We all know that money can’t buy us love, that more money brings more worries, and that winning the lottery often ruins people’s lives. Yet we still dream about having more money than we can ever spend. The reasons are obvious. Unlimited wealth would at once resolve many of our biggest challenges and enable us to devote our time to what we really want to do. Let’s take a moment to think about what that dream of great wealth means.
Much of American society glorifies wealth, sometimes explicitly, but frequently more subtly. The media gushes over acquisitions and accomplishments associated with wealth in too many ways to count. Is this a value we should share? Ascetics, those who eschew worldly pleasures in their laser focus on the next world, will tell you that wealth is bad. We should deprive our body of anything beyond necessities in order to prioritize our soul. Hedonists will encourage you to enjoy what you can now. Some mystics might explain that worldly pleasures can be sanctified.
Should we be pro-wealth or anti-wealth, or at least embarrassed about our wealth? Should we embrace lavish vacations or refrain from taking them? Tanach points readers in different directions. On the one hand, acquiring wealth should not be a goal: “He who loves money will never be satisfied with money” (Ecc. 5:9). “For when he dies, he will carry nothing away; his wealth will not descend after him” (Ps. 49:18). On the other hand, Shlomo is praised for his great wealth (II Kings 5:1-8). This seems like the standard mixed message we hear from community leaders—telling people to value spiritual accomplishments rather than money while praising the wealthy for their large bank accounts.
In a recent book, The Wisdom of Wealth: Torah Values Regarding Money (Mosaica, 2017, 189 pages), Rav Chananel Herbsman explains the answer to this dilemma: neither. We should be neither pro-wealth nor embarrassed about it. The fancy vacations and other avenues of spending large amounts of money are neither positive nor negative. The importance lies not in what you do but why you do it. He writes, “Wealth is essentially valueless… Its purpose is to serve as a means to attain higher goals.”
The first of the book’s three sections is titled The Importance of Self-Sufficiency. Earning your own keep protects you from sin and helps you build your relationship with G-d. When you rely on others for your livelihood, you lose that opportunity to rely on G-d. Work is not just a means to generate wealth; it is a positive tool to build character and contribute to society.
The second section provides Torah sources on how to build and maintain financial self-sufficiency. Don’t expect to find any stock tips here. The lessons are more fundamental, and more fundamentally missing from contemporary attitudes. These include the Rambam’s teaching (Mishneh Torah, Hilchot De’ot 5:10) that a man should “provide for his family according to his wealth.” In summary: live within your means, do not waste, budget wisely and plan for the future. It’s not how much you make but how much you need.
In the third section, Rav Herbsman explores ways in which wealth and poverty each are good, and ways in which they are negative. For example, poverty can breed desperate reliance on others, leading to flattery and even denial of God. It can shatter a person’s self-respect, which risks rejection of everything associated with the status, including religion.
On the other hand, poverty avoids the character problems associated with wealth, most notably arrogance. An arrogant person fails to grow because he does not see his own faults, much less listen when someone else offers spiritual direction. The poor person may give up on himself; the rich person may give up on everyone besides himself.
Wealth breeds waste, a disdainful attitude to things and people. It enables indulgence, constant chasing after a wide variety of desires. There is nothing wrong with enjoying pleasures as part of a healthy, balanced life. A vacation or good dinner brings joy to our busy days. However, our primary focus has to be on satisfying our needs, not indulging our desires.
This is where so many of us falter. We teach our children the difference between needs and wants, but do we take that advice to heart? When our lives revolve around indulging our desires, we misuse the resources we were given. The guidance we sometimes receive is confusing. We have so many kosher options, but many of them are only appropriate under the right circumstances, with the mindset of a want and not a need. The same dessert or vacation can be a pleasure enjoyed in a life of satisfaction or another acquisition in a life spent chasing pleasures.
There is nothing wrong with wealth, but there are wrong attitudes about it. Let us think carefully about our attitudes to money and pleasures. Needs and wants are subjective, which is why we can only grow if we are brutally honest with ourselves about what we truly need.