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What is The Jewish attitude towards wealth?

Friday, 13 March, 2015 - 11:23 am

A young lawyer, starting up his private practice, was very anxious to impress potential clients. As his first visitor entered the office, he spoke into his phone:

"I'm sorry, but my caseload is tremendous. I am unable to look into your problem for at least a month. I'll have to get back to you then." He turned to the man who had just walked in, and said, "Now, what can I do for you? Quickly, for I have endless telephone calls from clients."

"Nothing for me," replied the man. "I'm just here to hook up your phone."

The last five portions of the book of Exodus, culminating this week with Vayakhel-Pekudei, are saturated with great wealth: Moses instructs the people, in G-d's name, to construct a most marvelous Sanctuary, made of the most stunning metals, gold and silver, and most expensive fabrics. The beams, drapings, furniture, vessels, and even the pegs and sockets, were carefully designed to produce astonishing beauty. The garments of the priests were masterfully designed to generate “honor and glory.”

But what purpose did all of this stunning richness serve? “To walk humbly and discreetly with your G-d,” seems to be the Jewish ideal. Who exactly needed the glitter and glitz? Is G-d really impressed by such a display of wealth?

The Talmud famously states: Take heed of the children of poor people for from them will emerge Torah. Rabbi Meir Shapiro once explained that when children from poor families see the sacrifices their parents make to send them to Yeshiva, they approach learning differently.

However, when it came to building the house of G-d, abundant wealth seemed the way to go. Why?

We, as a society, still instinctively associate holiness with poverty and wealth with some form of “sin.” Even today, when many of us are financially stable and some of us extremely wealthy, we still harbor that conscious or unconscious emotion that wealth is a subtle form of evil and we must cover it up, to some degree. We have a love-shame relationship with money. It is easier for people to tell their therapists their darkest secrets in matters of relationships, than to share with their therapists how much money they have in all of their bank accounts.

This has created somewhat of an unhealthy situation: Everyone needs money. Most people pursue money. Wealthy people are often “worshipped” because of their money, yet we are told to repress these feelings, since the good and high-standing person disregards money.

The Jewish attitude towards wealth is actually quite positive. Wealth, peace, or long life  are rewards from G-d for obeying His laws. The Talmud explains that Abraham was extremely wealthy and used his riches to help others. The Mishnah in Ethics reads: “Anyone who fulfills the Torah in poverty will ultimately fulfill it in wealth.” Fulfilling the Torah in wealth is a great reward. It is clear that Judaism sees nothing wrong with wealth as long as it is obtained honestly and used to help the poor.

We all feel that challenging times induce a reevaluation of priorities; they allow us to discover who we really are and what we are ready to fight for. Predicaments draw out the best in man, like a scarlet strap on a white horse.

But the objective is not poverty. We have endured every possible test, including extreme poverty, during our history and have passed each with flying colors! We have remained loyal to our faith, heritage and history. Judaism does not want broken, deprived people, struggling for eternity. The ultimate objective is prosperity and wealth. As the Jews were about to construct the first Divine home in history, G-d said: I want you to serve Me in richness, in prosperity, with the greatest affluence and the most beautiful items. This does not take away from your humility.

The Rebbe said, G-d wants you to be successful, powerful, and rich. G-d wants you to maximize all of your potentials, resources, and talents. A Jew should try to do what he or she can to become wealthy!

Some years ago, Danny, a rich Israeli businessman, was a multi-millionaire on top of the world. He toured the globe, enjoying the best of everything money could buy. He was a self-made man who loved his creator (i.e. himself). Not long ago, he made some big investment mistakes, and lost every hard-earned penny. He liquidated all his assets and sold his house to pay his debts, but he still owed 17,000 shekels to the Israeli Revenue Service.

Danny asked an old friend for a loan and went to pick it up from his friend's office. The office was on the 49th floor of the Azrieli center in Tel Aviv. He received the 17,000 shekels and walked out. With nothing better to do, he decided to look around, and soon came upon a staircase leading to a large metal door. Walking through, Danny found himself on the roof!

Ah, it was beautiful! From up here he could see far into the distance: The Judean hills in one direction, the wide, vast Mediterranean sea in the other. He stood there and enjoyed the view until he heard a loud thud behind him. A quick glance revealed that the wind had slammed the door shut. He decided it was time to go back inside.

Trying the door, Danny found it locked. He peered from different angles to figure out the latch, but could not. He pounded and kicked the door, but no one heard.

The wind was getting stronger and colder now, and Danny was getting worried. He looked around for an object to hit the door with, to attract attention, but to no avail. There was still a good hour before the end of the work day, so he pounded, kicked and yelled. No one came.

When he took out his Blackberry he discovered that the battery was dead. Totally dead! Of all times for this to happen!

Danny didn't lose his composure. He had to work fast. He went to the edge of the building, peered over the small protective fence, and began waving and yelling to the people far below, but soon realized it was futile. There was no way that anyone would notice him so high up. He knew he had to remain calm; it was his only chance. Soon it would be dark, and there was no protection from the wind, which was getting colder by the minute.

Suddenly he had an idea. The money! He had 17,000 shekels in his pocket. If he threw a 200-shekel note down, people would look up to see where it was coming from…and see him!

He pulled out a stack of bills, removed one, and threw it down. He watched as it floated in the wind and finally, after several minutes, landed on the other side of the street. Someone picked it up and continued walking.

The next time he took out five bills, 1,000 altogether, and let them drop…but the same thing happened. No one noticed them until they hit the ground, then they picked them up, looked around for more and kept going.

Danny knew what he had to do. It was his only chance! He took all the money from his pocket, tore the band that held it neatly in a pack, and with a yell, threw it below as hard as he could. He stared as it scattered far below him. He removed his shirt and began waving it frantically for someone to notice. But he couldn't believe his eyes: Not only did no one look up or hear his cries for help; they were all arguing down there about who saw which bill first!

He looked around the roof, looked up. The sun was setting, it was still light enough to see, but he saw nothing…only the sky.

His eyes filled with tears. Suddenly he felt small, like he needed help. He was sure that G-d would help him. The sky said so. A second ago he wouldn't have believed in a G-d, but now it was obvious that he wasn't alone. He yelled out, "Hashem! Hashem! (G-d)…help! Help me!"

Suddenly his eye caught on a little sack of pebbles. Why hadn't he see it before?! He dragged it to the fence, took a handful, said a prayer, threw the pebbles over the side as he once again waved his arms.

This time, his plan worked! People began cursing, looking up, pointing and screaming at him. They likely all called the police because in just moments the door burst open, and police with drawn guns stormed through, handcuffed him, and took him to the station. He was saved!

It took some serious explaining. He was lucky that no one was really hurt from his pebbles and, of course, he had lost the 17,000 shekel and still owed the taxes. But after a few days they accepted his story and let him out.

That day he discovered a real lesson: the people on the street were just like him. All the time money was raining down, they never looked up…they looked only down, for more money. But as soon as they felt the stinging pain from the pebbles, they looked up to see where they were coming from.

How true this is in life. When we have everything we need, we sometimes take it for granted and never look up. We can become insensitive to the plights of others; we feel we don’t need anybody. We are on top of the world. Only when we feel the “pebbles” falling on us do we look up, beyond ourselves, and see that there is something that transcends our egos. There is a higher source to whom we are responsible.

So yes, amass the gold. But remember to look up—to appreciate its purpose: to build in your world a home for the Divine.

This Shabbat we will conclude the second book of Shemot. At the end we will recite together, "Chazak Chazak Venitchazek," "Strength,  strength, and triple strength." May Hashem strengthen each one in every possibility that comes our way.


Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Yoseph Geisinsky


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