5768 - #39


The second paragraph of the Shema Yisrael1 presents a most interesting dilemma. The basic theme of the paragraph is that if we follow the Will of God, we will be blessed with plenty – in crops, in animals, in material sustenance. If we do not, chas v’shalom, we will, in turn, face the wrath of God which could result in our banishment from our land, our good land which is blessed, again, with the ability to provide us with much physical wealth and sustenance. This is a theme that seems to be repeated throughout the Torah text, yet on a certain level it would also seem to be a theme that challenges our very understanding of the purpose of Torah. Is prosperity actually to be our goal in observing Torah? It seems from these and similar verses, wealth – attainable when we observe mitzvot, lost when we do not – is the motivation by which the Torah directs our behaviour. But is wealth even to be, according to Torah thought, one of our desires?

            Avot 4:1 presents the famous concept that the rich person is actually not the one who has accumulated much material wealth but rather the person who is happy with his/her share, seemingly with what he/she has. This mishna would seem to reinforce the idea that wealth is not to be one of our motivations. Avot 6:4 would seem to further be expressing this point, declaring almost that asceticism is actually the way that someone grows in Torah wisdom and reaches the pinnacles of our faith. It would seem, according to this mishna, that not only is wealth not to be our goal and depravation not to be something that we should try to avoid, but our goal should be exactly the opposite. In this light, the words of the second paragraph of Shema actually seem most strange for why would observance of Torah lead to much material sustenance when such a situation only, it would seem according to this mishna, leads away from Torah growth. Why should wealth be our motivation? It would seem better to be deprived for that is the way, it seems according to this mishna, that we grow in Torah and isn’t that to be our goal?

             Both of these mishnayot actually are further connected for they both apply the same verse, Tehillim 128:2, as a proof of their assertions. The strange, thing, though, is that this verse does not really deal with wealth, in a generic sense, but rather with the value of labour. Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, in his comments on this verse, declares that the verse is describing the value of wealth that is achieved through effort, in comparison to wealth that is simply inherited and which a person simply attains without work. The question can thus be asked: how did the authors of these two mishnayot develop a concept that seems to challenge wealth in general from a verse that only challenges wealth that is not earned and, in fact, specifically praises wealth that is the product of labour? It may be that the fault actually lies in our understanding of these two mishnayot and that they also are not challenging wealth in general but only wealth attained without effort; and, in deed, the way of Torah is actually not achieved through depravation but rather in the context of a wealth that is tied to effort. This, though, does not seem to be the meaning of the simple reading of these two mishnayot, yet the simple reading seems to yield its own problems.

            Medrash Shmuel, Avot 6:4, in explaining the concept that the path by which one is to achieve Torah scholarship is through a measure of depravation, states that this direction is meant for both the wealthy and the poor. This is in contrast to the words of Rashi on this mishna which states that the mishna is not informing a rich person that he must deprive himself to achieve success on the path of Torah. Rather the mishna is informing us that the one who truly wishes to be successful in the realm of Torah must even be willing to sacrifice in the basic comforts of life in order to achieve his objective. Interestingly, Rashi then concludes with the statement that one who makes such a sacrifice will be blessed with eventually studying in wealth.2 The rift between these two commentators may actually not be so large. There are two sides to the relationship between wealth and the person. One is from the material perspective and focuses on the ability to live in luxury and prosperity. The other focuses on the individual perspective and the desire itself to live in luxury and prosperity. The Medrash Shmuel is focusing on the latter and stating that the mishna is informing us that, even if we have the ability to live in a prosperous manner, the path of Torah is not to live in such a manner. Rashi, though, is focusing on the former; even if we are limited in our ability to live in comfort, in order to achieve success in Torah we must be able to place our desire for Torah over all other desires and suffer the non-satisfaction of other drives to satisfy our drive for Torah. Rashi thus concludes with the blessing that, eventually, in the pursuit of Torah, we will no longer have to feel the pain and bother of limitation. No doubt, Medrash Shmuel would agree. Wealth removes the limitations of depravation but still, having prosperity does not mean that we should meet all our desires.

            The words of Rav Moshe Chayim Luzzatto, Mesillat Yesharim, B’Bei’ur Middat Haprishut, in explaining T.J. Kiddushin 4:12, immediately come to mind. Ramchal states that we will be judged in regard to the needs that we did not satisfy that we should have satisfied, that were necessary for our well being – both physically and psychologically. We still, though, must be careful to exercise restraint and not be taken in by ravenous desire. This is the meaning of Avot 4:1. The truly rich person is the one who is happy with his/her share, with the results of their efforts that reflect their true needs and not simply a desire for physical plenty. Abarbanel, Avot 4:1 points out that the desire for wealth can overtake us, yielding a lust that can never be satisfied. Obviously wealth, – the ability to satisfy one’s needs -- is important. Restraint on our desires to ensure that they reflect what we truly need is, though, also important. We must ensure that we do not improperly understand our desires so that we set a goal for what we need that is not true or that we become so concerned with having the ability to meet our needs that we do not properly understand our desires.

            The words of V’haya im shamo’ah are thus most important. If we follow God’s Will. He will bless us with the wealth that we need, that allows us the ability to meet our true necessities and thereby allows us to grow in Torah. We though still will have the responsibility to use this ability wisely and not simply satisfy all our theoretical desires because we are able to. We still have the responsibility to work on ourselves and recognize what our true needs really are. We then can thank Hashem for the wealth and therefore the ability to meet these true needs; thereby growing in Torah through the correct prioritization of our efforts and our being.


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Rabbi Benjamin Hecht e-mail


1 Devarim 11:13-21.

2 See, similarly, Baruch She’amar, Avot 6:4.

 (c) Nishma, 2008


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