It is known that high-end lottery winners often ruin their lives as a result of amassing a large amount of money in such a short period of time. On a similar note, our Sages say that there is a pattern in our scriptures as to how some Jews and non-Jews handle success. G-d gave abundance of wealth to Avraham, who personifies the rags to riches story. In turn, Moshe and Chizkiyahu approached life with modesty and appreciation. However, they were a part of the precious few. For the most part, man doesn’t handle wealth very well. Examples are given of famous Gentiles like Nimrod, and Pharaohs who have taken the gift and, seemingly shoved it in G-d’s face.
In this week’s parsha we read about a Korach, a unique Jewish individual from a prominent family who was considered the richest man of his generation. He was accumulated a lot of wealth from the booty left on the shores of the sea after the waters went back from the miracle of splitting the sea. At times, money leads to power. However, Korach was frustrated that he wasn’t able to achieve that status even with all his accumulated wealth. His wealth brought him arrogance, where he thought he deserved the world and a backbone to complain and rebel.
Wealth is seductive and tends to bring out the conceit in human nature. The Chovot Halevavot, in The Gate of Humility, one of the major works in the literary Jewish world, tells us that wealth is a greater test than poverty.
Our Sages comment on the verse “And behold, a ladder was standing on the ground, and its top reached the Heavens” [Bereshis 28:12] referring to the famous dream our forefather Yaakov had. It was a significant prophetic message to Yaakov’s descendants. In the dream, there were angels going up the ladder and there were angels going down the ladder. G-d showed Yaakov two individuals: Korach (who was swallowed up by the ground) and Moshe (who ascended up to the Heaven).
Why are Korach and Moshe hinted to by the ladder? There is a very interesting Ba’al HaTurim (commentary on the Torah) referring to that famous verse. The Ba’al HaTurim says that the numerical [“Gematria”] value of the word ladder (samech-vov-lamed-mem) [60+6+30+40=136] is equal to the numerical value of the word money (mem-mem-vov-nun) [40+40+6+50=136], and it is also equal to the numerical value of the word poverty (ayin-vov-nun-yud) [70+6+50+10=136].
A ladder can be used as a parable for money. Just as a ladder can be used to climb to great heights or descend to the depths, so is the case with money. A person can be blessed with money, do the right things with money, and go up the ladder. On the other hand, money corrupts. Money can be a terribly destructive force.
There is no coincidence of the timing of Yaacov’s dream. Soon after he met his father in law, the wicket Lavan, who had a plan. By having Yaakov work for fourteen years for his wives, and by subsequently promising him wealth and continually changing his compensation, Lavan hoped his ultra-orthodox son-in-law would trade the soul for the silver spoon. That his mind would become so preoccupied with making a living that he’d forget his desire for the spiritual, his taste for the refined having been congested and clogged by the crude trappings of material success.
The Aramaean tried to destroy my desire. The word avi – my father – can also mean ‘my desire.’ The Lavan’s of the world are always there to seduce us with their promises of wealth, fame, and happiness. “All it takes is hard work,” they say. And maybe they really will make us rich – but at what price?
Many people have the custom, on Motzaei Shabbat [Saturday night], to sing a beautiful Pizmon [poem] which begins with the words “HaMavdil bein Kodesh L’chol, chatoteinu Hu yimchol” — He who distinguishes between that which is holy and that which is not holy, He will forgive our sins. These are beautiful words. Interestingly, the words can be quite appalling. The poem says that we sin because we do not appreciate the difference between that which is Sacred and that which is mundane. We spend our time and efforts on foolishness. We do not know what is Kodesh and what is Chol. We ask G-d, Who has the ability to distinguish between Kodesh and Chol, to please forgive our sins.
(The Lubliner Rav, Rav Meir Shapiro, once said about American Jews that they know how to make Kiddush, but they don’t know how to make Havdalah. In other words, they put the wrong emphasis on things. That which is holy, they treat lightly, and that which is really unessential, they make holy. They do not know how to differentiate.)
In the beginning of laws of Chanukah [3:1], The Ramba”m says, “In the time of the Second Temple, the Greek Government made decrees against Israel and tried to abolish their religion. They did not permit them to learn Torah or perform the mitzvos, and they sent forth their hands against their property and their daughters.”
Let us consider this list: They nullified our religion, they did not let us learn, they did not permit us do mitzvot, they took away our daughters, and they took away… our money. Money may be important, but should it be listed in the same breath with the others? Should the Ramba”m be equating taking our money with taking our daughters (and not only that, but the Ramba”m mentions money first!)?
How are we to understand this statement of the Ramba”m?
Rabbi Yissachar Frand quotas Rav Shimon Schwab who offers a beautiful insight, both in the Ramba”m and in the Pizmon. Rav Schwab says that what the Ramba”m means by saying the Greeks took away our money and our daughters, is that the Greeks knew how to destroy us. If we are to succeed with our children and with our religion, we need money. In order to have Yeshivot, shuls, a community, one needs money. Money is a wonderful thing. Let’s not kid ourselves. We can do tremendous things with money. We cannot exist without money.
But money corrupts, sometimes… most of the time. However, money, in and of itself, can be the greatest tool that there is. Our Sages say that when G-d showed Moshe our leader, who guided us out of Egypt, a Half-Shekel coin, He showed Moshe a ‘coin of fire.’ The reason is because that is what money is. Money can be terribly destructive, like a fire. But where would we be without fire? No heat, no light, nothing.
Money is the same way. If one handles it right, it can save him. If one handles it wrong, it can destroy him.
This, the Ramba”m says, is what the Greeks understood. When they wanted to take out the foundations of the Jewish people, they sent forth their hands against their money and their daughters. Take away their money. Don’t let them have Yeshivas, don’t let them have Torah educators. That is how the Jewish People will be destroyed. The Ramba”m has his priorities very straight. The Greeks knew how to wage a war.
Rav Schwab says that this too, is what we say on Motzaei Shabbot: If we want to be successful with our children, then we also need ‘our money (to) increase like sand.’
Imagine! Money like sand, unlimited funds! Consider what that would mean. We could pay educators, instead of their current low rate salary, more sponsors for “Cup of Coffee weekly periodicals — one-half, one-third, or one-quarter of what the lawyers and the doctors are earning – an amount that they truly deserve.
Imagine if we could pay our teachers top dollar. What would the face of Torah education in America look like if we had unlimited resources and could pay top dollar? What would be if we could drop the class ratio from one teacher per 25 kids, to one teacher per 15 kids?
What about the children that need extra help? For those children, we could even have one teacher for every two children. It wouldn’t matter if that would require an extra salary! We could do amazing things. The Jewish People would be a different Jewish People if our children and our money were ‘increased like the sand.’
That is the prayer. We know what is holy and sacred and we know what is mundane and profane… and we know what money can do. We can do the right things with money. We can change the Jewish People with money. We pray that we have ‘children and money like sand’ to accomplish wonderful things for the Jewish people.
However lets not forget the pitfalls of money and how the Sages equate it to quicksand. If one has a hundred he wants two hundred. Lets not forget what our wise Sages said about it being the bigger test between rich and poor. For this reason the tzadikim go through hardship because there would be much less of them if they had the excess money.G-d is doing them a favor!!
Rav Yehuda Hanasi, who was the aurther of the prestigious Mishna, who also happened to be one of the riches man of his generation, always gave wealthy Jews the utmost respect. He said if one is wealthy and he still follows the Torah to the letter of the law, therefore not succumbing to temptation and arrogance then I tip my hat to them. They have passed a tremendous test and will have a special place in the heavens.