The Goods: What Can Wealth Do for You?

Money is obviously not all bad. In the right hands and used for the right purposes, it can accomplish great things.

From the days of Moshe until Rebbi, we didn’t find Torah and power in one place. (Gitten 59a)

In one place – so that Israel’s Torah and power should be in one place, that there was no Jew as great in Torah and wealth as (Moshe and Rebbi). (Rashi)

It was his unparalleled wealth that allowed Rebbi (Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi) to convene the leading sages of his generation to collect and examine the many variant traditions that then existed in the Oral Torah. It was his unparalleled wisdom that then allowed him to lead the complex task of assembling our Mishna from these traditions.1 Money, simply put, get things done.

Besides its very practical purchasing power, wealth changes people’s lives and, perhaps more importantly, even their personalities. We all know how corrupting those changes can be. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

And also the nation that enslaved them (i.e., Egypt) I will judge, and afterwards they (i.e., Israel) will leave with great possessions (Beraishis 15:14)

Why would God want us, just at the moment of our national birth, to have so much money? Could it not be that the confidence and boldness that come along with wealth help in our primary task of teaching the world about Godliness (as aממלכת כהנים)?2 In fact, we do see money used to “lubricate the machinery” of education:

“And the kohen who is greater than his brothers” (Vayikra 21:10) – so he (the high priest) should be greater than his brothers in strength, appearance, wisdom and wealth. Others say: how do we know that if (a high priest) does not have (sufficient wealth) then his priestly brothers should elevate him? The Torah says “and the kohen who is greater than (i.e., from) his brothers” – elevate him from (the wealth of) his brothers. (Yoma 18a)

What benefit is there in ensuring that the high priest is a man of considerable means? Apparently, human nature being what it is, people aren’t nearly as likely to gain from his moral authority and example without the natural (if irrational) awe that accompanies wealth.3 Once upon a time, this idea even inspired Jewish communities to provide Torah leaders with generous support:

The rabbis appointed Rabbi Avohu as their head. But when (Rabbi Avohu) saw that Rabbi Abba from Akko suffered from many debts, he said “(appoint) Rabbi Abba” (Sotah 40a)

(Appoint) Rabbi Abba – who is a very great sage and is more deserving to sit at the head than I am. (Rabbi Avohu did this so) they would appoint (Rabbi Abba) as head and give him gifts and (thus) make him wealthy so that he would be respected and (people) would listen to his words, as it was taught (Yoma 18a): “And the kohen who is greater than (i.e., from) his brothers – elevate him from (the wealth of) his brothers”. (Rashi)

Not only can wealth itself have a powerful and positive effect, but there is even great potential value in the comforts and luxury that come with it:

And a cubit from this (side) and a cubit from this (side) in addition, along the length of the curtains of the tent shall drag at the sides of the mishkan from this and that side. (Shemos 26;13)

Shall drag at the sides of the mishkan – to the north and south…the Torah here teaches us derech eretz that a man should be concerned about (things of) beauty (Rashi)

The material draped over the Mishkan was actually slightly longer than needed to properly cover the beams that made up its walls. Rashi quite safely assumes that this wasn’t the result of a calculating error, but that the Torah in fact wants there to be some material dragging on the ground. Why? Because it creates a rich, luxurious impression that adds to the physical beauty and dignity so important to the success of the Mishkan’s goals. But Rashi4 goes further: this is a quality towards which we should all aspire – even in our daily lives.

This is especially true of our observance of mitzvos:

…From here they say that for all seven days (of Sukkos) a man should make his sukkah central and his house only secondary. How? If he has fine tableware he should take it up to this sukkah, fine tapestries, he should take them up to the sukkah, he should eat drink and while away his time in the sukkah and study Torah in the sukkah. (Sukkah 28b)

Now, it goes without saying that such extravagance has limits. But it would also appear that our lives, where possible, should not be barren and bitter. Why is this so?

Three things restore a person’s thoughts: voice, image and smell. Three things broaden a person’s thoughts: a fine home, a fine wife and fine possessions. (Brachos 57b)

It seems that simply restoring calm to ones life requires a person to focus on the world around him (perhaps to counter any unhealthy self-absorption that might have contributed to his disorder in the first place – there’s no more effective cure for self-pity than throwing yourself into solving other people’s problems). But to “conquer” the world around him (i.e., to understand and fully grasp its possibilities) calls for a strong connection to something of a particular quality that exists externally.

Or, in other words, luxury.

It should be obvious however that using wealth this way carries enormous risks:

Broaden – this is because his thoughts and soul will be broadened to chase after this-worldly pleasures as it says (Avos 5:19) concerning Bilaam: “a broad soul” (Maharsha to Brachos 57b)

Here’s the Bilaam reference to which Maharsha referred:

Anyone who possesses these three things is from the students of Avraham Avinu. And three other things, from the students of Bilaam Harasha. A good eye, and a humble spirit and a lowly soul, (he is) from the students of Avraham Avinu. A bad eye and a haughty spirit and a broad soul, from the students of Bilaam Harasha. (Avos 5:19)

The very same “broad spirit” that can lift us to Miskhan-like heights of spirituality can also drag us down, alongside Bilaam, to immoral excess.5 It’s a matter of focus: you could use material comfort as a tool to enhance your Torah life. But if your primary goal is acquiring more objects (“home, wife, possessions”), then perhaps a serious reassessment is in order.

1ע’ רמב”ם בהקדמתו לספרו משנה תורה

2See commentary of Rabbi S.R. Hirsch to Shemos 11:2

3For some months after my marriage I found myself davening each morning in a shul where my table-mate happened to be a spectacularly wealthy Jew. I remember observing how, after davening was completed, the other men would usually crowd around this Jew as he packed up his tallis and tefilin to catch whatever comments he might offer. He was certainly not without considerable wisdom and merits of his own, but not necessarily any more than some of the other men there…

4Based on the Yalkut to Pekudai

5See Rambam’s commentary to Avos

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