The Challenge of Wealth, Vayikrah 
For the past two years, this course has concerned itself with presenting
Jewish Business Ethics as they are related to the weekly parshiot, some
relevant response and appropriate enactments of the autonomous Jewish
communities. However, any ethical system requires an ideological framework
otherwise the ethics of that system become irrelevant and impractical for
the members of that society. Therefore, in the next few weeks I would like
to present the teachings and ideas of our sources with regard to a Jewish
ideological and conceptual framework for business and economics.
As the mainsprings of human desires, ambitions and actions have not
changed over the centuries these sources have relevance for us, despite
the amazing technological changes that have occurred in means of
production, information services, financial markets and the very nature of
the global village. The same greed, selfishness and the unlimited
appetites that mankind has for wealth and power, that called for the
ethical, moral and spiritual response of our sources still operate, albeit
in different guises, in the societies in which we live, making them
essential for us , no less than for our ancestors.
“If G-d will be with me and protect me on this path that I am treading and
will give me bread to eat and clothes to wear...” (Genesis, 28:20). In his
oath, the patriarch Jacob prayed first for protection and only then for
economic wealth, expressing the spiritual and religious guidance needed in
the search and struggle for wealth and material goods. Without such
guidance, in justice, dishonesty, fraud and oppression easily become
socially acceptable ways of earning a living and satisfying economic needs
and wants. Ever since Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden of Eden,
earning ones daily bread, providing for oneself and ones family an
acceptable standard of living and preserving ones wealth as the miracle
needed for the salvation of Israel in the splitting of the Red Sea.
A head of a leading multinational corporation once challenged me as to the
importance of the commandment ‘You shall not covet... you neighbour’s
house nor his ox nor his wife’, now in our days of corporate takeovers.
Now, the human drives and motivations that lay behind immorality at the
time of the giving of the Ten Commandments could have the same results as
those behind the hostile takeovers; “Desire leads to coveting, that leads
to theft and [when there is opposition] even to murder ” (Rambam, Hilkhot
Gezeilah, chapter 1, halakhah 13). My reply to his question therefore, was
an echo of S. R. Hirsch’s comment. “Without G-d’s protection and the
framework provided by the Torah, people will give up their very beings to
achieve material goals. Then, in pursuit of a livelihood and social status
G-d is denied, morality is abandoned, a neighbour’s property, life or
honour is unprotected and even the respect for marriage and sexual purity
is lost”( Genesis, 6 ;11).
This is a reflection of the power of the yetzer harah , the ability to do
evil, for money and for wealth. Indeed, this inclination, both in its
power for good and for evil, is more powerful than any other of the lusts
or desires that people have. It is a lust that is never satisfied no
matter how much it is fed, a desire that is never completely fulfilled.
The rabbis tell us, “One has a hundred coins in his possession and yet
desires two hundred” (Midrash Kohelet Rabah, 1:34).
Our rabbis tell that when Alexander of Macedonia came to a country in
Africa, they thought he had come for gold. They took a pair of scales and
in the one pan they placed a skull, and in the other they heaped gold,
silver, and jewellery. The skull, nevertheless, still weighed more than
all of the treasure, until Alexander put dust in the eye sockets, thus
closing them. Now the treasure outweighed the skull. Physical weakness and
old age do not blunt this desire as they do all others-only death ends it.
There is an ironic symmetry between free market capitalism that teaches
that more is always better than less, and socialist ideologies of planned
economies wherein all history, international, national, and of the
individual, is simply a matter of the ownership of wealth and its
distribution. So it is not surprising, that the people who believe that
they have enough money or have acquired sufficient wealth are very rare;
and rarer still the people who act accordingly. Without the recognition
that there is a economic concept of enough, all moral and ethical defences
crumble before this yetzer harah.
Torah education, religious status, and even spiritual achievements may
blunt, control, or minimize this yetzer harah; but they do not completely
eradicate it. This is part of the divinely ordained way of the world; the
rabbis once imprisoned the yetzer harah but they could not find even one
fertilized egg, so they were forced to release it, knowing that without it
there would be no development, not progress, and even no future.
Nevertheless, people have to be able to avoid the pernicious effects that
wealth and the striving for it so often produce. This applies to all
people, even ourselves, and at all stages of our lives. It is noteworthy
that even Moses, Samuel, and Samson, all found it necessary to declare
that they had not taken the property of others, nor had they exploited
their sanctified positions to benefit materially.
It seems that because of the great power of economic lust and its
pervasiveness, the Torah surrounded it with more mitzvot [over 100] that
it did for example, for kosher food [28 mitzvot] or Shabbat [3 mitzvot],
out of the 613 mitzvot that the Torah contains. The Chofetz Chaim found 11
mitzvot related to talebearing, slander and loshen harah. Obviously the
disparity in no way reduces the importance or severity of these or other
aspects of Judaism; it simply shows that many guardians and much spiritual
protection in the form of mitzvot are essential if this most powerful
yetzer is to elevated and made holy- holiness being the whole aim of
Copyright © 2004 by Rabbi Dr. Meir Tamari and Torah.org.
Rabbi Dr. Tamari is a renowned economist, Jewish scholar, and founder of the Center For Business Ethics (www.besr.org) in Jerusalem.