The Jewish worldview on money is unusual. For example, take the Christian Bible. Timothy calls money “filthy lucre”.
Book of Matthew: “It is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.”
US dollar bill: “In God We Trust.”
Paris Hilton in twentieth century L.A.: “What’s a soup kitchen?”
Is this schizophrenic? The western relationship with wealth vacillates between shame, obsession, or a fizzing, noxious little cocktail mix of both.
But Torah doesn’t see money as something shameful or as something inherently desirable. Money, according to Torah, is pareve. Tofu. Malleable. Money becomes whatever you make of it.
Imagine the battle between money-lust and money-shame as a tension stretched between two poles. Torah doesn’t get involved with the argument. Torah sidesteps the issue completely. We’re not even Switzerland; we’re Saturn. Our worldview just doesn’t contain the premises underlying that debate.
In fact, according to Torah, the real battle has never been between man and his environment. “The devil made me do it”? Not a Jewish line. Our rabbis have never been celibate priests shunning all material involvement. We just don’t think money or marriage or other physical pursuits in and of themselves are dirty or shameful or wrong.
Because the problem is not with money or any other purely physical entity. The problem, or better phrased, the challenge truly lies within man’s own heart.
There are people who have money and people who are rich. With or without money, how do we learn to live richly?
Get a Life
Look at our so-called liberated society. Hearts and minds are vied over for money and power the way vultures vie over dead carrion. Billions of dollars are spent on research and design to manipulate the way we think.
International corporations don’t just want us to buy their products, they want to make every one of us into the type of person who will buy their products again and again. We are numbers on a screen. Most of us are their drones.
Check this out: “A Torah scholar…walks through commercial area like a person that is engaged in his business.” (Rambam Hilchos Deos 5:8)
This is a Jewish law. It applies to men and to women. If you’re a Torah scholar or the spouse of a Torah scholar, you’re it.
Why can’t a Torah scholar just meander through the mall window shopping like everyone else? Why can’t people who represent Torah relish a little materialism just like the next guy?
Because our sense of relaxation and renewal, sinking back into the comfort of what we find most reassuring, isn’t supposed to be provided by companies aiming to take advantage of our vulnerable state to rape our wallets and our identities.
Sure, says the Rambam (Maimonides), when there is something you have to buy, go out and buy it. You can even enjoy yourself! Rav Yitzchak Berkovitz explains this halacha to mean that an occasional window shopping or shopping trip just for pleasure is permissible as long as it is conducted with an appearance of professionalism and dignity. That’s not the problem. The problem is when we allow our lives to become so empty that Targets becomes our temples and trends become our gods.
As Will Smith put it, “Too many people spend money they haven't earned, to buy things they don't want, to impress people they don't like.” Is that really what we want our lives to be about?
It turns out that living richly is not about having money or spending money. Living richly is about getting a life. A life of true value. A life of real content and achievement. A rich, full life.
You can spend money because you have a purpose to purchase towards or you can spend money as an end in and of itself. One satisfies. The other is like saltwater. The more you drink, the thirstier you become. Your choice.
So what does it mean when it says in Parashas Pekudey :
“All the gold that was used for the work – for all the holy work – the offered-up gold was twenty-nine talents and seven hundred thirty shekels, in the sacred shekel. The silver…was a hundred talents, one thousand seven hundred seventy-five shekels, in the sacred shekel… The offered-up copper was seventy talents and two thousand four hundred shekels…” (Shmos-Exodus 38:24-29)
Why does the Torah describe the wealth poured into the mishkan in such detail? It isn’t like the donors’ plaques in synagogues. Nobody could pay enough to earn a spot in history’s greatest bestseller. (6,000,000,000 copies in more than 2,000 languages and dialects since 1992 alone!)
And Torah wasn’t trying to impress anybody. I mean, give me a break. This book is the foundation of things like monotheism, inherent human worth, justice, truth. And you think G-d has a little self-esteem problem that He needs to remedy by showing off the bouncing Lexus? Please. Come on.
G-d keeps halacha. On an esoteric spiritual level, when G-d “walks through a commercial area”, He doesn’t walk like a meandering shopper dazzled and crazed by all the glitz and gleam surrounding Him. He “walks” like a professional engaged in business because G-d has a life. He doesn’t need Target or the gold of the mishkan to provide Him with a false, superficial sense of self.
Rather, explains the Ohr HaChaim, the Torah details the exact sums of wealth contributed to the mishkan to show that every proverbial penny donated towards building our focal point of connection to the divine went directly into that purpose. Betzalel and the boys didn’t shave off a percentage. No gold dust got quietly swept off the trading room floor. No mishkan artist or engineer took a cut. Our gold and silver and copper and jewels and silks and other commodities were dedicated entirely and exclusively to serving the Creator.
Because that’s Jewish money. Not buying plaques. Not flashing bling. Not slurping the saltwater of an identity falsely based on superficial, material things.
Jewish money is money used to fulfill mitzvos, fulfill the will of our Creator, and fulfill our own potential on a deeper level than money alone can ever buy. And that is living richly.