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Home » Bo, Economy

Bo: The Curse of Wealth

Submitted by on January 10, 2013 – 1:48 pmNo Comment | 3,891 views

Too Rich To Care

The curse of wealth is well documented. People win the lottery, find themselves with more money than they know what to do with and before long are besieged by friends who want a handout, strangers who encourage foolish investments and con artists who seek to clean them out. Too many lottery winners lose all their money in the first ten years and find themselves worse off than before. Abandoned by friends, disillusioned by life and betrayed by family they are left alone. They know the trials of money. They understand the curse of wealth.

The curse of wealth plays a more insidious role in our relationship with G-d. Among the many quirks of human nature is that we are quick to contact those we need, but slow to respond to those who need us. Have you ever noticed that as a job applicant you will call potential employers several times a day, but those hiring don’t both to return your call unless they need you. This is not because they are cruel and impolite; we are all like that. When we need someone we make contact and when we don’t need , they fall of our list of priorities . . . even if they need us.

We treat G-d the same way. When we are in need we seek Him out, constantly praying, begging and besieging. But when we are well off and ostensibly not in need we forget to call on G-d. We are much quicker to beg than to return with thanks. We are much quicker to turn to Him in need than in prosperity. The Torah cautions us to be wary, “Lest you eat and be sated, and build good houses and dwell therein and your herds and your flocks multiply, and your silver and gold increase, and all that you have increases, and your heart grows haughty, and you forget the Lord, your God…”[1]

Appeasing Abarham

Just before the plague of the first born G-d made a strange request of Moses. “Please, speak into the ears of the people, and let them borrow [from Egyptians]… silver vessels and golden vessels.”[2]

Wondering why G-d framed this as a request rather than an order, our sages explained that G-d was alert to the promise He made to Abraham, “They will be enslaved… and then they will go with great wealth.”[3] G-d didn’t want Abraham to say, “He fulfilled “They will enslave them and oppress them”, but He did not fulfill “they will go forth with great possessions. [4] In his desire to appease Abraham G-d was desperate as it were to ensure that Jews gather great wealth before departing Egypt. [5]

The astute reader will ask why Abraham would have cared so much about wealth. His children had escaped the lion’s den alive, would he really complain if they hadn’t been remunerated? Besides, why was financial prosperity so important to a spiritual giant like Abraham?

Here we return to the curse of wealth. the curse of money - innerstrfeamAbraham knew that his children would prosper in Israel and he worried that their sudden prosperity would make them forget G-d. The entire purpose of their slavery in Egypt was to prepare them to enter the Promised Land, but if sudden wealth in the Promised Land would lure them away from G-d, they would soon lose this land and wind up in exile again.

Entering the desert with wealth was the perfect solution. The curse of wealth doesn’t affect every wealthy person. It only affects those who allow their money to consume them. King Hezekiah was wealthy, but his diet consisted of vegetables. Rabbi Yehudah was wealthy, but he testified on his deathbed that he never benefited personally from his wealth. Such people use their wealth for good purpose and resist the gluttony and haughty arrogance that often accompanies wealth.

Abraham hoped that by being rewarded with great wealth when they entered the desert Jews would become immune to the curse of wealth. In the desert they were treated to a steady diet of miracles. The Red Sea was split, Manna was delivered daily from heaven, water was miraculously produced by a stone, clouds encompassed their camp regulating their climate and laundering their clothes and the greatest miracle of all, Divine revelation at Sinai. Abraham figured that with this regular demonstration of G-d’s presence  in their lives the Jews would hardly be tempted to forget G-d.

Old Money

By the time they would arrive in Israel they would no longer be new to wealth. Wealth is most dangerous to those who come to it suddenly such as lottery winners or heirs who come into a great deal of money.[6] Old money families are not enamored by money; it doesn’t loom as large for them. Abraham figured that if his children would be awarded great wealth in the desert, where they would be protected from the curse of wealth, they would become immune to the curse of wealth even in Israel because by then, forty years later, they would be old money. By that time wealth wouldn’t loom as large for them because they would be old hands at prosperity.

This is the why Abraham, the spiritual giant, was desperate for his children to be rewarded with wealth. For forty years, Jews shlepped around with camel loads of money for which they had no need. All their needs were provided for and there was precious little they could purchase with it in the middle of a desert.[7] They quickly learned that wealth is a burden to be lugged around rather than a ticket to happiness.

Every day they were forced to ask themselves why they lug around so much money and assume the burden of protecting it. They were forced to grapple with the question of purpose; what purpose does my money serve. They came to learn that money is only good if it serves a purpose that justifies the hassle of earning and preserving it. They realized that unless treated correctly, wealth is an albatross that slows you down and makes you heavy. They learned that money wasn’t good for them; it was only good for the causes they would support.

It was a lesson that stood them in good stead when they arrived in Israel. It was a lesson they forgot with time. It is a lesson we could do well to learn again.

[1] Deuteronomy 8: 12-14. This essay is based on the commentary of the Ktav Sofer ad loc.

[2] Exodus 11:2

[3] Genesis 15:14.

[4] Rashi ad.loc. Babylonian Talmud, Brachot 9a.

[5] Some wonder why G-d instructed them to borrow, when they had no intention of repaying. Ktav Sofer suggests that G-d spared them the shame of knowing their captors enriched them. This way, their captors never gave it to them, they merely borrowed it, but because it was on their person when their captors drowned at the Sea ownership automatically transferred to them.

[6] Proverbs 30:21 says the earth trembles when a slave rises suddenly to the throne.

[7] With the exception of local tribes who came to barter with the Jews.

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