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      Perspectives of Wealth

I was coaching a young client who went to work. He was under a lot of stress. He wanted to be successful while studying in college. This, in itself, is not a problem. However, this boy believed that in order to be successful, one has to make it big. And “making it big” meant having a big bank account. If he could not make this money now, then he did not see real, tangible success in the mirror. All this, despite the fact that he was making eight hundred dollars a week as a college student, juggling various part time jobs.

Trying to do my best as a coach, I asked him to name a sum: how much would he consider sufficient to be termed successful? He said he did not know. I told him we could not continue until he came up with a number. The reply was “Rabbi, the sky is the limit!” I responded, “ Your stress and grief also will have no limits!”

This boy is not crazy. He is very normal. He is one of the many who become workaholics, for the simple reason that they devote no thought to the minimum they need in order to get by each month.  Estimating a realistic sum and trying to reach it through jobs one can do eliminates stress.  Knowing the basic sum needed for personal and family needs, replaces the stress a person has from undefined goals with positive energy.

Stress comes when one is looking forward to an unclear desire to ” make it big.”

There is a whole world of people who like to believe that this question of how much they need is insignificant. Their reason for going to work is not to support their needs. It is to see “how much I am worth.”  This is, in essence, ridiculous. You are not worth how much you make.

Unhappy Rich

This reminds me of the question that I heard being asked amongst my friends in high school who wished they would be working instead of studying in Yeshiva. The Mishna in Avot (ch. 4) asks, Who is rich? One who is happy with his lot.. My friend commented – but I do not want to be happy. I want to be rich!

Everyone laughed. I gave it some thought.

The underlying question that was asked is how did the answer complement the question? The question was “who is rich?” If someone were to approach us off the street and ask what person is considered rich, our minds would search our memory for the richest people we know or knew. We would not say, “the person with an average salary, who is happy with his lot.”  So, what is this Mishna teaching us?

The Bartenurah actually explains that the Mishna is not asking who is rich. The Mishna is asking which rich man is praiseworthy. And the Mishna writes, not one who has a lot of money; rather, one who is happy with what he has. Rashi on the Mishna writes even more sharply. There is no difference between a rich man who is troubled, looking for more and the poor man, who really does not have anything, and is also looking for more.

Wealth is a perspective.  There is no way to measure it. 

The Man That Could Not Be Found

Yitro suggested to his son-in–law, Moshe Rabbeinu, that he find men of caliber to aid him in judging the nation.And you should look with your Ruach Hakodesh amongst all the nation for men of valor, G-d fearing and men of truth, people who hate gain (money of others and their own money; see M. Tanchuma and Mechilta ) and place them responsible … Moshe, however, was only able to find men of valor, knowledgeable and well known people(see Devarim 1;15) . Rashi defines men of valor as people who are rich and do not care about flattering others or trying to find favor in their eyes. The Talmud states in Sanhedrin that there are seven qualities we look for in the candidate for a judge: four mentioned by Yitro, and the three mentioned in Devarim. The more of these traits one has, the more he is worthy to be a judge. Moshe, however, could find only four.

The question is obvious. How could it be that amongst such great people of the generation who received the Torah there was no one who hated money? Even today, we know of great people who sacrificed a great deal of money for good causes, or in order to lead a proper way of life. One of the traits that the Rambam lists as requiring repentance is that of running after money. This makes it sound as if there are people who can and have perfected themselves and transcended this desire for riches. How, then, did Moshe not find such a person in the generation who had their sustenance taken care of for them (Manna) and were laden with the spoils of Egypt?

The answer here is a lesson for life, and a lesson we all should think about. Some things in human behavior or in the principles governing it do and must exist. You cannot break them. If you break them, then they break you! One of these basic, immutable principals is the great value human beings place on money, and the deep inner recognition of its importance. The chovot Halevovot writes in Shaar Habechina  one of the ways to recognize the Supreme wisdom of G-d and His Kindness is to note that all the humans of the world agree to give value to gold and silver, to use it for trade and to try to gather as much of it as they can. This is the Mercy of G-d. Even though gold and silver in and of themselves do not bring any gain to a person, and they will not fill his needs – neither nutrition nor medicinal.  Why then do people value these two natural elements? This is out of G-d’s kindness, in order that trade and commerce be able to flourish among humanity.

Valuing money is an inborn human trait, beginning with life itself. Even if we see someone known to be sane throwing his money out the window, this does not necessarily mean that he does not value money. If he did not value money, that would make him termed insane. Rather, his actions are motivated by his wanting attention from others, or feeling that by showing his total lack of concern for money, people will regard him with respect. But everyone values money. And this is why Moshe did not find anyone who did not value money. No one hates money. People may value religion, as expressed in keeping Shabbat, more than money. Or, they can love their family life and family time more than they do their money. They can even love honor more than money. But, when all is said and done, everyone values money.

When the Rambam says that one must do teshuva for the bad trait of running after money, this means valuing money more than the values of life: spirituality, stress- free life, family life, self dignity. If a person is not careful to keep his love of money in proportion, this love becomes addictive. Workaholics want to get to an infinite amount of money. There is no end. A certain recipe for frustration is to set for ones self an unreachable goal.

If we take a second for reflection, we will notice that in our prayers we rarely ask for עושר , wealth, in an obligatory prayer.We pray only for ,פרנסה  livelihood. There are some voluntary prayers that one may add in his prayers that have in them the request for ,עושר wealth. The reason for this may be because everyone needs to make a living. Wealth, on the other hand, can be a blessing – but can also be a test , a test that most people are unable to pass.(Although we ask for עושר  in the Blessing of the month – this  is not a request on a personal level, but rather, on a community level.) One of the greatest philanthropists of the past twenty years, who was one of the greatest donors of his generation, lost a big part of his wealth. This person told a relative of mine that the reason he lost his vast wealth was because he could not give a tenth of his profits to charity – it was too much money to give away. He failed the test. It is an amazingly noble thing for this man to have been able to admit his failing.

The people in the generation of Moshe Rabbeinu received their food gratis; furthermore, they possessed great wealth.  Despite their having all of their needs met, not one man among them fulfilled the requirement of “hating the money of others”.  How can this be explained?  Love of money in human beings is a “given”.  Not desiring to have that money which belongs to others is due to the fact that people have satisfaction from earning money; they do not want to steal, as this is considered forbidden or unethical.  Only by realizing that at the most basic level, people do want money, can we understand that, even in the Generation of the Desert, this human character component was also present.

Money is a double-edged sword: it can bring a person to worldly pleasures, or it can lead him to achieving lofty gains. Either way, money has an additional side benefit: it offers the power of choice. Part of the psyche of man is to love choice. The Talmud states that a poor man is considered dead. This is because he cannot choose. One of the ingrained characteristics of all Man is to love choice – which means to love money.

The only person who is rich is someone who is happy – in order to be happy, one has to have things in life that he considers more precious than money – but money is always a value that  cannot be removed or erased.  It can be overlooked or ignored, or recognized as a gift from Hashem, to be used for increasing good in the world.





Shabbat Shalom, Yosef Farhi

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