Rabbi Avi Shafran: Money Matters

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editorial3.jpgAs I waited for a bus the other day, a car stopped in front of me at a traffic light. The teen-age boys inside stared at me and smiled – in a peculiar way that I, with my beard and hat, have come to recognize as something other than friendly. As the light changed, the boy riding shotgun flipped a coin at my feet as the car’s occupants whooped with glee.

Ah, America.  In the old country (my parents’, that is; I was born and bred here), Jews had to endure things rather worse than being mocked as money-hungry.  My father, may he be well, remembers being confined to his house in a Polish town during certain non-Jewish holidays, when the locals, whipped into a frenzy by their spiritual guides, would devoutly attack any Jews they happened upon after church services.  He remembers Siberia too, where Soviet authorities hosted him in a labor camp; and, of course, his parents and seven siblings, all but two of whom were murdered by the Nazis and their eager Polish allies.

Me, the American, I get quarters thrown at me.  Persecution, at least in these blessed United States, isn’t what it used to be – boruch Hashem.

I didn’t pick up the coin, of course, as the teens had surely hoped I would.  The others at the bus stop similarly ignored the offering, out of (I think) embarrassment over the boys’ attempt at insult.

And yet the quarter, lying there idle, bothered me; I had to consciously resist retrieving it.  No, not because I’m money-grubbing.  But, yes, because I’m Jewish.  The Torah teaches me that everything – even a coin – matters.

The kids’ insinuation that Jews are slaves to lucre was hilariously ironic.  If any life is lived in obsession over possessions and the means of acquiring them, it’s that of the typical American youth.  The car’s occupants likely spend half of each day lusting after cars, music, jewelry, stylish clothing and high-tech toys – and the other half grabbing as much of it as they possibly can.

And if anyone is blessedly spared the torments of what passes in some parts these days for neediness, it is the typical frum Jew.  I don’t feel in the least deprived for wearing simple clothes, taking public transportation (why I was at a bus stop in the first place) or using a phone that doesn’t take pictures, access the internet and poach eggs.  My wife and I are happy to be able to pay our bills (particularly our tuition bills, the largest item in our budget).  And our most valued possessions are things Amazon doesn’t even carry.

The reason I wanted to pick up the quarter I’d been given was the example of Yaakov Ovinu.

The Torah recounts how Yaakov, about to meet his estranged brother and would-be murderer Esav, after transporting his family and possessions across a river, took pains to cross back over again.  The Gemara informs us that the reason Yaakov returned (and came thereby to be injured in a struggle with the sar shel Esav), was to retrieve some pachim ketanim, “small jars.”

“From here we see,” Chazal go on to explain, “that the possessions of tzaddikim are as dear to them as their bodies.”

That comment, of course, does not mean to counsel miserliness; Yaakov is described as meticulously honest, a “simple man, a dweller in the tents [of Torah-study]”; he is the forefather emblematic of the ideal of emess – which encompasses honesty.  What the Gemara is conveying is a deep and quintessentially Jewish recognition: Physical currency has real worth, because it can be exchanged for truly meaningful things.

A dollar, for most people, is a dollar.  It can buy a drink or a trinket or half a New York subway fare.   But a dollar can also buy a thirsty friend a drink, or a get-well card for someone ailing, or half the fare for the ride to the hospital to deliver it in person.  It can be put into the pushkeh or given as a reward to a child who has performed a mitzvah.

Possessions are but tools, in their essence morally neutral; put to a holy purpose, sublime.  And so, the Torah teaches, valuing a coin can be a sign not of avarice but of wisdom.

It’s unfortunate – no, tragic – that some of us may have remembered the importance of valuing money but forgotten the reason for its value.  And certainly, to acquire assets through less than honest methods is the very antithesis of the example set by the Av associated with emess.  Tzaddikim, continues the ma’amar Chazal cited above, “do not extend their hands toward theft.”  Truly Torah-minded Jews, those aware of Jewish ideals and their implications, see money not as an end justified by dubious means but as a means toward a holy end.

© 2007 AM ECHAD RESOURCES

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]