Money talks, but what is it saying?
mean, no one thinks we were created just to shop and have fun, right?” I asked a group I was addressing rhetorically — or so I thought.
“Of course we were!” a girl called out. “Hashem created us for pleasure.”
“Buying clothing relaxes me and that’s kedushah,” another girl added.
“Bishvili nivra ha’olam,” said a third, impressively misapplying the famous quote.
Similar ideas chorused from all around the room. These girls had been fed a steady diet on how to elevate the physical world, but were digesting it a little funny.
When the topic of dealing correctly with our personal stuff comes up, people tense at the very mention, but why?
Could it be because we’re attached to what we have, to how we do things, and fear that an honest examination might cramp our style?
I get it. Self-gratification mimics fulfillment, making it hard to separate what we want to own and experience from what we want to be.
Our earthly possessions don’t ask permission before getting us tangled up. The Hebrew word for money and silver, “kesef,” is from the same root as “longed for.” Zahav, gold, is a contraction of “zeh hav” — “give it to me.” The word for objects, “cheifetz,” has the same root as the word for “wanted.” The craving for cash and things is natural.
What would happen if we tried to quash the melodrama and relate to money as the tool it is? Become less sentimental about our possessions? If we approached it as something technical, say, like safety pins. No, really — let me explain.
Safety pins are useful and important. If you don’t have any, get some. If you can’t obtain them in a moment of need, you’ll figure something out and move on, even if that means taping a hem or wearing your coat through a simchah to cover up the button that just fell off. But you won’t lose sleep worrying, or start hoarding those nifty little things, and you certainly won’t start a family machlokes over the fact that your cousin got more of Bubby’s safety pin stash than you did. It’s just practical. I bet we can work on treating money in that technical, unemotional way.
That wouldn’t only mean with regards to extras. The more we integrate a Torah attitude to money and belongings — investing reasonable effort, knowing that it’s all been decided Above, and concentrate on productively using what we’ve been given —the more we’ll be able to let go and find better things to do with our emotional energy.
Puritan or Pure?
When I was first becoming observant, I became close with the rebbetzin of my community. Her priorities were clearly her children and husband, and their Torah study. Yet her house was inviting and she was a gracious hostess. She and her children were well dressed. I find this confusing. You’d think she cared about these things, but I knew her well and can say that she hardly did.
Deemphasizing the material doesn’t translate into austerity. Traditionally, Jewish homes and clothing are tasteful and appealing, Shabbos tables are immaculately set, and weddings are beautiful. Jews have always appreciated the aesthetic.
A nice house and utensils make a person feel calm (Berachos 47b). We ensure that our homes are pleasant and attractive for the wellbeing of those who live there and out of recognition of Who we represent. There’s a mitzvah against maiming oneself out of grief. “You are children of Hashem and so it’s proper for you to look nice” (Devarim 14:1, Rashi).
Not only is there no value in the run-down or dingy, but not taking care of your home is called a transgression, and you need to do so even if it means that you need to temporarily move your attention from higher endeavors (Chinuch 374).
As representatives of Torah and the Creator, we need to beautify our lives, but we can’t let it get out of hand. You need a respectable way to carry your Tehillim, sure, but ask yourself if it might be equally happy in a bag that’s not Bottega Veneta or Prada.
Obsessed if You Do, Obsessed if You Don’t
People romanticize poverty, but being poor is tough. It strains marriages, causes stress, and leaves children feeling deprived. I’ve noticed that some bochurim whose families can’t afford much seem far more hung up and busy with things than my son, who gets what he needs and then some.
Our approach is dependent on many other factors, like inborn nature and upbringing.
As a general rule, though, having more doesn’t translate into wanting less, unless you put serious work into consciously making that happen.
If it did, then as soon as people found reasonable success in business and developed some passive income, they’d happily retire — and that’s pretty rare.
“No one leaves this world with half of what he wants satisfied, because if he has one hundred, he wishes he had two hundred, and if he has two hundred, he wants four hundred” (Koheles Rabbah 1:34).
People who are externally oriented will present differently in each financial strata. There’s obsessing for a week, comparing 72 versions of nearly identical shades of cabinet, or alternatively, becoming consumed with what you don’t have and wish you did. Both are examples of giving objects way too much significance.
A good indication of who you are is to try and catch yourself as your mind wanders. Are you thinking about appearances and things? If so, you need meaningful projects in your life. This will overflow and change your family as the conversation in your house evolves from the inconsequential to the significant. Give it time; if you replace what’s filling your brain space, you’ll notice your kids will also become less distracted by that which isn’t important, no matter your financial level.
The Torah does romanticize living with less despite the difficulties, but not the abject poverty of indigence. There’s a difference between an ani, who is struggling and tight, not always making it through the month, and an evyon, truly destitute, when the whole structure is off.
There are moral challenges of being poor, as well as being wealthy, and upsides to both as well. Today’s Torah study at all levels and ages is due to a G-d-given abundance of material blessing that didn’t previously exist.
But Torah sources are abundantly clear that if the goal is greatness, “the spiritual test of wealth is more difficult than the test of poverty.”
The human default setting is to connect more to the One above when we’re deficient rather than satiated. The Torah was given in the barren desert, teaching us that earthly endeavors will generally use up energy that could be available for spiritual achievements. And indeed, we’re cautioned to “be careful with the children of the poor because from them come forth Torah” (Nedarim 81a).
But before you throw the contents of your bank account into the sea, think twice. In bircas hachodesh, we pray for “a life of wealth” followed immediately by a request for “life that grants within us a love of Torah and fear of transgression.” It’s a challenge, but having both must be achievable or it wouldn’t be part of our prayers.
The reality is we’ve been given the test of plenty, even most of the disadvantaged among us, so we need to figure out how to adjust those default settings as best as possible. We know that excess corrupts — but what to do?
First, crowd your attention with important pursuits. The heavyweights of Judaism — learning Torah and doing chesed — can chase the shallowness born of tranquility into its rightful corner.
Second, force yourself to deal with life’s struggles, whether financial or other, rather than run or hide. We can push ourselves a bit at a time in uncomfortable directions, building ourselves by outdoing yesterday’s performance.
And finally, keep it moderate, my friends, moderate. Middle of the road, not trying to bedazzle, just normal. Even if you can afford more.
Prosperity and greatness, although untraditional allies, don’t have to be mutually exclusive. It’s unfortunate when the material supplants the spiritual rather than enables it.
Alchemy and Transmutation
I was raising money for a community in Israel hard-hit by rockets. A friend gave me a very generous donation. I recently heard that his once-thriving business has been bottomed out by corona, after he recently parted with money that would have been very helpful right now. “I’m so happy I gave you those funds,” he told me, “because that’s the only money I still have.” I was blown away by his ability to see beyond the dollars and cents to the eternal.
We all know many wonderful Jews who view their wealth as a Heaven-sent opportunity to make the world a better place.
As a member of the non-gvirish department of Klal Yisrael, I can learn a lot from that moral clarity. Anyone can find opportunities to get some more spiritual worth out of their material belongings. There’s extra change straight in the pushke, lending your place for a simchah, and clothing sent on.
“One can change the very nature of inanimate objects. When you use possessions for a mitzvah, its very character changes because it was used to acquire or accomplish something exalted and the object itself absorbs holiness.” (Alshich, Devarim 14:25)
We can all do that to some extent. If you buy glasses and volunteer to help people with their tax returns using those glasses, then your money turned into chesed and the glasses were a stop on the way. When we treat money and possessions as a means and not an end, life looks different.
I Mean, Honestly
I think it’s great that we have so much opportunity today to sanctify Olam Hazeh. It annoys me when people push simplicity, because we believe in raising up the physical world, and how can you do that if you’re not going places or buying things?
It’s easy to philosophize about raising up the physical, but doing it right is a trick.
Yosef Hatzaddik is the model of yesod, the ability to rein in and properly direct all physicality. “Yosef gathered all the gold and silver in the world and brought it to Egypt” (Pesachim 119a).
Yosef and his descendants are examples of the ability to immerse in the material and raise it to the ethereal.
But a lot of skill and honesty is needed to do it right.
In the era of the First Beis Hamikdash, most of Israel lived under the rule of Samaria, whose kings were from the tribe of Yosef’s son, Efraim. Society waved that ideological flag of Yosef, priding themselves on their worldliness and noble approach to all things material.
The prophets were none too pleased with the populace, who allowed themselves unchecked consumption while claiming a superiority of values. We meet women of leisure who pressure their husbands to support their lifestyle, driving them to immoral business practices (Amos 4:1). And the men: “They drink from massive and unusual sorts of wine goblets, rub themselves with the choicest of lotions and perfumes, are they not concerned with the ruin of Yosef? (Amos 6:6).”
In contrast, Rabi Yehuda Hanasi, Rebbi, is the paradigm of kedushah, engaging with the mundane only to raise it. Royally wealthy, he testified that even his pinky finger had no personal pleasure from his wealth.
None of us are going to fool ourselves into thinking that we’re Rebbi and that we’re actually sanctifying our physical lives in this way. If we were, we’d be a hop and skip away from prophecy, and, er, no offense, but.
Still, life demands balance. I’m not reaching Rebbi’s level, but I can try my hardest to make healthy, principled, and meaningful choices with what I have.
Getting as Good as You Give
I live in a community that gives a remarkable amount of tzedakah. Many of us support children in kollel. Our shul is magnificent, as befits a beis knesses. Yes, most of us live comfortable lifestyles, with beautiful homes, brand-name clothing, and Yom Tov and vacations spent in exotic locales, but this is a package deal. And overall, I think the package is a positive one.
Actually overheard: “I spent a small fortune on my dining-room set, but I plan on making sheva brachos for needy immigrants with it, so it’s fine.”
There seems to be a widespread sentiment that the more mitzvos one does with his money, the more license to be extravagant. This is a misconception; there’s no linkage at all.
Perhaps it’s because people often flow with inborn tendencies. Some are naturally open-handed, which expresses itself both in overspending at the mall and in generosity with collectors. Others are more structured, so they may budget responsibly, but have a hard time with largesse even when it’s appropriate.
The key is differentiation. Yaakov Avinu went back over the Yabok River to retrieve earthenware dishes worth almost nothing. On the other hand, we see elsewhere that Yaakov spent money lavishly, using the enormous wealth he’d earned from Lavan and buying out Eisav’s portion in Mearas Hamachpeilah (Shemos Rabbah 31:18). That’s pretty liberal spending.
Orchos Tzaddikim highlights these extremes, and explains that we should spend extravagantly when it comes to mitzvos. While the Torah doesn’t demand uniformity, and what’s acceptable does change depending on who you are (Orchos Tzaddikim 2), purposeless indulgence, that which leads only to self-gratification, with no higher goal, isn’t allowed (Biur Halachah 1:2, Sefer Hachinuch 418). Here’s a rule of thumb: Will this, in some form, somewhere along the way, make the world an improved place to be?
I Really Needed That
My parents live in the same three-bedroom house they moved into when my older sister was four. I’ve been married for eight years and I feel like I can’t stay in my starter home for one more minute. What’s wrong with me?
It’s certainly possible that you’ve objectively outgrown your place, but it’s also likely your friends or siblings are moving to bigger properties, and that’s impacted your baseline of what’s normal.
Realities have changed. Yes, we know there are people in Angola with thatched huts who are happy, but that doesn’t help us feel more comfortable in our three-bedroom homes. Halachah takes this subjective reality into account. One can simultaneously be financially privileged and fall into a halachic mold of poor.
We’re instructed to give a poor person “dei machsoro — whatever he is missing,” even if that means a fine horse to ride on with a servant to run in front of him. A person’s threshold of needs and wants is dependent on what he’s used to (see Yoreh Dei’ah 250), his innate personality, and his society (Shitah Mekubetzes Kesubos 67b). Today, someone struggling to send their kids to camp would be rightfully deserving of assistance.
There’s always going to be someone with less, even in the most affluent of communities. If that’s you, then the biggest hurdle is to avoid accruing debt, which will only make everything worse. Figure out what your real after-tax income is, and how much you’re actually spending, then prioritize and budget. Most importantly, pray with all your heart for Heavenly assistance and the emotional serenity to deal well with trying circumstances. Having less than those around you is tough.
What needs to be questioned is the wisdom of positioning yourself in a community that causes this unnecessary stress. Here, you may be halachically worthy of tzedakah because your lifestyle doesn’t cut it, and — assuming a move is feasible — in a lovely community 15 minutes away, your same bracket is called normal, and you can ease up on your work hours, too.
My apartment mate orders in from her favorite city eatery once a week and feels like a queen. She’s self-supporting and this is her grand splurge. I have free use of my parent’s credit card and have dinner delivered almost every night, but it’s just dinner to me, nothing special. The other day my order went to the wrong address. I made do with what was around, but I felt out-of-sorts all evening.
These friends clearly don’t inhabit the same financial planet. Ironically, the parents who give their daughter all of her heart’s desires so she’ll feel secure and happy are actually setting her up for a life in which it’s almost inevitable that she’ll feel disadvantaged and unsatisfied.
When this young woman, who’s likely a G-d fearing, growth-oriented baalas derech eretz, hits a bump, her day feels off. She’s used to getting what she wants and it’s tougher for her than for her peers if she doesn’t. Will that translate into less of an ability to ride the ups and downs in life?
A young boy with diabetes came to Rav Steinman for a brachah. “You can really grow up to be a talmid chacham,” he told him. “Because greatness only comes to those who can deal with limitations, and your condition is teaching you how to do that.”
We’d all be delighted with a formula for a life of ease without the downsides. In the old days, there was generally a lot more emotional endurance, but a large portion of that was due to suffering privation and weathering difficulties that we pray remain a remnant of the past.
How can we get the most out of our blessings? I’d love to hear your thoughts.
Batya Weinberg has been involved in numerous aspects of Jewish education for over 30 years. She’s a senior lecturer in many seminaries and a noted student advisor.
Have questions about this topic? Another hashkafic issue you’ve always wondered about? A dilemma for which you’re seeking the Torah approach? Let’s touch base. Send your question to email@example.com.
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 724)
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