Drive Down Easy Street| January 17, 2023
Wealth and good fortune are also challenges to our faith
“Go to Pharaoh in the morning; behold, he is going to the water, and you should stand opposite him on the bank of the Nile….” (Shemos 7:15)
ashi quotes the Midrash explaining that Pharaoh would go out to the water early in the morning to relieve himself, for he had deified himself, claiming he had no physical needs. Friedrich Nietzsche, a philosopher in the 1800s, introduced the term Übermensch (superman) describing such a person as “the ideal superior man who could rise above morality to create and impose his own values.”
The Midrash goes on to enumerate four biblical characters who went even beyond this concept of Übermenschen, and considered themselves gods: Chiram, Melech Tzor; Nevuchadnetzar, Melech Bavel; Pharaoh, Melech Mitzrayim; and Yoash, Melech Yehudah. All met defeat and degradation.
How could four intelligent men delude themselves like this? (Rabbi Dr. Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, OU Parshah)
Not far from where my in-laws live is a stretch of highway called A1A, which runs along the coast of Florida. One year, visiting before Pesach, we figured we’d be most helpful by keeping our toddlers out of my mother-in-law’s way. So we got into the car and headed up this highway for a scenic drive along the sea.
Against this stunning backdrop were some of the most beautiful mansions and homes I’d ever seen. Each abode seemed to top the next, shouting, “Look how grand I am!” There were stone villas with five-car garages, rolling gardens which vied with Versailles, tall columns, and even one resembling a fortress.
In a whimsical mood, we began choosing which homes we liked, and renovating others to fit our needs. A five-car garage could certainly serve as a five-bicycle storage shed, we decided. The game got more hilarious as we nixed an estate that boasted a golf course (boooring), but gave extra points to one with gables and turrets, the perfect place to curl up with a good book. By the time we got home, we were in giddy spirits, ready to buy a lottery ticket to subsidize our dream home.
Rabbi Chaim Zeitchik was a Holocaust survivor, and the suffering he endured sharpened the skills he learned in Novardok — famed for its emphasis on understanding the human psyche. Rabbi Zeitchik says success in life is a spiritual test. Many people are so carried away by material success that they begin to believe they have unusual powers. Some, like our four “heroes,” go so far as to believe that their success is proof that they are immortal — immune to failure.
Yet Rabbi Zeitchik provides other examples such as Avraham, Moshe, Aharon, and Dovid, who passed the test of success in life and emerged spiritual heroes. In spite of their successes, they remained humble.
The Gemara (Chullin 89a) quotes Hashem telling Yisrael: “I admire you because even when I bless you with great success, you conduct yourself humbly.”
Actually, we do live in our dream home. I challenge anyone living in the grandeur of those estates to a contentment contest, as I sit here, curled up on my couch with my granddaughter snoozing in my arms. I bet I’d win hands down.
We often think of poverty and misfortune as tests of faith. But here, Rabbi Zeitchik teaches us that wealth and good fortune are also challenges to our faith. Each of us must learn to follow the path of those spiritual heroes. When challenged with success in life, they knew how to remain not only human, but humbly human.
Now take a drive with me down a quiet side street in the neighborhood where I grew up. There, among the small identical ranch homes, lives a very wealthy family. I don’t know whether they’re on Reichman, Rothchild, Gates or Musk standing, and neither does anyone else. Because they never showcase their wealth. Their two nondescript cars sit on a plain black asphalt driveway. No turrets, no pools, no helicopter pads.
But I’m privy to know just a few of the chasadim they’ve invested in. A loan, a financial backer, a bail-out, a job offer. And I call it an investment because the dividends have multiplied through several generations by now. They’d be the last to want their family flaunted and the first to quietly and unassumingly help a family floundering.
If I ever do win the lottery, that’s how I’d invest.
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 827)
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