For the week ending 3 January 2009 / 7 Tevet 5769

Money Talks

by Rabbi Yirmiyahu Ullman -
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From: Manny in Austin, TX

Dear Rabbi,

With all the discussion on the causes of the current financial crisis I can’t help but wonder if there aren’t additional reasons going on behind the scenes. Can you offer any insight into this aspect of the crisis?

Dear Manny,

Contrary to popular belief, I am not a prophet. Nor do I wish to be apocalyptic. However, insofar as Judaism posits that G-d runs the world, and that things that happen are often directly related to what people do, there might be a connection between our attitude toward money and wealth and what’s happened with the world economy.

Of course, there are real, tangible reasons and explanations for what’s happened. And as you say, that’s what everyone is talking about. Also, in considering the possible spiritual reasons behind the scenes, the key is to view them as what you correctly label “additional” reasons (although they might still be primary). This means one should not be divorced from the reality of the situation, nor should one loose touch with the human element, and should have empathy for those who have lost.

That being said, the Torah position on money is that wealth is a gift from G-d independent of one’s effort or economic acumen. One person may be very original, astute and hard working and never amass much wealth, whereas another might not have much of these talents yet be very successful. Regardless, a person must view his financial success (or lack thereof) as coming from G-d. The corollary of this is that the wealth which one has must be used according to the will of the One who bestowed it. For this reason people are expected to be charitable, provide for the needy and in some cases give up to 20 percent of their net income to charity.

In our modern, materially oriented world, global obsession with wealth and financial success may have blinded mankind to the purpose of wealth, namely to be cognizant of G-d, express our gratitude to Him and to generously share wealth with the less fortunate. Not to proclaim, “By my strength and through the power of my own hands have I acquired all this”, but rather “To G-d is the glory, the grandeur, the success, and the splendor”. We must view the act of giving as a privilege, an honor and even as a gift itself – “the gift of giving”.

It is my (perhaps naïve) opinion that the early founders of America had all this in mind with the decision to inscribe “In G-d We Trust” on the money of the United States. The point is clear: Despite America’s wealth of natural resources and the resourcefulness of the early American spirit, it was stated unabashedly with the intention to inculcate to all – it is to G-d whom we pray and in G-d whom we place our trust for financial success. (Ironically, among the multitude of ways that Israel mimics America, this is not one of them.)

Unfortunately, over time, in the United States and internationally, we have lost sight of this humble yet very powerful creed which has greatly been replaced with egotistical consumption, vice and greed. Perhaps the root of the crisis, then, is G-d’s repudiation of our trust in money rather than in Him. Perhaps in replacing the motto “In G-d We Trust” with “For Money We Lust”, by indulging in unnecessary luxuries while others lack the bare necessities, we have forfeited His blessing such that the money upon which we lean has started to crumble. Maybe we need to feel more acutely the precariousness of the needy, to give more to others and to put our mouths where our money is by sincerely proclaiming: In G-d We Trust!

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