If I’m an avid sports fan, that’s because I have given that value. If I collect cars, stamps, or any other thing, I pursue that because I have ascribed to it value. To the right people, a signed baseball card is worth thousands of dollars or more, to me… nothing. The reason for this is because it will only have value to people who ascribe value to it, and to them the fact that their value holds only in this world is irrelevant. By coming into possession of something that I value, I now feel that I have more value as well, and that’s what it’s all about! I feel that I have more value when I am in possession of something to which I ascribe value.

The above scenario is already playing in our heads; we really don’t need the audio-visual help of video games in order for that to work, and most of our life runs on automatic based on what I have either been taught to value, or to which I have taught myself to value it. The more I possess things that I value, the more value I feel that I have. The more I possess things that have anti-value, the less value, I feel that I have.

The Problem of Subjective Value

So, Rabbi, what’s the problem then? If I am constantly looking forward to come into possession of things that I value and to avoid things that have anti-value, which results in my feeling that I have more value, why should that be a problem? The answer, my friends, is that there is another dimension to life, and that is the soul. The soul knows what it needs from this world, and it needs only one thing out of this world: things that have real, absolute, eternal value. If you are not in possession of that, then know that as far as your soul is concerned you possess NOTHING.
WH”h, (with HaShem’s help) this is a topic that I have elaborated on in Core Emunah book 3, Me & My G-d, which, wH”h, I hope to finish writing and editing soon.
Suffice it to say that there is one thing that our soul needs, and that is the acquisition of true, objective goodness. Nothing else will do to satisfy the soul. As that is the case, and the only things in this world that are acts of true, objective goodness are Torah and mitzvos, then there is one thing that we need to make sure of in life. We have to make sure that they are truly what we value.

How To Make Sure That I Am Focused on Things of Real Value

To do this, what we need is to reprogram ourselves with the understanding that there is nothing in life that is more worthwhile than the acquisition of mitzvos and abstaining from aveiros. The question that we have is only how to do this? The answer is, find the way to make it real to you.
If you have doubts as to the truth of Torah – I invite you to read my book, Core Emunah 2, G-d & Me, Are You Ready to Meet Your Maker, available in print and ebook formats. If you want a clear, logical explanation as to the indisputable fact that the world is a creation, and that there is a Creator, I invite you to read Core Emunah 1, Hello? G-d? which has received 5 star reviews and recently won an award in the 2020 book contest (see here).

When Bitcoin first came out, everyone was skeptical. Who would give real money for something that’s just blips on a server somewhere? But as time went by… it became real to so many people that it now has incredible value. Yet in reality, it remains just blips on a computer server. If the Internet ever implodes – all Bitcoin would cease to have any value at all. Torah and mitzvos is different. They’re real.
This reminds me of a story, told over in Tractate Bava Basra (11a) that says that:
Munbaz, the King, opened up and emptied out some of the treasuries of his forefathers during a time of famine in the land of Israel. When he was confronted by his advisors about this, claiming “How can you give away the treasury of your forefathers? They spent their lives gathering that money, and you give it away?” Munbaz responded “My forefathers saved this in the lower world (this one) and I have deposited it in the upper world (the next world). My forefathers stored it in a place where others can take possession of it, whereas I have stored it in a place where no other can touch it. My forefathers collected it in a place where it cannot make any further dividends, whereas I have collected it and it continues to incur new dividends. My forefathers made treasuries of money, whereas I have created treasurehouses of souls. My forefathers treasured things that only have value in this world, whereas I have made treasuries that have value in this world and in the world to come!”
Torah and mitzvos have incredible value, some more than others. The only difference between Torah and mitvos as opposed to things that have subjective value is that they are not something that we can spend today. Their value is like a bond; it comes into play only after a certain amount of time has passed. They are legal tender only in the next world, but you can only acquire them while we are in this one. But that’s only if you spend your time right. That’s only if you gave them the value that they deserve during your time in this world. Spend your time right. Give value to things that have a real, eternal value, and watch what effect that has on your life in this one… and the next.

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