“The Torah’s Definition of True Wealth”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald


In this week’s parasha, parashat Re’eh, we read some of the most exalted statements ever recorded in human literature concerning caring for the poor and the downtrodden.

The Torah, in Deuteronomy 15:7, states, כִּי יִהְיֶה בְךָ אֶבְיוֹן מֵאַחַד אַחֶיךָ בְּאַחַד שְׁעָרֶיךָ, בְּאַרְצְךָ אֲשֶׁר השׁם אֱ־לֹקֶיךָ נֹתֵן לָךְ, לֹא תְאַמֵּץ אֶת לְבָבְךָ וְלֹא תִקְפֹּץ אֶת יָדְךָ מֵאָחִיךָ הָאֶבְיוֹן, If there be a destitute person among you, any of your brethren in any of your cities, in the Land that the L-rd your G-d gives you, you shall not harden your heart or close your hand against your destitute brother. The Torah then concludes, Deuteronomy 15:8, כִּי פָתֹחַ תִּפְתַּח אֶת יָדְךָ לוֹ, וְהַעֲבֵט תַּעֲבִיטֶנּוּ דֵּי מַחְסֹרוֹ אֲשֶׁר יֶחְסַר לוֹ, Rather, you shall open your hand to him; you shall lend him his requirement, whatever is lacking to him.

When reading these verses, we must bear in mind that they were written over 3,000 years ago, at a time when, aside from the Jews, charity and caring for the widow, orphan and poor were not at all a cause for concern among any other people or nation.

Especially in the seventh year of the shemita cycle, when the farmland lay fallow and unworked, the Torah warns that the Hebrew farmer not look malevolently upon their destitute brothers and refuse to support them as the seventh year, shemita, approaches.

The Torah truly set a new standard of concern for the needy and the poor by proclaiming in Deuteronomy 15:10, נָתוֹן תִּתֵּן לוֹ וְלֹא יֵרַע לְבָבְךָ בְּתִתְּךָ לוֹ, כִּי בִּגְלַל הַדָּבָר הַזֶּה יְבָרֶכְךָ השׁם אֱ־לֹקֶיךָ בְּכָל מַעֲשֶׂךָ וּבְכֹל מִשְׁלַח יָדֶךָ, You shall surely give him [the needy and the poor], and let your heart not feel bad when you give him, for in return for this matter the L-rd your G-d will bless you in all your deeds, and in your every undertaking.

What is the operating rationale behind these exalted statements and noble sentiments that are unparalleled in human and religious literature or culture?

The psalmist, in Psalms 24:1, declares, “The earth and its fullness belong to the L-rd, the world, and all its inhabitants.” Judaism rejects the notion of “personal” property. Everything belongs to G-d! Humans are merely caretakers of G-d’s property that is placed temporarily in our possession.

As if to underscore the idea of caretaking, it has become a popular Jewish custom to inscribe the books in one’s personal home library with the verse from Psalms 24:1, and then writing, בִּרְשׁוּת , Birshut,  this volume, is only in my possession, as if the volume is borrowed from G-d.

The rabbis declare, in Beitza 16a, that on Rosh Hashanah, a person’s income is allotted from one new year to the next, with the exception of expenses for Shabbat and holiday meals, and the cost of Jewish education. According to Rabbeinu Bachya (click here for full bio) even those who work harder will not earn more, and those who work less will still earn the same. One cannot increase or decrease what has been ordained in Heaven.

The prophet Malachi 3:10, declares, וּבְחָנוּנִי נָא בָּזֹאת אָמַר השׁם צְבָאוֹת, Test me herewith, says the L-rd of Hosts, if I will not open to you the windows of Heaven and pour out a blessing that shall be more than sufficiency. The prophet assures those generous people who bring tithes and give charity with an open heart that G-d will provide for them. Despite the general prohibition of testing G-d, when it comes to charity, G-d implores the people to test Him by giving charity and expecting to be rewarded.

A similar theme is found in parashat Re’eh. In Deuteronomy 14:22, the Torah proclaims, עַשֵּׂר תְּעַשֵּׂר אֵת כָּל תְּבוּאַת זַרְעֶךָ הַיֹּצֵא הַשָּׂדֶה שָׁנָה שָׁנָה, You must surely tithe all the produce of your planting that your field yields on a daily basis. The Talmud, in Shabbat 119a, in a play on words, declares, עַשֵּׂר בִּשְׁבִיל שֶׁתִּתְעַשֵּׁר, Tithe, so that you will become wealthy.

Rabbi Shimon Schwab, says that this rabbinic statement is not a promise of riches for giving tithes. Rather, it is a formula for self-education. After all, when a person gives, he actually decreases his material wealth. Yet, by sharing his material blessings with others, he is cultivating in himself true wealth: that of being שָּׂמֵחַ בְּחֶלְקוֹ, sa’may’ach b’chel’ko, of being satisfied with what he has.

Rabbi Schwab explains that only a person who gives charity to others can fully realize that his wealth is indeed sufficient, so much so, that he has enough to share with others. Now that he is truly happy with his lot and with what he has, this realization automatically makes him rich.

May you be blessed.