by Rabbi Shelton Donnell
Everyone admires the entrepreneur, the one who sees an opening of opportunity before anyone else and dives right in, going for the brass ring of success. Our society crowns its achievers and its risk-takers with material rewards and often celebrity status as well. That is not to say that we do not value hard work and diligence as a means to achieving success but, often, our means of measuring success are calculated in material terms, aren’t they? A person’s value is generally determined by how much she makes or what kind of job he has or what house they live in.
There is nothing wrong with wealth or material well-being. Judaism holds that material reward is, indeed, a blessing. But, how one acquires wealth, and what one does with one’s material assets determines whether one’s posessions are a source of blessing or not. This week’s Torah portion, Ekev, addresses this basic Jewish value:
For Adonai your God is bringing you into a good land, a land with streams, springs and water welling up from the depths in valleys and on hillsides. It is a land of wheat and barley, grapevines, fig trees and pomegranates; a land of olive oil and honey; a land where you will eat food in abundance and lack nothing in it; a land where the stones contain iron and the hills can be mined for copper. So you will eat and be satisfied, and you will bless Adonai your God for the good land he has given you. …Otherwise, after you have eaten and are satisfied, built fine houses and lived in them, and increased your herds, flocks, silver, gold and everything else you own, you will become proud-hearted, forgetting Adonai your God …you will think to yourself, ‘My own power and the strength of my own hand have gotten me this wealth.’ (Deut. 8:7-17)
It is good to have wealth, but we should never lose sight of the fact that whatever we have does not really belong to us. The Psalmist taught, “The earth is Adonai’s, with all that is in it, the world and those who live there;” (Ps. 24:1). Everything that we possess is given to us in trust to use wisely and well. Moreover, if what we have is a blessing from God then we should strive to use our resources to create blessing in our world. Anyone who says, “What is mine is mine and I can do whatever I want with it,” is not speaking from a Jewish perspective. That is why the concept of Tzedakah is so fundamental in Judaism.
Tzedakah is not like charity. Charity derives from a Latin root meaning dear or expensive and refers to the attitude of kindness and understanding towards others, while Tzedakah comes from the Hebrew root meaning righteousness or doing the right thing. While these concepts are not mutually exclusive, in Judaism we are called upon to use our wealth to benefit the community, the poor and the disenfranchised (the stranger) because it is the right thing to do and because our wealth does not really “belong” to us in the first place.
With the right perspective on our part, God’s investment in us through the gifts bestowed upon us, will bear dividends of blessing for us and for our families to enjoy but also for the benefit of our community and the world as well. This is our opportunity to become entrepreneurs of goodness and holiness.