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The Challenge of Wealth

By Rabbi Dr. Meir Tamari

RESPONSA - MISHPATIM [vol.2]

The Challenge of Wealth: A Historical Perspective

Wealth is a challenge not only to the individual but also to the society in which we live; a challenge expressed not only in money but involving power, politics, social tensions and international relations as well. The historical books of the Bible, namely the books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings, that depict almost 1000 years of independence and statehood, can serve to demonstrate a Jewish perspective on this challenge in its widest ramifications. We will present appropriate chapters from these books that highlight this perspective. Since the basic moral and spiritual issues remain the same despite the passage of time and the changes that have occurred in technology, these books can provide an ideological framework within which we today can better formulate our individual answers to this challenge.

FIRST FRUITS: THE CONQUEST OF JERICHO. (Joshua, Chapters 5-6).

Israel, after 40 years in the desert, crossed the Jordan River and now stood encamped outside Jericho, referred to by our Sages as the key to the Land of Israel, as it constitutes the major entry-point from the east into the land. The biblical description of the conquest and the preparations for it, constitute a veritable Jewish game-plan, for economic activity. First there was the sending of 2 spies to determine the state of the morale of the city and its strength; although there was a Divine promise of victory, yet one may not depend on miracles and the supernatural to bring about that victory. This applies to the satisfaction of all human needs and wants. Then because any material, physical and natural human activity demands spiritual preparation in order that the activity not be unethical, morally distorted or excessive, Joshua was given 2 spiritual- religious commandments for the people to perform, prior to beginning the conquest. The first was the circumcision of all males born after the Exodus from Egypt; owing to the heath hazards inherent in travelling through the desert, it had not been possible to do this at the required 8th day after their births. This act, bringing these men into the Covenant of Abraham, was an essential prerequisite to any conquest. After all, the Land was promised to them only as the members of the Abrahamic family, so that their conquest while their part of the covenant was still unfilled would be simple theft and aggression. So too would have been their entry before observing the Passover, that constitutes their formation as the People of G-d. Therefore, they were commanded to celebrate Pesach; eating of the produce of the land rather than the Manna which ceased as soon as they crossed the Jordan.

Such ongoing spiritual-religious preparation is likewise a prerequisite for all our economic and business activity and the use of our material wealth. "Rabban Gamliel the son of Rabbi Judah Hanassi says, Torah study is good together with an occupation, for busying oneself with them both makes sin forgotten. All Torah study that is not joined with work, will in the last resort, cease to exist" (Chapters of the Fathers, Chapter 2, mishnah 2). Actually Rabban Gamliel, gave a Jewish answer to an age-old question that has bothered Mankind since the dawn of history. The natural order of things demands that Mankind satisfy its material wants and needs through normal and natural means; yet how do we cope with the greed, strife, exploitation and bloodshed which all to often flow from the search for and exploitation of wealth? Men have sought to solve this by completely withdrawing from economic activity or by subjecting that activity to restraints that run counter to human nature. Monasticism is one example of the former and socialism an example of the latter. Both give to evils perhaps as great as those they came to solve. The commentators on the Pirkei Avot explained that those who devote themselves only to Torah will then be poor, and will eventually steal; alternatively they will pander to the rich in order to earn their livelihood (Rambam; Meiri). However, Rabban Gamliel, explains that without Torah, the search for a livelihood will pervert people and so cause them to sin. This is codified as halakhah. "After a person finishes his prayers and study, he should go about his work or occupation. He should make his study the essential part and the pursuit of his livelihood secondary" (Orech Chayim, Section 156).

There are two conflicting sources in the Talmud, regarding the priorities between Torah study and ones livelihood. One states, "The primary question a person is asked after their death is, were your economic dealings faithful"? (Shabbat, 31a) This faith is commonly translated to mean honestly, however, the Orekh HaShulch stresses that it means, commercial dealing coupled with the faith that G-d will supply all our needs; with such faith all economic evil is unnecessary. Then there is the Tamudical saying (Sanhedrin, 10a), that a person's trial begins with the question regarding Torah study. Tosaphot teach that the question regarding faith in economic affairs is put to the Torah scholar, who after his studies turned to earning a livelihood, while the question regarding Torah study is required of the non-scholar.

Parallel to the game-plan of Jericho, the balance of constant spiritual-religious preparation and the economic activity sanctioned by that preparation is our answer. Yet Jericho adds an important and vital element. Joshua, on the eve of the conquest, declares that nobody shall ever rebuild Jericho, nor another city elsewhere called by that name nor one on the same site but with a new name (6).There is to be no monument to this first conquest, no place that future generations can visit to take pride in the greatness of their victory, nor anything to commemorate the brilliance and bravery of Israel's generals and soldiers. Rather empty space bearing testimony only to G-d. The first fruits of Jewish conquest are to be like the bikkurim that the Jewish farmer brought to the Temple while making a confession (Deut. 26:1-8 ). Both bearing witness, that all our achievements in all fields of human activity, including economics and business, are given to us from His Hand, depending neither on luck nor strength, nor cleverness.


Copyright © 2004 by Rabbi Dr. Meir Tamari and Torah.org.

Rabbi Dr. Tamari is a renowned economist, Jewish scholar, and founder of the Center For Business Ethics (www.besr.org) in Jerusalem.


 
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