A husband and wife reflect upon their journey
My wife and I were raised very differently when it came to money. Riva’s parents struggled financially, but she never knew that. They’re from Hungarian stock, and they were determined to give their kids everything. When Riva turned 16 and asked for a car, for instance, she got one. If she needed money, she just went and took it from her mother’s wallet.
My parents, on the other hand, were born to Polish and Russian immigrants, respectively, and their spending habits were vastly different. If I wanted money from them, I had to do chores. I would never have dreamed of asking them for a car, or for anything beyond the basics.
Still, I always dreamed of being able to help people with money. On Erev Shavuos, when I was 18, my rosh yeshivah was discussing how to prepare for kabbalas haTorah, and he asked each boy in my shiur to choose one mitzvah that he would resolve to perform to perfection. I chose tzedakah.
I wish my parents had made me a smaller wedding and used the money instead to help Michoel and me start our marriage on solid financial footing. As it was, we were both working at very low-paying jobs when we were first married, while living in a one-bedroom apartment, but our meager earnings could not cover the basic costs of living — rent, groceries, health insurance, utilities, etc. — so the first few years of our marriage were overshadowed by financial stress.
I think one of the greatest gifts parents can give their newly married children is a year or two in which they don’t have to worry about money — and that has nothing to do with whether the kids are in kollel. We weren’t in kollel, but our shanah rishonah was still marred by constant anxiety about paying the bills.
When I was expecting my first child, I wanted to buy a maternity dress that cost $123.78, but when I told Michoel that I had found this amazing dress, he said, “We can’t afford it.”
This is what I got married for? I remember thinking. Not to be able to afford anything?
After my baby was born, and I had to juggle work and caring for him, I felt so, so tired — and we had no money, ever. Sometimes, I would go into the closet and just cry.
Three years after our wedding, someone offered Michoel a position as the working partner in his new company, while he would put up the start-up capital. The company was an almost instant success, and suddenly, Michoel started talking about buying a house. I didn’t quite grasp how significantly our finances had shifted until one day, our real estate agent showed us a huge, gorgeous home with a pool. “This is way out of our price range,” I told her, thinking sorrowfully that after seeing this place, nothing else would ever compare. A little while later, to my surprise, Michoel came home and informed me that he had put in a bid on the property.
The seller accepted the bid, and we exchanged our tiny rental apartment for a dream home. I went from having to be selective about which groceries I could afford, to hiring a cook and a full-time housekeeper.
The year I started making money, I gave $680,000 to tzedakah — over 50 percent of my earnings. Over the next few years, my income skyrocketed, and I doled out millions to all sorts of charitable causes.
Once, a friend told me about a cousin of his who was the sole breadwinner in her family, and had contracted leukemia. Now, the family had lost their house and could not afford to buy food, on top of dealing with the illness of their wife and mother. I made some discreet inquiries, found out how much the woman’s yearly earnings amounted to, and dropped off that amount, plus a third more, in the family’s mailbox — in cash. At least now the mother could focus on her own recovery, without the extra burden of financial stress.
When my in-laws were hit by financial difficulties, I paid their mortgage, their grocery bills, and their tuition, and even covered the costs of several of their children’s weddings.
I was only 25 years old when I struck it rich, but within a short time I was asked to join the boards of many of the major mosdos of the city.
I was the talk of the town at the time — and not in a good way. My meteoric rise to fabulous wealth had generated tons of gossip about the circumstances of my financial success, and baseless rumors spread furiously about possible illegal activity on my part.
I realized that the only reason I had been invited to join these boards was that the other members were interested in the fat checks I would write. So I resigned from all these positions, telling the directors of the institutions that they could come to me quietly for donations, but that I would no longer be involved in a public way.
Instead, I decided to devote myself to Torah learning.
To anyone who knew me, that was an astounding decision. I had always been a terrible student, one who suffered from dyslexia, ADHD, and other learning disabilities before those conditions were widely diagnosed and remediated. I was the troublemaker, the bad boy, the class clown, and I could barely read Hebrew, never mind decipher a Gemara.
To improve my Hebrew reading, I sat there breaking my teeth saying Tehillim, like a little cheder boy. From there I progressed to Chumash, Navi, and eventually Gemara.
I didn’t get carried away by the gashmiyus. I drove a Lincoln Navigator, which was hardly a top-tier luxury car; by comparison, a friend of mine who made a lot of money around the same time bought himself a Ferrari. While we lived nicely, I saw no need to rub my money in anyone’s face.
Riva was a different story.
When I didn’t have money, I was consumed with gashmiyus: What I wanted, what I lacked, and how little money I had. Then, when I did have money, I thought about gashmiyus even more. My day revolved around what I could do with my money. I frequently went out to eat or have coffee with my friends, and I spent much of my time shopping, decorating my house, buying the latest gadgets, and planning vacations. Whatever my kids wanted, I bought them. I also signed them up for all sorts of extracurricular activities — karate, piano lessons, voice lessons, you name it.
I’m naturally a very generous person, and I loved being able to buy things not only for myself, but for other people as well. Once, my sister saw an expensive ring I was wearing and mentioned how much she liked it. I immediately contacted the store I had bought it from and bought her one as a gift.
Whenever we hosted guests, we would give them free rein of our property, from house to pool to car. I reveled in being able to host fundraisers in my house for all sorts of causes, and in seeing how the eyes of meshulachim lit up when we presented them with checks. I also loved being able to say, “Just tell me what you need, and I’ll take care of it.”
Purim was the highlight of the year for us, with meshulachim and groups of bochurim streaming through our open door and leaving with hefty donations.
I was really, really happy. Or at least I thought I was.
In those days, I generally didn’t get involved in Riva’s spending decisions, but once, when I thought she and her decorator had gone overboard, I called them into a room and said, “I don’t care how much money we have — it is absolutely ridiculous to spend $8,000 on a crib!”
“You don’t understand,” they protested. “It’s an heirloom! This piece will stay in the family for generations!”
“It’s just a crib!” I replied. “No one is keeping this for generations!”
Each time I walked up the stairs of our magnificent house, I would think, Wow, look what I have! This is such a brachah! So amazing! And each time I walked down the stairs, I would think, Easy come, easy go. Just as easily as Hashem gave this to me, He can take it all away.
And that’s exactly what happened. One morning, I received a letter from a government agency informing me that my business was not in compliance with state regulations and that my business activities were being frozen. By this time, I had sold the business and was no longer actively managing it, so I certainly was not responsible for the legal noncompliance, but since I had taken my profits in company stock, the company’s failure spelled doom for my own fortune. I lost about $12 million overnight.
The same day that my stocks lost most of their value, my friend’s daughter died. Well, I thought, money comes and goes, but he’s never getting his daughter back. That kind of put things into perspective.
Even after my company went under, I still owned businesses and stocks that were generating revenue, but each of these enterprises failed, in succession. One of my business partners stole millions from me and then fled to a different country; that was one of many blows I absorbed. The ultimate low, for me, came when we were living in a two-bedroom apartment, and I wanted to make butternut squash soup. (I had no job, so I had plenty of time to putter in the kitchen.) I went to the fruit store and picked out a butternut squash, but when I saw that it was $10, I had to put it back on the shelf.
Michoel always tried to shield me from the financial hits we were taking, so I didn’t realize right away how seriously affected our finances were by the failure of his company. Only when we had to sell our beautiful home and downgrade our lifestyle dramatically did it hit me that we were poor yet again. That was a very challenging time in our marriage, because I was thrown back to the days when I would cry in the closet — except that this time it was worse, since I felt like I had already done my time in the poorhouse, and I blamed Michoel for not providing adequately for the family. When he would ask me, gently, why I had spent money on something we didn’t really need, like a pint of fresh blueberries for $5.99, I looked at him in disbelief and said, “You’ve got to be kidding! We can’t even buy food anymore?”
Over time, though, I came to realize that losing our money was, in some ways, a blessing in disguise. When we were living the high life, I was hardly present for my kids. I was always running, going, buying. Now that we don’t have money anymore and we can’t afford any kind of lessons, I go outside with them and watch them play, or sit on the floor and build Legos with them.
Before, when a kid would ask for something, I would say, “Sure, let’s go buy it.” Now, I say, “Let’s talk about it. Is this something we really need?”
Recently, I went with my daughter to a department store, and I told her, “You can buy one thing.” She wanted two things, but I stood my ground.
When I was wealthy, I was lax in my chinuch, because I saw no reason to impose limitations or responsibilities on my kids. But when you don’t have money, you have to set limits and give kids responsibilities. And there are no easy fixes to the problems you encounter. Instead of throwing money at the issues that crop up, you have to think about them, discuss them, and work through them.
I thought my shalom bayis was great back when we were wealthy, but Michoel says it was terrible. There was no connection between us, and no teamwork. We may have enjoyed our money together, but we did not enjoy each other, because we were not living the same life. He was working while I was doing my own thing, and since money was no object, we never had to hash things out, prioritize our spending, and arrive at joint decisions. Not having money has forced us to really communicate and work as a team, while figuring out what’s important to us and what we want out of life.
It has also compelled us to turn to Hashem. When money came so easily, and I was free to spend whatever I wanted, I forgot that I needed to ask Hashem to keep giving to us, and I neglected to thank Him for what He gave us. Now, my every tefillah is a heartfelt cry: “Please, Hashem, I need money to pay tuition! Help me buy my kids clothes!” And I find myself expressing my gratitude at every turn: “Thank You, Hashem, for letting me pay that bill!”
Losing our money, and having to struggle mightily for parnassah ever since, has spurred Michoel and me to grow tremendously in our emunah. The other day, a bank representative called to inform him that a deal he had worked on had fallen through. Michoel hung up and said, “Thank You, Hashem. This must be for my good.”
From the time Michoel’s company went sour, no significant parnassah endeavor has worked out for him. He has been mostly unemployed for quite a few years already, doing occasional stints of work here and there, but never landing a steady job. Once, when a company was about to hire him, he received a lawyer’s letter from a previous company for which he had done consulting work forbidding him to take a job with this other company, on grounds that it would be a breach of confidentiality.
Today, he spends much of his time learning, which gives him a feeling of satisfaction and accomplishment. To keep our family afloat, I had to go back to work. I also learned how to maintain my respect and support for Michoel even though he no longer had a job to leave to in the morning, and was home most of the time. (I credit Leah Richeimer’s Marriage Secrets, as well as Laura Doyle’s The Surrendered Wife, for giving me the tools to revitalize my sagging shalom bayis.)
One thing that has remained a priority to us, no matter how little money we have, is paying full tuition. Once, I reached out to my children’s school to ask for an extension — not a tuition break, but more time to pay up what we owed. But when Michoel heard about this, he adamantly refused to accept the offer of an extension.
Some things are just not negotiable.
For years already, we have been living partly off the returns from our few remaining investments, partly off savings that had originally been earmarked for retirement and marrying off children, and partly off Riva’s income. Painful as it is for me not to be able to provide for my family generously, it’s even more painful for me not to be able to give the way I used to, when people approach me for tzedakah.
Still, if someone would offer me the choice of being restored to my previous wealth, or being able to rectify several interactions with meshulachim that I mishandled when I was wealthy, I would choose the latter hands down.
One of the dangers in becoming wealthy very quickly is that you can become extremely arrogant. Once, I was in the midst of a heated phone conversation with a business associate who was clearly lying to me, and when he uttered the words, “G-d forbid,” I yelled at him, “Don’t G-d forbid me! I am G-d!”
When I hung up the phone, I was shocked and disgusted with myself. Did those words really just come out of my mouth? I wondered.
Another time, I was not fully dressed, and a meshulach walked into my living room unannounced. “What are you doing in my house?” I barked at him.
“Your son let me in,” he replied.
“My son is three years old!” I yelled. “Get out!”
I hope I’ve learned my lesson, even if I’m no longer in a position to write big checks. Once, on a Friday afternoon, a meshulach knocked at my door, and when I told him I couldn’t give him more than a token donation, he blurted out, “But you live in this beautiful house!”
“It’s my brother-in-law’s house,” I said, “and I owe him eight months’ rent.”
“Can you give me food, then?” he asked, in a demanding tone.
“Sure,” I said. “What would you like?”
“Make me an omelet. Four eggs.”
I ushered him into the kitchen and prepared him a gourmet meal, three hours before Shabbos. He was ungrateful and rude the entire time, but I was delighted at the opportunity to serve him, despite his entitled attitude.
I would never have been able to feel that way had I not learned the lessons of my previous mistakes — mistakes which, I believe, led to the inexplicable failure of every subsequent business venture I have tried and every job opportunity I have pursued.
People often ask me how it is that I am not bitter over the loss of our money. While I would be lying if I said that I don’t wish to have money again, the truth is that I am grateful for every single stage Hashem put us through. Had I not experienced what it feels like to have money, then I would have spent my whole life pining for wealth and believing that all my troubles would be over if I just had money in the bank. I now know that this notion is patently false — rich people have lots of problems, many of them caused directly by their money. Had I not gotten caught up in an opulent lifestyle, pursuing gashmiyus for its own sake, then I would not have appreciated our current financial struggles, which compel Michoel and me to invest much more thought and effort into our shalom bayis and our chinuch. And had I not become poor again after being wealthy, I would not have learned that it really is possible to be happy even without money. Today, I appreciate every single thing I have — and that makes me truly rich.
It pains both of us not to be able to respond with a generous donation when we encounter situations of need, and I daven to Hashem to give us another chance — not so that we can return to our previous highfalutin lifestyle, but so that we can again enjoy the opportunity to give. This time, I tell Hashem, we are going to be much better treasurers.
Even though we don’t have much money today, our kids are not suffering. I think kids feel deprived when their parents project an attitude of lack, but when parents feel happy and accomplished, their children absorb that. That’s how kollel families can thrive. Today, my sense of accomplishment comes from being able to delve into a sugya of Gemara, not from being able to give my kids everything they want, and my inner satisfaction imbues my home, and my children, with a feeling of contentment.
Recently, I was talking to a friend of mine who is worth $2 billion. “I’m richer than you,” I told him.
“What?” he spluttered. “I can buy you out millions of times over!”
“Yeah,” I said, “but you’re miserable. You never smile, and you don’t take pride in your family. You’re not happy, so your money is worthless.”
When I lost my money, I didn’t really lose anything, because it was never mine to begin with. What is mine, and will remain mine eternally, is the vast amount of money I gave away. If only I had recognized then that my recipients were doing me a favor by granting me the opportunity to give! Then, I could have remained humble even in the face of their provocation.
Much as I would love to again be able to give tzedakah magnanimously, I have come to recognize that money is not the only way — or even the most valuable way — to give. In recent years, I have dedicated much of my time to helping people, whether in business matters, in shalom bayis, or in other areas.
A wealthy friend of mine once had a meshulach knock at his door at 2 a.m., and he and wife vied for the privilege of making the fellow breakfast. I’m convinced that that’s why he still has money, and I don’t. Because money, I’ve learned, doesn’t only confer the privilege and thrill of being generous — it also comes along with the responsibility of treating every person with dignity, and humbly recognizing that you’re just a treasurer of the money you’re distributing.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 878)
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