The wealthy may not necessarily be so rich

After a record-breaking Amazon Prime Day, the newest figures came out and the net worth of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos topped a whopping $150 billion. Of course, the internet went crazy (no surprise there) estimating how much money Bezos was making per day, per hour, per minute and per second. (Money magazine did a calculation of Bezos’ staggering net growth from Jan. 1 to May 1 of this year and found that he made $275 million a day, which, when broken down, equals $11.5 million per hour, $191,000 per minute and $3,182 per second.)
News of wealth of this proportion generally leads to mass daydreaming by the public. We all wonder what we might do, where we might go and what we might purchase with so much money at our disposal. It’s a fun game to play, no doubt, but it’s important in the midst of all the hysteria and hoopla surrounding the acquisition of physical wealth that we not lose sight of the deeper, truer wealth that remains accessible to all of us and the dangers that surround the unchecked pursuit of money.
Ben Zoma famously taught that the Torah’s definition of wealth is far different from the world’s. “Who is rich?” he asked, “One who is happy with his lot” (Pirkei Avot 4:1). True wealth, Ben Zoma taught, is not measured by how much one possesses but by how little one lacks. Someone who has attained his goal and wants for nothing is the truly wealthy individual. Whereas the individual flush with cash and possessions who nevertheless craves more and more never finds that peace of mind he so desperately seeks.
Such an individual never ceases imagining that the next new and exciting acquisition will finally provide him with that much-sought-after, illusive inner serenity. And all for naught. Ironically, it is the unending pursuit of money and the feelings of dissatisfaction with one’s current standing that often accompany the pursuit of money that causes a man to be poor by Torah standards.
How do we become the types of people who become happy with our lot? The commentaries (Chasam Sofer, Chofetz Chaim and others) suggest that the answer to that question lies in the unusual wording of the mishnah itself. For instead of utilizing the common phrasing “One who is happy with what he has,” the mishnah adopts the distinct phrase “One who is happy with his lot.” And a “lot” implies that the happiness referenced herein stems specifically from the knowledge that all that one has is allotted by the Almighty for a specific function and purpose in this world: your one-of-a-kind purpose in this world.
So, whether one has vast wealth or far less than one’s neighbors, our collective happiness depends on recognizing God’s fingerprints on our wallets and trusting that we have exactly that which we need to fulfill our purpose on this Earth. Any happiness-depriving jealousy of others would be deeply inconsistent with such a spiritual vision.
On the flip side, King Solomon warns of the intoxicating nature of money and our endless and fruitless pursuit of it: “Whoever loves silver will not be sated with silver, and he who loves a multitude without increase — this too is vanity” (Kohelet 5:9). The Sages similarly recounted, “No one leaves this world with even half of his desires fulfilled. One who has one hundred wants two hundred. If he has two hundred he desires four hundred” (Kohelet Rabba 1:34).
As for an insight into the deep-seated makings of mankind’s unquenchable thirst for money, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch Zt’’l (1808-1888) offers this following profound commentary on Pirkei Avot 4:1:
“Striving after money, the means for pleasure, has no limit; for though money in itself does not give pleasure, it makes possible all future enjoyment. Therefore, the lust for money can never be satisfied.”
The physical pleasures of this world all have a satiation point. Eat enough food and drink enough drink, and your stomach is full. One’s hunger pangs subside, and there’s hardly room inside for more. So it is with other earthly pleasures. A hunger for pleasure wells within, yearning to be quenched, and once satisfied goes silent again — or at least for a short while.
Money is different. It offers no direct physical pleasure and therefore has no satiation point. Money rather represents the capital for all future pleasures to come. And just as the possibilities for man’s future are limitless, so too is his drive to acquire the medium (money) that will help finance those prospects.
As far as Judaism is concerned, wealth is not to be disparaged. On the contrary, money in the right hands can serve as a powerful force for good in this world. The world needs more individuals devoted to significant charitable giving as it does breadwinners committed to familial self-reliance. Money, however, must always remain in our eyes as a means to such larger sacred goals, never as an end in itself, a goal to achieve. After all, one can go mad laboring to score a goal on a target that never stops moving.

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