The Torah of Money

When I wrote my first book, my grandmother, aleha hashalom, who had little Jewish practice or belief, said to me, “So you’ll give something to the temple.” It frankly never occurred to me, but I did it without hesitation because she said it so matter-of-factly. From that first conscious act of giving, I learned that tzedakah is so innately Jewish that even my grandmother knew that’s what a person is supposed to do. It also made me aware that giving was a way to thank the One who gave me whatever I needed to write the book. And finally, it taught me that giving money is as empowering and exhilarating as making money.

This morning I’d like to invite you to explore with me how Judaism views money. The possession of money and the satisfaction of economic wants are a human need, and Judaism regards all that we are, including our desire for all physical needs–food, sex, clothing, and housing–as God’s gift. The tradition also recognizes that we need limits, and it sets boundaries for not becoming enslaved by our appetites, and gives us a path to sanctify our desires.

Our ancestors had no shame about desiring wealth nor about having it. Abraham and Sarah were wealthy in their native land. When God tells them to leave for an unknown land, God isn’t suggesting that they take a vow of poverty. Do what I tell you God says, and I’ll give you even more than you had before. They will be rewarded with what we understand best: stuff. Children, land, cattle, and food. And when the High Priest emerged from getting God’s blessing and forgiveness Yom Kippur afternoon, you’d think his speech would be spiritual, full of thanksgiving to God. Instead, he asks that the Jews be given livelihood and that they not be dependent upon anyone. Yet many of us are somewhat secretive about what we have; we may know much more about each other’s sexual lives than about net worth; this, I believe, stems from viewing the world through cristological eyes which accepts the belief that poverty is a virtue. This is not part of Judaism.

Yet we have strong inclination towards accumulation and it is an inclination that needs education and sanctification, We have more mitzvot concerning material acquisition than concerning kashrut. One of the Mishnah’s six books, Nezikin, is solely devoted to physical damages. The Talmud says, “One who wishes to achieve saintliness should study Nezikin,” which is also called the Book of Redemption. When our time comes to meet the One who made us, what do you think is the first question that we will be asked? Did you keep the Shabbos? Did you eat lobster? No. You’ll be asked, “Did you deal fairly in business?” And the second question will be, “Did you set aside time to study each day?” Study means Torah, and Torah means studying the laws of damages, and learning the right way to do business, and a study of Jewish texts tells us that the sages considered the possession of wealth a greater spiritual challenge than poverty.

Really, the danger isn’t a few professional thieves; it’s not aimed at the Mafia. What destroys a society is the petty theft that allows sweet rationalization. “Everyone cheats on their taxes.” Who’s going to come after me for fifty dollars?” are the questions that begin the unraveling of society. Why was the world destroyed by flood? What made Noah’s generation corrupt? They stole from each other just under the amount that would cause legal punishment.

When we forget that we’re always doing business with God’s image, we cease to respect each other. One of the categories of theft is ganav da’at, stealing of the mind. This is when we know someone can’t afford something, and we convince him that he needs, say, a say a satellite dish because we tell him about the great movies he’s missing. Or we steal someone’s self esteem when we remind her of her weaknesses. Or we steal by telling one member of a couple about the other’s shortcomings. We take away the trust and love of one for another with our words.

We are put to death for only three transgressions: idolatry, incest, and the shedding of blood. The reason why stealing isn’t punishable by death is because the capital crimes of murder, sexual abuse, and false gods are the result of a society that allows the erasure of individual boundaries.

In Torah we read about Bilaam, working for Israel’s enemy, Balak, who goes to the Israelite camp to curse them, but he can’t. Instead he says, “Ma Tov Ohalecha Yaakov!” These are the words with which we began our service this morning. How good are your tents, Jacob! The words escaped from his lips, because when he saw that each tent in the encampment faced a different way, away from a neighbor’s, the respect for privacy was demonstrated by the placement of the tents. Each person is unique, given a place by God, to be who God created us to be. Our place, our portion, is enough, enough so that we don’t need to take what is not ours.

Pirke Avot, the Ethics of the Ancestors found in the Mishnah, describes four types of people in regard to wealth. One says, Mine is mine and yours is yours. This person is considered the am ha’aretz, the average person. At first glance it doesn’t seem so bad, yet the rabbis described the citizens of Sodom like this, and they are the symbol in Jewish though for evil and corruption. Sodomites were wealthy and worried about opening their borders to the poor. This is a “mine is mine, your is yours” temperament. Those who say, “Why should I pay for Hebrew school when I don’t have children in Hebrew school?” are also of this type.

The assumption of this perspective is that there is no limit to private property. But Judaism views property as mine but not only mine; it is also meant to be used to assist others. An example of this is when Torah tells us that a Jewish farmer is obligated to leave the corners of his field unreaped for the benefit of the orphan, widow, and stranger. The person who practices this will develop a generous spirit that will extend in all matters. Without it, we have an ideological preparation in which institutionalized theft and legalized inhumanity will flourish.

Another says, “Mine is yours and yours is mine.” This is the socialist, kibbutz idea. The tradition regards this as the perspective of an ignorant person who doesn’t understand human nature. The desire to acquire has to be directed to a higher purpose. Private property rights make for economic efficiency. Each of us is responsible for earning wealth but also for preventing it from hurting others. We cannot transfer this responsibility to an amorphous, corporate group.

A third person says, “Mine is yours and yours is yours.” This is the mark of the Godly person. The one who knows that we each have responsibility to earn, and that we each have responsibility to place it at the disposal of others, is the correct use of wealth. This person knows that God created the world, it belongs to God, yet God provides for the needs of all creatures. By emulating this behavior, we imitate God. This is the basis for hospitality. This person goes beyond mere legality and allows one to benefit from another’s property provided that the owner doesn’t suffer loss.

The last category is the one where some say, “Yours is mine and mine is mine.” This is obviously the mark of an evil person. Here we see the parallel injunction of the Ten Commandments, “Thou shalt not covet.” Coveting leads to immoral economic acts, because we allow our lust and jealousy to lead us to steal or injure another’s wealth. We all struggle with this, because we know that if we have 100, we want 200. There is never enough, so we always want more of “mine.” By learning to restrain material appetites, by voluntarily limiting the standards of living, and by learning difference between real needs and mere desires, we can achieve a moral economic society.

Setting boundaries for acquisition is difficult, and so is setting boundaries for giving. Our tradition calls giving tzedakah, which doesn’t mean charity, from the Latin, caritas, but justice. It is our most important obligation. The rabbis decreed that we give ten percent of our earnings annually as a form of self taxation, not as a gift. Many people care less about the good the money is doing than about how they feel giving it. This is solipsistic, backwards thinking. We live in a world that regards feelings as the truth. Yet if we wait for people’s hearts to prompt them to give 10 percent, we’d be waiting a long time. As with most things Jewish, it’s “Just do it.” Feelings come later.

As my grandmother taught me, while feelings are good, and believing is good, the best is the doing. Every Friday night before Shabbos, before every holiday, and to mark every life cycle, we put money into a pushke. When we lose an object and then find it, we’re obligated to give out of gratitude. The tradition teaches that one who sustains God’s creatures is as one who created them.

We’re taught to give to any beggar, not to inquire what the beggar will buy with it. Scotch or a sandwich is not my business. It’s between God and the recipient, and I’m reminded not to do God’s business of judging. We have a story of a son who follows his father’s instructions and gives money to the poor. He returns and tells his father that one of the beggars was eating meat and drinking wine. His father tells him to give him more. His soul is bitter within him, the father says. The poor do more for the rich than the rich do for the poor. The poor and the rich meet together and God lightens the eyes of both.

Giving is not only an obligation; it’s a way to make ourselves powerful forces of change in society. Rambam gave us eight levels of tzedakah, which he understood as the way to bring justice into an unfair world. The highest degree is one who upholds the hand of the one who has fallen into poverty by giving a gift or loan, or entering into a partnership, or finding work for the poor, to strengthen the individual, so that he or she will have no need to beg. Years ago I hear Letty Pogrebin turn the old advice about wearing clean underwear in case you’re in an accident, into a teaching about giving. If you’re in an accident, what’s the last check you’ve written? What do you value most?

By talking about money, I hope to begin a conversation about how we can, individually, bring strength to our community, by being open about how we give.

It’s got to be more than obligation, it’s got to be connected to our deepest desire to make the world more fair. The Talmud says that we will never finish the task and we may never cease from the effort.

We live in a world that depends on consumerism, that teaches us that getting is what makes us happy. Yet our tradition constantly talks of the saintly ones who looked for opportunity to open their homes to those in need, whether poor in body or poor in spirit. When we look at those most at peace with themselves, we find those generous in spirit. When they meet a stranger at services, they are thankful for the opportunity to invite you, the stranger, to a Shabbos meal. By giving, we receive heaven.

Once a beggar came to the Baal Shem Tov crying and yelling. “I used to be rich and helped many people. I never turned anyone away, and now look at me, I’m in rags. Is this my reward?”

The Besht, who could see into the future and past, looked at the man closely. “Moshe, why do you rail at the Holy One? Look at your life and you’ll understand. Remember Yom Kippur two years ago? Then, when you were the wealthiest man in town, you went to shul with your snuffbox.” (Many of you know, that although we fast on Yom Kippur, we nourish the soul by bringing fragrance to the body. So some carry a snuffbox around so that people could be revived, especially in the afternoon when the fast gets difficult.)

The Besht continued, “You went around the shul giving snuff to everyone. And there was a schlepper in the back of the shul, lying on a bench. You said to yourself, “Why should I walk back there for him when he could come to me? So he didn’t get any. Remember?” Moshe nodded. He did remember. “That schlepper had been fasting for three days. If you only knew how much he needed some snuff! He was so deep in his prayers that the heavens were wide open to him. When the angels saw that you didn’t give him a pinch of snuff, they closed the judgment book on you. They wrote that you should lose all your money and that the schlepper should become wealthy in your stead.”

Moshe jumped up. “That schlepper has all my money! What chutzpah! How do I get it back?”

The Baal Shem Tov said, “If you can find time, ask him and if he refuses to give you snuff, all your wealth will be returned.” So Moshe found the richest man in town and realized that he was, indeed, the schlepper. He followed him everywhere and planned the perfect time. Just before Shabbos the wealthy man was loaded with packages, hurrying home. Moshe waited in the bushes and as the man passed him, he jumped in front of him and asked him for snuff. The wealthy man stopped abruptly and began to put down his packages. He reached into his pocket and offered the snuff. Moshe, disappointed, took a pinch and walked off, not even helping the man to pick up his packages.

Moshe kept trying. Once he caught the man in a thundershower, and when everyone was running for cover, the wealthy man stopped, and even though his snuff was ruined by rain, he still offered it. Moshe stopped him when he was on the way to an important meeting, he stopped him in shul in the middle of prayers, he even stopped him in the bathroom. Always the snuff was offered immediately.

Finally Moshe thought of a foolproof idea. He waited one Friday morning in the mikveh, and after the wealthy man had removed his clothes and was dripping from the shower, Moshe asked him for a pinch of snuff. The man toweled himself off and offered the snuff. Moshe was about to give up until he heard the wealthy man’s daughter was getting married. On that special day, Moshe walked to the wedding. In those days, people would go looking for a stranger to invite to simhas, because they knew it would bring the married couple luck. So Moshe stood in his dirty clothes, and when the music started, he saw the wealthy man begin to dance with his daughter, the new bride. This was the moment! He tapped the man on the shoulder and asked him for a pinch of snuff. The father stopped dancing with his daughter, reached into his pocket, and offered the snuff. So awed was Moshe by the man’s generosity he fainted right there on the dance floor.

When he was revived, Moshe told the wealthy man his story, who replied, “I never doubted for a minute that everything that happened to me in the last few years was a message from God. But now I see that you have suffered so much, I will equally share with you all the wealth I have.” The town became famous for its two wealthy citizens who gave more and more tzedakah through the years. The spirit of generosity grew to unknown heights, and by the way, there was more snuff given away in that city than ever before or ever after.”

May we in the coming year leave bigger tips, spend more time thinking about how to give more, and may we awaken each morning and look to see where we may give. Tzdekah saves from death, not just physical death, spiritual death. May we “Choose life” by giving.