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The Challenge of Wealth - Class 10

Parshas Vayishlach

By Dr. Meir Tamari

Economics and business form the subject of all the parshiot from here till the end of the book of Genesis. Yaakov works as a wage earner for Lavan for 20 years. Yoseph is the C.E.O of Potiphar's establishment and later the finance minister and vizier of Egypt, in which capacity he buys all the land and the possessions of the Egyptians in exchange for food. The sons of Yaakov come down to Egypt to trade for their basic needs. It is fitting therefore that right at the outset the Torah provides a Jewish perspective that places economic activity and business transactions in a moral and ethical framework.

Yaakov takes an oath (Bereishit, 28: 20-21) in which he promises that he will tithe his income if God will protect him, provide him with food and clothing and bring him home unharmed. In the blessing of the Cohanim the order was reversed so that first would come the material blessing and then the guidance and protection from Heaven. A Chassidic master explained that one needs Divine protection so that the material blessing should not pervert one. Yaakov, however, understood that the pursuit of a livelihood, the struggle for economic security and the lusts for material goods are so powerful and so pervasive, that they require a prior powerful and deeply rooted spiritual framework to keep us moral and ethical. Without the Divine wisdom as protection and guidance, theft, fraud, oppression and even war and bloodshed grow easily out of the struggle for parnassah.

In search of ever-increasing standards of living to satisfy indefinite and unlimited wants, our social fabric and personal relationships are in danger of corruption, deceit and immorality; even family ties and sexual morality are often destroyed in pursuit of this search. In our prayers for Rosh Chodesh we pray for a life that has the fear of Heaven and sin and then once again for a love of Torah and the fear of Heaven. It should be noted that sandwiched between these two requests for fear of Heaven, there is the prayer for material prosperity; a rabbinic understanding that ethical and moral material prosperity requires a double dose fear of G-d.

It is with this fear of G-d that the patriarchs conducted their economic activity. The maaser that they give should not be understood only as the giving of 1/10, but rather as a continuing process whereby a tenth of every income earned is donated to charity, irrespective where it is whether it is the first earned or the result of a long-term income stream. The sages explained in the midrash, that the quarrel between the shepherds of Lot and of Avraham concerned their right to graze flocks on the property of others in view of the promise of the land made to Avraham. Those of Avraham pointed out that this promises was only to be fulfilled in 400 years time, so that morally to graze their flocks now would be theft. It is in keeping with such morality that Avraham voluntarily refuses to take of the spoils of war that rightfully belonged to him. To do otherwise would diminish the understanding that his wealth came from G-d rather than from the generosity of the king of Sodom. Yitzchak is willing to forgive the Philistines for the theft of his wells, in keeping with the characterization by Maimonides (Hilkhot Deot, chapter 5, halakhah 13) of the commerce of the Torah scholar who is prepared to forego many of his legal rights in favor of others. Jacob works diligently for Lavan, despite the latter's fraud. He does so even beyond the legal demands placed on a wage earner. "The female sheep and goats did not miscarriage [only because of his diligent care of them] nor did I eat the old rams of your flock's [although this was a right granted by custom to the shepherd]. Those of the flocks and herds that were torn by wild animals were replaced by me [even though as a paid bailee he was not liable to do so" ( Bereishit 31: 38-39). Later when he comes to Shechem, the rabbis explained the term, 'vayichan'- to encamp, as economic acts by Yaakov for the benefit of society. "Rav said, 'he introduced a stable currency', Shmuel said, ' he established markets' [so that they could enjoy the benefits of a effective distribution system], and R. Yochanan said, ' he built bath-houses' [so as to improve their health and pleasure]" (Shabbat,33a). The rabbis have pointed out that all these actions were taken with regard to idol worshipers who have only minimal rights since they do not observe the 7 Noachide laws. Their descendants carried on this tradition as we see in the moral fervor and indignation of the brothers when they find their coins returned to them or when we see how careful the text is to tell us that Reuven, although only a child, gathered the mandrakes from the ownerless fields so has not to be guilty of theft.

Yaakov does not ask for prosperity based on the free market belief that more is better than less, rather only for bread and clothing that is the satisfaction of a standard of living that adheres to the concept of enough. This must not be confused with the sanctification of poverty for which there is no support in Judaism; all the Patriarchs were wealthy. Rather it is the understanding that without such a concept of enough, the dangers inherent in this search for a livelihood and economic security are almost sure to overcome us. White-collar crime, public sector bribery and financial scandals, are perpetrated by the entrepreneurial overly ambitious, the wealthy and the greedy for whom there is never enough. It is this understanding that has seen this prayer of Yaakov, known as Ish Tam, the perfect man, repeatedly used in our liturgy : the Yehi Ratzon at taking out the Torah on Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Hoshanah Rabbah; and the congregational response to the Birkat Cohanim on all the festivals.

All people in modern and ancient times alike, primitive and sophisticated, religious and secular, Jewish and non-Jewish pray for the satisfaction of their material wants. However, Yaakov introduces a specifically Jewish dimension when he uses at the outset of his request the name Hashem the attribute of mercy, but concludes his vow with Elokim, G-d in His attribute of Justice. It is easy and comforting to believe in luck or the brachot of a god, an idol or a human being who will supply all our wants and desires. It is less comfortable to accept that the same source also demands a pattern of moral behavior and punishes infringements of those demands.

Yaakov expresses the Jewish understanding that the Divine Source of wealth requires accountability, it means that the G-d who provides also insists on justice, both in the earning of wealth and its use, and will punish all economic injustice. Since Elokim is all-seeing and all-knowing there cannot be anything hidden from Him. There cannot really be any secret crimes in our conduct of business or our economic behavior. Since he is unbribable there is no escape from punishment for economic crimes. Divine mercy and forgiveness do not apply to such crimes; they require restitution and appeasement of the injured parties. The injunctions against speaking lashon harah do not apply to whistle blowing aimed at preventing economic or physical harm either to individuals or to society. Avraham's reply to Avimelech, "I know that there is no fear of G-d here" applies more to economic crimes than to any other because they are primarily carried out in secret. It is this fear that is the primary and in the last resort, the only viable protection against immorality in this sphere.

Copyright 2002 by Rabbi Meir Tamari and Project Genesis, Inc.

Dr. Tamari is a renowned economist, Jewish scholar, and founder of the Center For Business Ethics ( in Jerusalem.



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