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A Jewish Perspective on Wealth and Poverty Part 1

On November 9, 1922, Albert Einstein was awarded the Nobel prize for his groundbreaking work in physics. The only problem was that he wasn’t in Stockholm to receive his prize. Einstein had committed to giving some lectures in Japan and he was too much of a mench to cancel them.

While in Japan, he stayed at Tokyo’s Imperial Hotel, and on the very first day there he received a large package delivered to him by one of the bellhops. Now Einstein didn’t have any Japanese money on him to tip the young man, and so he grabbed a piece of stationary from his bedside, wrote something on it, and gave it to the bellhop telling him to hold on to it because one day it may be worth something.

Well about a year ago, in an auction in Jerusalem, that scrap of paper sold for 1.56 million dollars to an anonymous buyer. The message on the paper was the following:

“A calm and modest life brings more happiness than the pursuit of success combined with constant restlessness.”

It’s somewhat ironic that the purchaser who just dropped one and a half million dollars probably didn’t live a calm and modest life. But that’s not why I mention this today. I found this news item tucked into an article by a respected rabbi who was trying to lay out Judaism’s perspective on wealth. This rabbi suggested that Einstein’s recommendation to avoid the pursuit of success is a Jewish value. I think that’s incorrect.

But I also understand that there is a lot of confusion when it comes to describe Judaism’s view of wealth. And so what I’d like to do today and tomorrow is share some thoughts on how the Torah and our tradition views wealth and poverty.

Let’s begin by looking at the view of our neighbors for much of history. The Christian view on wealth and poverty, for most of their history, was quite clear. Prior to the Protestant movement, all Christians saw wealth as an obstacle to G-d. So for example you have Paul quoting Jesus as saying the following: “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” Martin Luther argued that the greatest idol of his time was Mammon, the desire of money. Wealth was an idol and poverty, a virtue.

If you were to read the stories of European Jews, at least in the last few hundred years, you’d be led to believe that Judaism agreed with this view that poverty was a virtue. Virtually every Jewish tale from this era has the protagonist as a poor man or woman. But I would conjecture that the romanticizing of poverty was influenced by their Christian neighbors, and a reflection of reality; for the most part, Jews were really poor for the last few hundred years.

But beyond folktales, if you were to look at Jewish sources, you’d see a very different picture. There are certainly some sources that encourage an ascetic lifestyle; a Mishna in Avos that promotes eating bread and salt alone, and other such statements. However, as Dr. Heshy Friedman, professor of Business and Marketing, and author of a study on this topic, has pointed out, there are far more statements to the opposite effect; Maimonides codifying the view that asceticism is evil, another Mishna in Avos proclaiming that wealth is good for the righteous and good for the world, the Talmudic passages that give tips on amassing great wealth, and perhaps most significantly, the one reward that the Torah constantly offers is – wealth! If you do the Mitzvos, G-d says, again and again in the Torah, I will make you prosperous!

And this would seem to be normative Jewish thinking. Not only is wealth not evil, as the early Christians argued, not only is wealth not only neutral as some of the Jewish moralists argued (most notably, the Ramchal in Mesilas Yesharim), but wealth would seem to be a value; a blessing from G-d, and something to strive for.

This holiday, Sukkos, is really a celebration of wealth. Chag Ha’asif, the Festival of Ingathering, is the Biblical name for Sukkos. The Jews were farmers, and this was the time of year that they would gather their crops and celebrate their good fortune. Of course, they would use the time to thank G-d for their success, but the fact is that a holiday was created to celebrate material success and good fortune.

The question is why. Why is it that wealth is seen as a value, as a blessing?

The simplest and most pragmatic explanation is provided by Maimonides who suggests that an impoverished individual can’t serve G-d properly because he or she is constantly distracted by their many needs. Alternatively, the Talmud indicates that a wealthy person has the opportunity to perform great Mitzvos, most specifically Tzedakah. But there are also two additional values that I’d like discuss today that are born out of a pursuit of wealth.

The first is independence. There is nothing that makes me sadder than the constant stream of meshulachim, the many Israeli Orthodox Jews collecting money for themselves. They are part of a culture that until recently severely limited their opportunities for meaningful employment and so many of them are completely dependent on government handouts and the support of their fellow Jews in America. Dependency is ingrained in their psyche. That’s how they live. And that’s terribly tragic.

But the truth is, we don’t need to look so far to see victims of a mindset of dependency. This coming Shabbos marks the ten-year anniversary of the great market crash of 2008. The financial crisis was caused by numerous factors but one especially insidious one was mortgages being given to people who couldn’t really afford them. Now we typically blame the banks for allowing these loans to go through, but the consumer is just as guilty. The attitude – which is still extremely prevalent – to take on insane amounts of debt, to fall for those buy now/ pay later schemes, to use credit cards not as a substitute for cash, but as a way of going even deeper into debt –  that’s the consumer’s fault, not just the sellers.

King Solomon described the relationship between the borrower and the lender as eved loveh l’ish malveh, the borrower is a slave to the lender. Rav Yitzchak Hutner and others understand this to be more than a practical description of the interactions between borrower and lender. They understand Shlomo HaMelech to be describing a state of being; a borrower is a slave in that his or her dignity is infringed upon. One who is not dependent on others is free, in that their dignity is unhampered, he or she is capable of expressing the true greatness of what it means to be human.

Independence is the reason the mystics give for G-d having created this world. If He created us to give to us, as they argue, then why not just place us straight into the World to Come? Why bother with this terrible, war and illness filled world?

Rav Moshe Chaim Luzzato suggests that G-d put us in this world filled with evil so we could choose between good and bad allowing for our decisions to earn the goodness we receive in the World to Come. G-d wants us to be independent.

What’s true for spirituality is true for material wealth as well. Unfortunately, so many lessons of the financial crisis have not been learned. It’s highly impractical for most people to get by without taking any loans; most people cannot buy a house outright. But the American way still is to take whatever loans you can get your hands on. Whereas Judaism promotes an ethic of independence; take as few loans as you can afford. The amassment of wealth is valuable insofar as it promotes independence. But there’s more to it.

Getting back to Einstein’s recipe for a good life – don’t pursue success so aggressively. Live a calm life. I’d like to share a counter-perspective on this that I once heard said in the name of Rav Yakov Weinberg of blessed memory, a past Rosh Yeshiva of Ner Israel. To better appreciate it, I want to tell you about thin-slicing.

Malcolm Gladwell, in his New York Times bestseller book, Blink, makes the argument that we can use limited information from a very narrow period of experience to come to a conclusion. For example, Dr. John Gottman, the preeminent researcher and marriage therapist, can look at videos of a couple talking for 15 minutes, and predict with a 90% accuracy whether or not this couple will still be married after 15 years.

Another example, researchers would bring people into student’s dorm rooms for three minutes, after which they were asked to write a psychological sketch of the people living there. Which they did, with unbelievable accuracy.

What both these examples demonstrate is the idea of thin-slicing; how our conversations with our spouses are really a reflection of our relationship with our spouse – it’s just a thin slice of the pie. The way our room looks is a thin slice of who we are. If I receive a slice of pecan pie, I can be pretty confident that the rest of that pie is pecan.

Rav Yakov Weinberg suggested a rather a similar idea based on this notion that every part of life is connected to the next. We think we can compartmentalize; we think that we can be one person at home, one person at work, one person at shul and they have no relationship to one another. It’s not true. Every part of our life is a slice of the whole.

And so, Rabbi Weinberg argues that if we are lazy in one area of life, it will, by definition, impact the rest of our life. Ambition in our career is crucial, he suggests, not for the career itself, but because ambition cannot be shut off and turned on at will. Our character is part of who we are. And so if I work on becoming a phenomenal plumber, accountant, doctor, artist, rabbi, then ambition becomes a part of me. And that allows me to become a phenomenal parent, a phenomenal spouse, a phenomenal friend. If I am constantly looking to grow in my field and amass greater knowledge and skills, then hopefully, eventually, I won’t be content not growing in my religiosity; in my pursuit of more Torah knowledge, in my desire to be more proficient in my Mitzvah observance.

The calm life that Einstein recommended is a recipe for mediocrity. The Torah believes in greatness. To be great you need to be ambitious. Ambitious at work and ambitious at home. Ambitious in school and ambitious in shul. Ambition is a character trait that permeates our entire being. Like independence, ambition, is a value that is not limited to one realm of our life. It’s a trait that we value in every facet of the pie.

Tomorrow, we’ll discuss ostentatiousness and greed, some of the negative features of wealth. But today, on the first of Chag Ha’asif, let’s celebrate the positive side of wealth; the pursuit of independence from other human beings, of owning our belongings, and as the mystics suggest, even owning our spiritual belongings by amassing more and more Mitzvot. And let’s celebrate ambition and not be content with mediocrity. Let’s be ambitious at work and strive for excellence at home. Let’s be determined in our material career and allow that great trait of ambition to translate into spiritual excellence as well.

 

POSTSCRIPT: This talk seemed to generate a good amount of discussion. Here are some additional notes based on those discussions.

  • Steve Jobs, a model of ambition had a very specific ambition, making an impact on the world. In pursuing that dream, he trampled on his family. The ambition being described here is an all-pervasive trait; the pursuit of excellence.
  • Greed is the pursuit of money for one’s desire of money. Ambition, for the desire of becoming a greater person.
  • Of course, time does not allow us to be perfect in every sphere of life. Prioritization is necessary. Sometimes our work life is sacrificed for family. Sometime family for faith. Etc. However, an ambitious person wants everything to be as great as can be. A lazy person doesn’t really care.

 

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