Gilt Guilt

Is wealth a curse? Is it wrong to enjoy wealth while others are impoverished?

Q. I work at an interesting job that pays a fantastic salary. I guess I should be grateful, but really I feel guilty for getting paid so much when others are suffering from poverty. Is it wrong to enjoy wealth while others are impoverished?

A. I’m sure many readers would like to experience your particular sorrow, but the fact remains that this is a profound question.

The basic approach of Judaism to wealth is that it is a positive thing which we should enjoy and be grateful for, as long as two conditions are filled:

1. We must use our wealth in a responsible fashion; 2. We must always remember that our wealth is not a reflection of our inner worth, but rather is a deposit given to us by the Creator.

Certainly someone blessed with material resources is permitted and encouraged to enjoy them. Judaism doesn’t encourage asceticism. Indeed, one of the most prominent features of our religion is the blessings we make on all kinds of material enjoyments, including food, drink, fragrances and so on. By taking the time to praise the Creator for these enjoyments, we augment our appreciation of them, and at the same time elevate them from being a purely bodily enjoyment to being a spiritual experience as well.

But enjoyment is maximized when it is moderated. So there should still be plenty of resources left for giving charity. According to Jewish tradition, a person of means should strive to give twenty percent of his or her income to charity each year. The most prominent recipients are generally the needy and Torah education; at the same time, other worthy causes need not be neglected.

You write that many people “suffer from poverty”, but it is also true that many impoverished people are very happy and don’t suffer at all. And certainly there are many individuals who suffer from wealth. It is a foundational belief in Judaism that wealth and poverty each have their own challenges. In the book of Proverbs, we find a prayer to be given neither poverty nor riches, “Lest I become sated and deny, saying, ‘Who is God?'; or lest I become impoverished and steal, thus profaning the name of My God.” (Proverbs 30:7-9.)

The problem is that when a person has a surfeit of material enjoyments, it requires more effort for him or her to remain acutely aware of the guiding hand of God’s providence in providing them. Those who have the good fortune to be well off should be particularly careful to be cheerful and grateful to the Creator for their enjoyments and status. We can illustrate this with an example from the Talmud.

The Talmud tells of two Torah scholars who possessed legendary wealth. One was Rabbi Eliezer ben Charsom, who inherited from his father a thousand cities and a thousand trading ships! Yet in order to keep the management of his estate from distracting him from Torah study, he used to wander anonymously from place to place carrying a sack of flour, subsisting on a little bread and devoting himself to study.

The other was Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi, the governor of the Jewish people, redactor of the Mishna and one of the most renowned Jewish sages of all time. It was said that his possessions were so great that the mere manure from his horses made his stable-keeper wealthier than the king of Persia.

In contrast to the modest sustenance of Rabbi Eliezer ben Charsom, Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi did not live an ascetic life. On the contrary, he lived in such high fashion that the leading Roman nobles and generals were in awe of his wealth and status. Yet of all of our saints and sages, it was specifically Rabbi Yehuda who was able to swear on his deathbed, “Master of the Universe, it is well known to you that I used my ten fingers to exert myself in the Torah, and I didn’t enjoy even with my little finger.”

Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi was at such a high spiritual level that despite his extravagant lifestyle he could testify that during his entire lifetime nothing was consumed for his own enjoyment. Everything was for the glory and honor of the Jewish people and in order to have a greater appreciation of the creation.

Each of us, whether wealthy or poor, is called upon to serve the Creator from our particular situation. A wealthy person runs a greater risk of forgetting God’s role in providence, but also has a greater opportunity to use resources to help others and to expand his or her appreciation of God’s loving kindness.

[NOTE: It goes without saying that wealthy people should be particularly strict about business ethics. A poorer person may pretend to have an excuse due to his or her strained situation, but obviously this is irrelevant to a person of extensive resources.]

SOURCES: Kuzari II:50, III:13-17. Babylonian Talmud Yoma 35b; Shabbat 113b; Ketubot 104a. Shulchan Arukh Yoreh Deah 249:1.