By Eric Simon
Alex Rodriguez, a 25-year old ball player known as "A-Rod", recently signed the largest sports contract in history - worth over a quarter-billion dollars. Predictably, yet wonderfully, this has caused many to engage in some thought about what this says about society's values.
But there hasn't been a lot written about the value of money itself.
Many think that the root of all evil is money (perhaps this view is supported by those who believe that the poor and the meek shall inherit the earth). Others think that it is the engine that makes the world run.
What is the Jewish, religious view?
One of the things that attracted me to more traditional Judaism is its belief that we have the potential to be holy all of the time contrary to the naive view that being a good Jew in a religious sense is directly proportional to how many times one has been at a synagogue recently.
To be a "24/7 Jew" means that most of one's Jewishness is expressed outside of the synagogue. Being a Jew is a full-time occupation.
And so we say a prayer when we wake up, expressing thanks for that event that almost all of us take for granted: successfully waking up. And we make a blessing upon leaving the bathroom, expressing thanks that are internal parts are more or less in working order. And we make a blessing before and after we eat breakfast.
OK, lots of blessings. But what about acting religious for those activities that are not directly related to prayer?
There is an entire body of law in the area of "proper speech" to put it simply, we are engaging in a religious act every time we speak and avoid gossiping or telling lies.
What about when we get to work? What is the connection between infusing the world with more holiness, and the day-to-day business of going to work?
Predictably, Judaism is very realistic about money and business. It knows that much of our daily lives are involved with money. And so, just like waking up, just like eating, and just like speaking, there is a religious way to act with money, a religious way to do business. In fact, the largest of the four sections in the classic text of halacha, the Shukhan Arukh [Code of Jewish Law, by Rabbi Yosef Caro], is about business. To go even further, the Talmud tells us that the first question we will be asked at the Heavenly Court will be: "Did you conduct your business affairs in a fair manner?"
The bottom line is this: to be religious Jews, we are not supposed to isolate ourselves on a mountaintop and meditate, nor are we to take vows of poverty -- rather, we are supposed to get out into the world, interact with it, and elevate the mundane. This, in fact, is the traditional meaning of "tikkun olam." We repair the world by elevating it to the holy.
And, yes, that includes money. Money, like other items such as oil, are simply tools. These are tools which can be used for good or for bad.
In a world without people, oil is a useless, smelly mess. Only humans can utilize G-d's Divine ingenuity to set oil aflame, achieving light, heat and energy. Rabbi Daniel Lapin notes that: "In an elegant twist, it turns out that oil and the number 8 both enjoy the identical Hebrew root, shemen, indicating oil's unique usefulness to humanity. Eight often symbolizes our partnership with G-d. For instance, G-d created the seven days of the week, seven colors in the rainbow, and seven continents. Humans make their contribution by adding one, as if mankind completes his efforts upon reaching eight. Although there are seven notes on the musical scale, we call it an octave because our human drive for completion demands that the first note be repeated; the number eight hints strongly at our transcendent need to contribute to the ongoing drama of G-d's Creation."
We combine both as we light the Chanukah menorah, as we did this year shortly after A-Rod got his contract.
Rabbi Lapin further points out: "The word coin itself is derived etymologically from the first syllable of Chanukah. That same syllable is used in the words for education and commerce. The Talmud actually compares a poor man to a dead person. If you have no money, then your ability to partner with G-d and perfect the world is severely limited, much like one who is dead."
What kind of partnership with G-d do we make with our money? The Ohr HaChaim tells us that if someone is wealthy, he should realize that it is the money of the poor he is holding, and that he is the conduit to distribute it to the poor.
What should "A-Rod" do with his money? What should you do with your money?
For starters: give tzedakah, helping to fund research or scholarships, to build schools, and so forth.
Perhaps the best summation of advice I've seen is one by Rabbi Abraham Twersky, who writes: "The highest degree of kedusha (holiness) is achieved when the mundane and the physical are elevated and are transformed into the spiritual and the sacred." A-Rod's quarter billion dollars is neutral he, like all of us, have a chance to elevate it, by using it for good, by helping the needy.