The Jewish Financial Ideal
Adapted from Parasha U’Pishra by Rabbi Moshe Grylak
The Torah’s description of the mishkan and it’s vessels serves as an allegory for several different aspect of national and personal Jewish growth. One such allegory describes the ideal Jewish financial life as represented by the mishkan table. While rich financial development is welcome and even called for, the ultimate goal of these guidelines is to liberate the nation from a base enslavement to materialism.
The mishkan table was made of acacia wood (Exodus 25:23). The wood represented the constant dynamic development called for in order to ensure the flowering of a successful economy. A mighty tree, like a flourishing economy, extends generous branches in every direction, rife with healthy foliage, with a tall, thick trunk stretching towards the heavens.
In contrast, the surface of the table was covered in pure gold (ibid 24). Gold is distinguished in that the metal generally has very little dross mixed in it. Thanks to the purity of the metal, gold can not be influenced by its surroundings or gnawed at by the teeth of time. The gold stood for the pure, unchanging moral foundation meant to ground the Jewish People throughout the vicissitudes of personal lives and a national history that threatened to tarnish and erode their true identity.
The cover of gold depicted the fact that only one limitation is placed on the table of Jewish financial development and that is the limit of moral conduct. Although no limit is placed on our potential for material growth, the material growth of our nation must be based on foundations pure as the mishkan table gold.
The table was surrounded by a “golden crown” mentioned twice in the parasha (ibid 24-25). Boundaries of the mishkan table were clearly defined by the beautiful golden border framing it on all sides. Our financial lives require boundaries as well. Indulging in material pleasures for their own sake or in excess does not contribute to the good enjoyment that material pleasures are meant to afford. Rather, excess and indulgence sacrifice our personal liberty on the altar of materialism with no benefit for ourselves. The boundaries we maintain in our relationship with money both protect and ennoble us.
Every detail of the mishkan table provided allegorical directives for correct financial living. Vessels for use on the mishkan table, including “its dishes, its spoons, its shelving-tubes, and its pillars,” were all made of pure gold. Just as all matters relating to the mishkan table were handled with pure gold, the mishkan table vessels allegorically instructed us to handle the various tasks involved in our financial life with pure, unsullied moral standards.
For example, lies and deception represent one area of spiritual impurity the Jewish nation are instructed to utterly reject. Taking advantage of others in regards to pricing or quality of merchandise is taken for granted by most of the western world as an “innocent white lie” but Torah condones such “white lies” no more than the premeditated, deliberate deception involved in the now well-respected industry of corporate espionage. Both sully the purity a Jew is commanded to maintain in his or her financial life.
Even the show-breads displayed on the mishkan table represented a particular lesson in their unique shape. The Talmud in Menachos 84 described the show-breads as shaped like “a sort of burst vessel” since the bottom of the bread was flat while two short “walls” bordered the bread on two parallel sides. The bottom of the bread was the length of the two “walls” put together. Thanks to this unusual shape, every loaf of bread served as a convenient way to carry another. The shape of the show-bread challenges us to selflessly shape ourselves to the convenience of others in the way we live our material lives. Designing our financial lives to serve others is an ideal Jewish communities and individuals have upheld throughout history.
The design, vessels, and purpose of the mishkan table held many more of the Jewish secrets for a fulfilling, correct relationship with money. The table symbolized what financial power and freedom really look like, including a taste for moderation and refinement, the enjoyment in liberation from meaningless indulgences, the pleasure in maintaining financial moral integrity, and the joy in using material wealth to give to others.
Best of all, these qualities are accessible to all of us. No matter what our financial standing, by following the Torah’s guidelines for the ideal Jewish relationship with money, every one of us can feel truly rich.