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L’fi Dati: As I See It

A message from Rabbi Weintraub

The less food one has, the more one wants.
The more food one has, the less one wants.
The more sex one has, the more one wants.
The less sex one has, the less one wants.
Money, however, is different.
The less money one has, the more one wants.
The more money one has, the more one wants.

Avot de Rabi Natan 4:8
(Homiletic Talmudic text, First Century Palestine)

I write this column during the week of Shabbat Sheklaim, the Sabbath of Shekels, (February 13-14), the first of four special Shabbatot over seven weeks before Passover. Each includes a special Torah reading. For Shabbat Shekalim, we read Exodus 30:11-16, which instructs each adult Israelite male to pay one half of a Shekel for the purpose of a poll tax, and for the maintenance of the ancient desert Tabernacle. Later on, Jews contributed this sum yearly for the support of the Temple in Jerusalem so that necessary repairs could be made before the great Pilgrimage celebrations of Passover. In the modern era, the international Zionist movement revived this custom by mandating the donation of one half of one’s national unit of currency (dollar, mark, franc, etc.) to establish individual membership.

As we move towards our greatest national Holiday, it is fitting that the first special Shabbat is identified by a unit of currency. Judaism has a profound understanding of wealth as an instrument to serve ethical ideals. Unlike, for example, many influential Christian and Buddhist teachers, we see little spiritual value in poverty, because from our perspective it is an affront to the dignity inherent in us as creatures of G-d.

Certainly, the Rabbis did understand that the acquisitive urge could be destructive. In fact, the humorous and serious text quoted above opines that one’s acquisitive instinct– unlike one’s appetite for food or sexual drive—does not diminish with age. Therefore, Judaism surrounds our economic activity with more Mitzvot than any other kind of human endeavor.

Of the 613 Mitzvot incumbent on Jews, over 120 are related to the ways we earn, save or spend material resources. (In contrast, there are only 26 Mitzvot about keeping kosher). Of the 52 Al Cheit confessions for which we beat our breasts ten times over Yom Kippur, 16 relate to sins in economic activity. When we leave this world, the Midrash teaches, the first question the Heavenly Court will ask us is not whether we believed in G-d or kept Shabbis but “Nasata v’natata be’e’muna?”, “did you conduct your business honestly?” (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 31a).

Why is G-d so worried about our business?

Underlying the Jewish preoccupation with economics is the belief that our finances and our faith are deeply interrelated. The acquisitive urge, as economists understand, is not just fueled by survival or greed. It is also nurtured by uncertainty. We try to protect ourselves against risk in the market by legitimate means and at times by immoral ones. However, if we trust that G-d provides means for a parnasa b’chavod, an honorable livelihood, then we won’t resort to unethical ways to protect ourselves from uncertainty. Religious faith is also a good prophylactic against criminal economic behavior. Because these crimes generally occur in secret, away from social observation, a belief in an all-knowing G-d is a great deterrent. Finally, and more positively, faith also allows people to take the risks which are necessary for entrepreneurial development.

The mammoth financial scandals of the last twenty years are all the proof that we need that even legislation to curb business immorality is ineffective unless it is undergirded by a deeply rooted cultural morality. Underlying Judaism’s extensive economic legislation is the belief that we as humans are not just a mass of unrelated beings. We are a family joined by a common and caring Creator. So, although the wealth provided by G-d is mostly meant to satisfy private needs, it must also be used to care for the poor, the weak, the old. Therefore, our tradition developed may laws regulating not just business morality but also establishing mandatory Tzedaka, systems of taxation and public assistance.

In a famous Mishna (Ethics of the Fathers, 5:12), the Rabbis condemned the person who professes the ideal “what is mine is mine and what is your is yours”. While apparently fair and pragmatic, this position actually betrays a dangerous illusion that individuals can live without regard to the intricate and overlapping orbits of exchange–physical, social and moral– in which all economic activity occurs.

Just as justice and Tzedaka are brilliant aids in maintaining the flow of resources, knowledge, and opportunity in the world, so gratitude and hospitality are also powerful Jewish ideals which can counter economic overreaching. Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, in an essay about “Cultivating Gratitude” suggests repaying a person’s kindness not by retuning a favor to that person but by being kind to someone else. He shares the story of a man whose business was in very difficult straits. A friend of his late father offered him a generous interest free loan. A long time passed before the man was able to repay, but when he finally did, the lender refused to accept his check. The man was upset and protested, “I’m not a charity case…I always intended to pay you back!”

The lender then told him “Many years ago, I found myself in a similar situation and I also needed a loan. When I went to pay it back, the lender refused to accept the money. I too protested as you did, that I didn’t want to be treated as a charity case. The man answered me, it was indeed a loan, and you do have to pay it back….but not to me. I want you to pay back the loan in the following manner: One day in the future, when you come across a person or a family who needs the money, pass it along…as a loan. And when they come to pay it back, explain the terms of the loan to them, as I just explained them to you….I chose to pay it to you, someday you will pass the money on to someone else.” (Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, A Code fo Jewish Ethics, Volume 1, page 104).

As the dollar note notes, “In G-d We Trust.” Underlying Jewish economic ethics is a strong faith. Our wealth in origin is first divine, not human. G-ds’ hashgacha, or oversight, is present in economic activity as in all life.

Purim is coming! Let us rejoice, as the Book of Ester prescribes through “days of feasting and gladness, and of sending portions one to another, and gifts to the poor” (Esther 9:22).

B’virchot b’ri’ut, osher, v’shalom, with blessings of health, prosperity and peace,

Happy Purim!

Rabbi Weintraub

P.S. I welcome comments, which may be sent to [email protected]

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