by Levi Atvson
I’ve learned that Abraham was wealthy, Isaac was wealthy, Jacob was wealthy, Joseph was wealthy, Moses was wealthy . . . but it doesn’t feel right. Isn’t wealth the negative consequence of greed and unbridled ambition? Is wealth a virtue or a vice?
In the portion of Toldot, we read of Isaac’s incredible financial success. “And Isaac sowed in that land, and he found in that year a hundredfold, and the L‑rd blessed him. And the man became great, and he grew constantly greater until he had grown very great.”1 Rashi on the verse quotes the Midrash: People at that time used to say, “Better the manure of Isaac’s mules than the gold and silver of [King] Abimelech!” In other words, Isaac was so wealthy that even his lowliest possessions seemed superior to the king’s riches.
The Talmud seems to offer opposing views on wealth. On the one hand, “G‑d went to search for good attributes and found nothing greater than poverty!”2 On the other hand, “Rebbi [Yehuda] used to honor wealthy people!”3 Or how about this one: “Rabbi Yochanan said that the Divine Presence rests only on one who is wise, mighty, wealthy and humble.”4
Is your head spinning yet?
Let’s leave wealth for a second and ask the same question in a different context:
Is talent a virtue or a vice?Is talent a virtue or a vice?
Are leadership qualities a virtue or a vice?
Is sexuality a virtue or a vice?
The answer to all these questions is the same: It depends what you make of it.
Wealth, like any means, is a potential. Potential is neither good nor bad; it’s neutral and colorless. The user gives it meaning and color. We take potential out of neutral and decide whether it will drive us forward or set us back into reverse.
An artist can use her G‑d-given ability to inspire by creating art that glorifies virtue, or debase by glorifying vice. A singer can sing lyrics of sincerity and mindfulness, or he can rant about false love and pathetic aspirations. The choice of what to do with potential is ours and ours alone.
The patriarchs saw wealth as a means rather than an end. Having an overloaded Swiss bank account was not their definition of wealth. Money was an instrument of change. With money they could give charity, offer dignity through creating jobs, host people, raise a family in comfort, fulfill mitzvahs with grandeur, buy beautiful gifts for their loved ones and offer their kids a head start on their own financial stability.
If wealth has so much potential for greatness, then why did the Talmud state that “poverty is a good attribute”? Maharsha explains that, like other forms of suffering, poverty can cleanse one from sin.5 In other words, poverty is not inherently good; it only serves the purpose of atonement.
If financial stability and even wealth was a blessing in previous generations, then how much more so in our times of abundance. Although we may romanticize the simpler times when poor village folk could live in bare huts and survive off of black bread and well water, in modern times we need homes, electricity, food options, medical insurance, often a car, etc. Money has the ability to offer us serenity and peace of mind.
In today’s time, poverty should not be an aspiration. In today’s time, poverty should not be an aspiration.
Allow me to quote a small selection from an incredible talk that the Lubavitcher Rebbe delivered in early February 1992:
A Jew is rich in essence; and his inner spiritual wealth should be reflected in actual material wealth. If this is not openly apparent, this is only because G‑d desires that a Jew reveal this wealth through his efforts, that he transform the darkness of the world into light. This in turn will draw down an abundance of Divine blessing into the world.
The above is particularly true in the present time, when the Jewish people have completed all the spiritual tasks demanded of them and all that is necessary is to actually accept Moshiach. Currently, each and every member of the present generation, the last generation of exile and the first generation of Redemption, is surely worthy of abundant material wealth.
This leads to a practical directive: Each Jew should seek to obtain wealth, spiritual wealth as our sages stated, “There is no concept of wealth other than knowledge,” and also actual material wealth. The latter will, as the Rambam explains, enable one to devote oneself to the study of Torah and the observance of mitzvahs in a more complete manner. Similarly, one will be able to donate more generously to charity, including the charity given for the construction of synagogues and houses of study.
I remember the first time I was introduced to this talk and how incredibly mind-altering it was for me. Living in comfort was always my dream and prayer, but wealth? Wealth was just a headache and a slippery slope to materialism and vice.
No, say the founders of our faith. No, says the Rebbe. Wealth offers tremendous potential for good. Why say no to an opportunity for growth and impact? Would we say no to a G‑d-given talent?
Of course, not all of us are destined for wealth. (For me, entering the rabbinate was not exactly the road to affluence.) And in no way are we saying that those of us who are not blessed with financial wealth have any less ability to make an impact. We all have the capacity to fulfill our personal mission. Wealth is but a tool.6
May we all use our G‑d-given abilities for their true intention: making a beautiful world for G‑d!
2. Chagigah 9b.
3. Eiruvin 86a.
4. Nedarim 38a. Drashot HaRaN essay #5 offers a lengthy essay to explain this statement literally (unlike Maimonides, who reads “wealthy” in non-literal sense). He explains that people will only take note of someone affluent, and a prophet needs people’s ear and therefore must be wealthy.
5. Ad loc.
6. For a beautiful article on this week’s Parshah that approaches the topic of wealth from a different angle, please see: The Purpose of Wealth.