By Adam Eliyahu Berkowitz
A long time ago, I worked as a cook in exclusive restaurants in Manhattan. I once got a special order for a lunch party of ten young businessmen celebrating their success. They were all under thirty years old and they had each achieved a certain sum of money. The kitchen worked on preparations for three days. Special tins of caviar arrived and a case of champagne was specially ordered. The soup course was oxtail consommé with gold leaf flakes sprinkled in.
The young businessman showed up at the appointed hour but quickly informed the chef that the stock market was ripping and they only had about half an hour to eat. The chef simply shrugged and poured champagne for the kitchen staff.
It wasn’t long after that I lost my enthusiasm for the culinary arts. I think it had to do with the gold flakes. Gold is non-toxic and tasteless. It adds a little sparkle but the real appeal is conceptual. People like to think they are eating gold and that maybe their body is absorbing some of it. In reality, the glittery effect is short-lived and ultimately holds no value. After ten years of sweating in kitchens, I realized that my best efforts all ended up in the New York sewer system.
The story is told of two wealthy men who had a dispute over a piece of land which they presented before their rabbi to adjudicate. The rabbi listened patiently to both sides of the story. He sat in thought before saying he wanted to see the piece of land that each man claimed was his. They went out to the field and the rabbi said, “Now it is time to hear from the land.” He lay down with his ear to the ground for a few minutes before standing and saying, “Now it is clear. You each claim that the land is yours but the land is telling me that in a few years, both of you belong to it and you each only need six feet.”
King David was undoubtedly wealthy. But he knew that wealth was temporary and ultimately had little meaning.
Men who trust in their riches, who glory in their great wealth? Ah, it cannot redeem a man, or pay his ransom to Hashem; the price of life is too high; and so one ceases to be, forever. Shall he live eternally, and never see the grave? For one sees that the wise die, that the foolish and ignorant both perish, leaving their wealth to others. Psalm 49:7-11
What, then, is the purpose of money and material possessions? What good is one’s wealth if, when he dies, “he can take none of it along; his goods cannot follow him down” (Psalm 49:18)?
The Talmud (Taanit 25a) tells about the wife of Rabbi Chanina son of Dosa who was irritated that they were so poor. While the neighbors cooked for the Sabbath, she had nothing. She threw coals into her oven so the neighbors would see the smoke and assume she was baking. She demanded that her husbnd pray for mercy for their financial situation to improve. A hand from heaven appeared, giving him a table leg made of solid gold. She was thrilled, but that night she dreamt that she was in the world to come where all the righteous were sitting at three-legged tables of gold but she and her husband were sitting at a two-legged table. In the morning, she told her husband of her dream, begging him to pray that the golden table leg be taken back. A hand again appeared from heaven to retrieve it.
If you have patience for one more story, it is told that a righteous man was approached by Elijah the Prophet.
“Heaven wants to reward you for your righteous deeds,” Elijah told him. “You will be blessed with seven years of wealth. But like Egypt, you will also have seven years of difficulty. Which would you prefer first?”
The man said he had to consult with his wife. She immediately said that she preferred the years of bounty first. Sure enough, the man’s business dealings began to be more successful than ever. He became quite wealthy indeed.
At the end of seven years, Elijah came to the man’s mansion.
“It is time for the years of plenty to end,” Elijah told him.
The wife requested that Elijah see something before removing the blessing of wealth. She took him to the study and removed a ledger from the desk. In the ledger, she had recorded all of the charity she had given over the course of the seven years of wealth. All the money that she had spent on performing God’s commandments was written down. She quoted the Book of Haggai (2:8), “Silver is Mine and gold is Mine—says the lord of Hosts.”
“We understood that all of the wealth belonged to God,” she said. “We simply invested it for him. If you are dissatisfied or can find better caretakers for God’s wealth, please take it from us.”
It is told that the holy couple remained wealthy all their days.
While financial security is important, it is also crucial to recognize the true value of our possessions and to use them in service of a higher purpose. As the prophet Haggai said, all wealth ultimately belongs to God. He merely lends it to us, and it is our responsibility to use it wisely and compassionately. True wealth is measured, not by how much money we have, but by what we do with what we have. By keeping this perspective in mind, we can find greater meaning and fulfillment in our lives, and make a positive impact on the world around us.