The Morality of Wealth

Vayetzei By :  Ismar Schorsch Rabbi Herman Abramovitz Distinguished Service Professor of Jewish History and Chancellor Emeritus Posted On Nov 23, 1996 / 5757 | Torah Commentary | Interreligious

It is well known that the New Testament evinces a strong aversion to personal wealth. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus declaims, “You cannot serve God and Money (Matthew 6:24).” Elsewhere he counsels a moral man of great means, “There is still one thing lacking: sell everything you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have riches in heaven (Luke 18:22).” When the man demurs, Jesus lets fly with a retort that has hurtled through the ages: “How hard it is for the wealthy to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God (Luke 18:24-25).”

As history tempered the eschatological fervor of the New Testament, the Catholic Church retained this ideal not as a universal prerequisite for salvation, but as a counsel of perfection for its priesthood and monastic orders. The vows of celibacy, poverty and obedience became the bedrock of the Church’s hierarchy.

The attitude of the Hebrew Bible toward worldly possessions could not be more different. The contrast comes to mind this week because our parasha devotes an inordinate amount of space to Jacob’s uncanny ability to outwit his uncle Laban and leave Paddan-aram with enough wealth to arouse his envy. “So the man (i.e. Jacob) grew exceedingly prosperous and came to own large flocks, maidservants and menservants, camels and asses (Genesis 30:43).” Two decades of working for Laban had turned Jacob into a master shepherd with knowledge about mating his flocks sufficient to bring forth the spotted and speckled offspring which would become his remuneration.

Indeed, Jacob’s entrepreneurship seems to be an inherited trait. The Torah relates that both his father and grandfather attained great wealth despite the drawbacks of a nomadic life. Isaac prospered among the Philistines to the extent that their king asked him to leave: “Go away from us, for you have become far too big for us (26:16).” And Abraham flourished in Egypt departing “very rich in cattle, silver and gold (13:2).” In short, the Torah displays no trace of animus or ambivalence on the subject of the patriarchs’ financial prowess. While they are not without their shortcomings, wealth does not diminish their moral stature. On the contrary, the Torah highlights it as a sign of God’s favor.

Nor did rabbinic Judaism abandon that positive valence. Toward the end of the Grace after Meals, we intone: “May the Merciful bless us and all that is ours, as our ancestors Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were once blessed in everything.” The translation “in everything” is actually only the first of three forms of the Hebrew word “kol” – ba-kol, mi-kol, kol, which the Torah uses for describing the assets of our ancestors: for Abraham ba-kol (24:1), for Isaac mi-kol(27:33) and for Jacob kol (33:11). Underlying the word-play is a midrash. Because Abraham, after his victory over the four kings (Genesis 14), treated Melchizedek of Salem as if he were a priest by showering him with a tenth of all (mi-kol) the war spoils (14:20), God blessed him and his descendants with ample material wealth. For the midrash, the act of tithing reflects proof that Abraham observed the dicta of the Torah long before Sinai. And the consistent use of a variant of the word “kol” in all four cases suggests the causal connection between prosperity and piety.

Wealth per se, then, is not evil, nor its pursuit condemnable. At the end of the havdala ceremony which concludes Shabbat, we send aloft the fervent prayer that “God who separates sacred and profane may also forgive our sins and increase our seed and wealth like grains of sand and stars in the sky.”

The reason for this gulf in attitude toward wealth between the Jewish and Christian Testaments is that the Hebrew Bible is not a bearer of good tidings about personal salvation. Its ethic is communal and this-worldly, propounding a vision of an ideal society based on justice and equity. Humanity was put on earth not to flee it, but to sustain it. The Torah is indifferent to the nature of the afterlife, offering but slight comfort to the individual victim of oppression. What it does unflinchingly is to rail against those who pervert the principles and practices that enhance human life.

Witness the righteous indignation of Moses at the prospect of Israel betraying its mission: “So Jeshurun grew fat and kicked. You grew fat and gross and course. He forsook the God who made him, and spurned the Rock of his support (Deuteronomy 32:15).” Or the unmistakable sarcasm of Amos in the 8th century B.C.E.: “Hear this word, you cows of Bashan, on the hill of Samaria – who defraud the poor, who rob the needy, who say to your husbands, Bring and let’s carouse’ (Amos 4:1).” Moreover, nothing is more reprehensible to this unbroken prophetic critique of society than an ostentatious ritual display bereft of moral content.

In this view, poverty is not a virtue nor wealth a vice. The only individual in the Torah denied the right to amass a fortune on principle is the king, in whose hands it can so readily lead to a perversion of power. At best the prophetic tradition tolerates a limited monarch subject to the dictates of divine law (Deuteronomy 17:14-20).

As for the rest of us, Judaism tries to persuade us that money ought not to be an ultimate value in our lives, but rather a force for doing good in the lives of others. Thus the Talmud (which does have a well developed notion of an afterlife) informs us that the very first question to be put to us when we stand before the Almighty to account for our lives deals with our worldly affairs. “Did you conduct your financial matters with integrity?” is clearly a formulation that undervalues the bottom line.

So is the second question that awaits us in the heavenly court: “Did you set aside time on a regular basis to study Torah?” The good life is a matter of balance. To devote all our waking hours singlemindedly to making money is to shrink the purpose and potential of our lives. The third question aims at the same end: “Did you raise a family?” And often the Talmud urges us in other passages to realize that wealth is not a matter of money but of mind: the truly rich are those who are satisfied with what they have.

Finally, Judaism obliges us to share our blessings through charity, maximally at the rate of 20%, normally at 10%. Giving must become a habit of the heart; even a person dependent on the dole is not exempt from the commandment. No one, Jewish law asserts, ever became impoverished helping the poor. Charity ennobles the giver as it ameliorates the human condition. Though Judaism and Catholicism remain apart on the morality of wealth, they are in concord on the supreme virtue of charity.

Shabbat shalom u-mevorach,

Ismar Schorsch

The publication and distribution of Dr. Schorsch’s commentary on Parashat Va-yetzei are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.