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The Challenge of Wealth - Introduction

By Dr. Meir Tamari

Since time immemorial, religion, philosophy and social action have sought to solve the questions of morality that flow from sex, economics, political organization, food and the pursuit of pleasure. Often, these answers have denied the legitimacy of any activity in the mundane and the material, aspiring instead to an otherworldly, purely spiritual future or have denigrated them as being necessary evils for inferior people. This then is our debate on the Nazir, man or woman, as dealt with in our parsha.

The Nazirite laws are a legitimate part of the halakhic structure and the Torah called such men and women 'kadosh' -holy. The holiness referred to the actual body of the Nazir, making the person a being of holiness (Sifri). Nezer, the word from which Nazir is drawn, means crown, and the growth of the unshorn locks is seen as a glory.

Superficially it seems difficult to reconcile the concept of the Nazir in our sedra with the teachings of mainstream Judaism, that it is not the destruction of normal human needs, whether social sexual, political or economic, that is to be aimed at, but rather the educational process whereby all these may be made holy and serve the Divine. However, there is no ascetic motivation in the institution of the Nazir and these vows are not an attempt to destroy human lust or desires. Rather, they are part of the search for the holiness to be expressed within these self same desires. They must be seen in the perspective of an aid to improved religiosity and enhanced sanctity, without destroying Judaism's balance between materialism and spirituality. This balance is clearly stated in the oath of the Nazir, who abstains only from wine but not from marriage, involvement in business or any of the manifold activities needed in any human society. The abstinence is temporary and restricted to those attributes or inclinations that an individual feels can hinder or distort their religious and spiritual achievement.

Consider the following two passages from Maimonides:

"If one should say, "because envy, lust, arrogance and similar pressures are evil and destroy people, I will separate myself from them and follow asceticism," and then refuses to eat meat, drink wine, remains celibate and does not want to live in a pleasant house and wear pleasant clothes, preferring sack-cloth and coarse wool and other ascetic actions as do the gentile monks- this is a wrong way and it is forbidden to follow it" (Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Deot, chapter 3, halakhah1).

"One who takes an oath [like the Nazir] to provide a physical basis for spirituality or to improve their actions is praiseworthy and pleasant. For example a person who is a glutton and vows to deny meat [symbol of extravagant eating] for a year or two; those who have a passion to enrich themselves or are driven to pursue wealth and now take an oath to refuse to accept bribes or gifts or to deceive through legal methods; and all other similar cases whose purpose is to enhance the worship of G-d, these oaths are what the sages referred to as a fence for restraint, [ prishut that brings to kedusha]"(Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Sefer Haflah, Hilkhot Nedarim, chapter 13, halakhah 23).

The Nazir is preceded in our parsha by the law of 'meilah' [falsehood, Sifri], literally treachery but referring to the abuse or denial of a debt or obligation. Actually the principles of the laws of 'meilah' have already been given in Vayikra, 5: 20; if somebody has denied a debt under oath, however it may be incurred -use of trust money, denial of a loan or failure to return a lost object- the guilty party has to make restitution and to pay a fine of 20% and also to bring an 'asham' -guilt offering. It is repeated here in order to teach firstly that this applies also to the ger- convert- who is the only person in Israel who does not have heirs. Secondly, that the penalty and the sacrifice apply only following the admission of the debtor. If the false oath had been revealed, only by the evidence of witnesses, then the debtor returns only the capital. After all, the debtor has done nothing, and the possibility of teshuvah- repentance- applies only to the person who actually performs an act to rectify the sin, otherwise the guilt before HaShem still remains.

The Admor of Belz, Reb Aharon'u, points out that the gematriat value of 'sulam', ladder, is equivalent to that of 'kesef"-money. The angels descending and ascending on the ladder seen in the dream of Ya'akov, teach that some people are able to ascend spiritually in the way they earn and spend their money while others descend to earth. Indeed, nowhere in the whole field of human activity are the lusts and needs that need prishut-separation- and religious guidance greater than in this field of human activity. Mitzvot are intended to refine us morally and enhance our closeness to HaShem, so there are more [over 100] mitzvot regarding money than regarding kosher food for example, that is so characteristic of Jewish living, since the desires are greater. However, laws are of themselves insufficient to enable us to overcome the pressures of the yetzer- attraction- of money. We need the balance described by the Rambam above regarding the Nazir if we are to live a life, not of poverty and asceticism, but of "enough," that is the insurance against sins in the market-place.

"The Mezzuzah that we affix to the doorpost is connected to the things that we bring in and take out of our houses. We gather into our homes the wealth that G-d has bestowed upon us. All should therefore be in truth and in faith as befits a house on which the Law of G-d is inscribed on the door posts. This is the secret of conducting one's business in faithfulness.In other words, what one brings into the house, that is what one earns, should be in faithfulness. What we take out, what we spend our money on should also be in faith. Since our demands create the need for our economic activities and expose us to the problems of morality there. One should not expend money on useless things or to satisfy excessive desires, fueled by advertising or the consumption patterns of our neighbors.....We should suffice with necessities, or at least with modest demands, and spend our lives in the study of Torah, on helping the poor or on acts of chesed- loving-kindness-all of which limit our economic activities and lessen what we retain for ourselves". (Shlah, Sha'ar Haotiyot)

Copyright © 2002 by Rabbi Meir Tamari and Project Genesis, Inc.

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

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