What Do You Want More Than All Else in the World?

“This is a moral universe and we must pay for what we want.”

Take a moment to reflect on the question that Rabbi Olan poses in his title and come up with your own answer. Then see how it is affected by reading his sermon.

In his sermon of March 14, 1965, Rabbi Olan starts from a Hebrew anecdote: a sage sends his students out to find the highest good. The answer that the sage endorses is “a good heart”. Rabbi Olan goes on to analyze our personal desires and shows that they arise out of our situations: the sick want health, the lonely want a friend, the poor want wealth. Noting that many of our natural desires are stoked by a consumer society, he says, “It is normal to want something. It is mad to become a slave to our desires.”

Rabbi Olan then introduces cost: what we desire comes at a price. For example, a musician who wants to “play like Heifetz” must practice hour after hour every day, devoting his life to his music. We “must pay for every choice, the only question to be answered is, shall it be now or later?”

For the prophets, choices carry a price because we live in a “moral universe” in which each act has its consequences. The first example Rabbi Olan chooses is “racial peace”, as urgent today as it was in 1965. Did those who profited from African slavery “really expect that in a moral universe there would be no price to pay”?

Finally, Rabbi Olan gives his own answer to the question he posed: what all people want most is world peace. But it too comes with a price, a price we have not yet been willing to pay. “We want peace but not at the price of submitting to international law…. We would rather spend our money on armament than on food for the hungry.” Scripture has the last word: “I place before thee life and death, good and evil, choose life” (based on Deuteronomy 30:15-20). “Pay for it now, and reap its goodness tomorrow.”

Follow this link to read the sermon text.
Follow this link to listen to the audio recording.
Follow this link to watch the scrolling-text video.

*Written by Frances M. Olan & Lionel S. Joseph.*