Living in a Material World
Rabbis have long tried to persuade us of the benefits of parting with some of our money. Are we listening?
Recently, the head of my son’s yeshiva, a well-known and revered figure, gave a talk. He is a man with charisma. He has magnetism, authority. Everyone stood when he entered the room. I imagine that for my son and his friends, he is a kind of king: a king of the Torah world who seeks honor only for the Torah.
He spoke about how an individual must exercise restraint: One must not go after the glitter of the moment, the fancy cars, or the ostentatious home. In all areas, one must hold back, even in food: one piece of cake, one and a half—no more. A man must say “no” to himself. A man is not an animal. He takes what he needs for himself and leaves the rest for others.
The room was absolutely packed. Young men listened in rapt attention. Members of the community—a wealthy one in Riverdale, N.Y.—took notes. As they streamed out of the lecture hall, I couldn’t help but notice how well-dressed everyone was, as stylish as you would find anywhere in New York. The crowd was relaxed, even tanned—as if they had just returned from vacation. I noticed, too, that parked near the yeshiva were Mercedes convertibles, many a Lexus and BMW, icons of materialism and status. These were obviously people who did not live monastic lives. How did the rabbi’s words affect them? Can anyone save for a saintly few ever really renounce their wealth for the sake of something spiritual? Should anyone? After all, wealth in the Jewish community is practically a necessity—particularly given the costs of maintaining a kosher home and raising observant children who attend private schools. The rabbi’s very yeshiva was built with other people’s riches.
And yet astoundingly, while in the room people nodded their heads in agreement with the rabbi, as though in that moment they were ready to give it up, all of it: the sumptuous homes, the fancy cars, the opulent bar mitzvahs and weddings—all could be surrendered in a fit of fervor. But not so fast.
Across the centuries and through the annals of time, rabbis and prophets alike have tried to persuade their flocks to let go of some of their riches. “To me belong the silver and the gold, sayeth the Lord,” preached Haggai the prophet in the days after the First Temple. “Charity saves from death,” King Solomon famously wrote. Yet very little can persuade a man in this area of his life. There are great, nearly impervious forces in a person that make him hold his money close. The Talmud famously says a man is born with a reflex: If you give him an object, his hands clench tight—he wants to grasp and hold on to everything and keep it. Valiantly, the rabbis try with their eloquence, their call to the spirit, their assurances of long life and a glorious afterlife to loosen that grip. The cycle continues as predictably as the sun rises and as night follows day. We make money, some of us lots of it, and the blandishments of the prophets and the words sprinkled on us by the rabbis help us to part with some of it.
And maybe we not only need the occasional reminding that money is not the highest and noblest aim; we might actually relish such nudging, smiling a little bit inside as we are persuaded to unclench our fists for a moment. This clenching and unclenching, perhaps, is our way of realizing that we are successful enough to accumulate wealth, and yet success and money do not a life make. We want the rabbis to remind us of purposes that are higher and nobler, and that we may ultimately have more and be more by giving some of our wealth away.
Back in the early 1990s, I was involved in fundraising for a yeshiva. This was at the height of the Internet boom, when people were becoming millionaires overnight with seemingly little effort. There was a great emphasis on making money—more and more of it. I met a man through an acquaintance who was a high-flyer. He was mysterious about his money; nobody knew how he made it, but he allowed that he was in “wealth management” and “investments.” Nothing about his beliefs or his lifestyle in any way suggested he would be sympathetic to our cause, a black-hat yeshiva. Still, I asked him if he would help our school.
“Yes,” was the reply, and he warmly invited me to visit his office, in a high-rise overlooking Fifth Avenue.
The normal protocol at these types of meetings involves handing the donor a brochure. One might expect a perfunctory question or two about the cause and a promise to send “something in the mail” most often, a modest check. Not with this man. He got up from his desk and reclined on something that looked like a Grecian sofa that faced a huge glass window and he started to talk. A man lies down on a couch? As a psychotherapist, I was sure this meant that he would talk revealingly about himself, and he did not disappoint.
On this quasi-couch he shared his fantasies about amassing even greater wealth than he had, and his intended acquisitions—he considered buying a Major League Baseball team, a home in Israel (he already had homes in the Hamptons and New York). In between, he sprinkled the conversation with various theories about economics and boom-bust cycles, market forces. He was a very intelligent man and had a wonderful life drive. At no point did he ask me about the yeshiva.
At the end of the meeting he handed me a check and told to me to come back again soon. He folded the check over and instructed me not to look at until I left the office. “I will absolutely not tolerate any thank you’s,” he said. “The money is not really mine. I am just the steward for it.” I left without thanking him, and outside the office I unfolded the check; it was for $20,000. This continued several times a year for quite a few years—each time the check was no less than several thousand. For years I didn’t dare ask him why he was doing this. After all, why tamper with a man who is giving cash like a fountain?
But one day I screwed up the courage to ask him in a roundabout way. He seemed rather uncomfortable, even embarrassed by the question. He stammered. He couldn’t say why exactly, but ultimately he came out with it: “It’s the rabbis,” he said, “the rabbis.” He wouldn’t elaborate just then, but over time and subsequent visits it became clearer. He loved rabbis. They sang to him. Their rocking back and forth, their beats, their cadence, and their somber invocation of timeless words, their rhythm of righteousness with all its imperfections and hard questions, the call to be more; having a home in the afterlife spoke to him, too.
It turned out that although I did almost none of the talking, somehow my cause had spoken to him. How can I describe how an intimacy of righteousness works? In those meetings, despite being in the middle of a busy work day, a pleasant intensity quickly developed between us. I remember it as a lovely, warm bubble. He would look heavenward on the couch; his voice moved higher. He tossed words, big words high into the air and then abruptly he would stop talking and hand me the check quickly as though to hold on to it for even a minute longer was a sin.
This particular man had an extraordinary amount of money. And yet it seemed as though with the rabbis silently speaking through me, he had come on his own to realize that excess was a kind of sin. The money he had striven for, he had to give it up—at least some of it.
Perhaps this is what we experienced in my son’s yeshiva. In a moment of communal intimacy with the rabbi, we heard a song of sweet rebuke. Not that I thought that anyone in the parking lot would follow the donor’s example. After all, it is not the way of the world to let go of wealth or pleasure easily. Yet the crowd listened—somewhere through the power of the rabbi and through the intimate connection with another, we let go of it, just a little.
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To overcome fated lives, the Talmud’s rabbis argued, perform virtuous acts according to Torah