I was saddened and ashamed last week to read a news story about an observant Jew who was incarcerated for crimes of bribery, fraud and money laundering. I was further pained by the knowledge that we are no longer surprised by this; though, perhaps the fact that it was a former chief rabbi of Israel should give us more pause for reflection. Of course, we are all human, and no one is immune to temptation. However, we must consider whether there is something in our religious culture that is not doing its job, or worse, making us even more vulnerable to monetary immorality.
The theme of the past five parshiyot has been the Mishkan, and specifically the materials for its construction and for clothing the kohanim. The salient features of these materials are their value and aesthetic beauty. Gold and silver were abundant, as only the most precious materials and fabrics were used, and the detailed design created a beautifully befitting home for the King of Kings. This provokes the question of how we integrate aesthetics and wealth into our religious worldview. Was this a focus specifically for this special event, or is it a more pervasive Jewish value?
When King Shlomo built the first Temple, he too used only the finest materials, some of which were imported from neighboring countries. Of the Second Temple, the Talmud says that anyone who has not seen the Temple of Herod has never seen a beautiful building in his life (Bava Batra 4a). Not only must we beautify the Temple, but all mitzvot must possess the maximal beauty. “Hidur mitzva” dictates that our sukkot and lulavim should be aesthetically pleasing, and the same is true for all mitzvoy.
We are further told that the lamb that was offered as the korban tamid each day would drink from a golden cup. In the Talmud (Tamid 29b), Rava tells us that this was clearly an exaggeration, as it is inconceivable to feed an animal from a golden cup. However, others argue that this was literally true, because “there can be no sign of poverty in the place of ultimate wealth.” The Temple was defined as a place of wealth and aesthetic beauty.
Later in our history, Rabban Gamliel was the leading Torah authority in the first century and he was known to be a wealthy man. Rabban Gamliel was deposed because of his inappropriately harsh treatment of Rav Yehoshua, who challenged his rulings. When a successor was sought, Rav Elazar ben Azaria was chosen only because he too was independently wealthy. From all of these examples, it seems that wealth is a pervasive value that is generally coupled with religious achievement. (Brachos 27b-28a)
Later, Rabban Gamliel went to visit Rav Yehoshua to apologize for his mistreatment. When he entered the modest home of Rav Yehoshua, it was evident that Rav Yehoshua earned his meager living as a smith. The modesty of the home of this working-class scholar took Rabban Gamliel by surprise and he expressed his astonishment. Rav Yehoshua responded by lamenting the generation whose leadership does not share in the painful challenges that Torah scholars live with.
On the surface, Rav Yehoshua was questioning Rabban Gamliel’s capacity for empathy. However, it is possible that the question was also an ideological one. Perhaps he was suggesting that real Torah scholars live spiritual lives that are devoid of material wealth and beautiful homes, but are centered instead around a spiritual focus.
Similarly, the prophets represented a paradigm of religious leadership that was more spiritual than physical. Despite the lengthy accounts of the lives of our prophets, we are never given clues of the material wealth of any of them. This detail was likely omitted to amplify the centrality of their spiritual missions, leaving their economic class and stature as secondary.
It seems that the Torah does value aesthetics and wealth, but specifically instructs that it be used to honor God and not man. Gold should adorn the Temple, but not our homes and clothing, literally and figuratively. I believe that a look at the Torah’s depiction of the king can be instructive in achieving this balance.
Despite the unending contributions of gold and silver toward the Temples, the Torah warns the Jewish king to never accumulate too much gold and silver (Devarim 17:17). The king’s identity is as a representative of God’s nation; his wealth and prestige are not his, they belong to God and to the Jewish people. Nevertheless, he is vulnerable to the possibility that he may blur this boundary, as so many have, and he therefore must exercise restraint and limitation lest it corrupt him.
One of the greatest kings of Israel was King Shlomo. He put the honor of God first as he first built the Temple to honor God, and only then did he build his own palace, immediately adjacent to the Temple, demonstrating his loyalty to God and his recognition that both the Temple and his palace are meant to serve and represent God. Nevertheless, the Talmud (Yerushalmi Sanhedrin 2:6) tells us that he violated the instruction of the Torah and accumulated an excess of gold and silver. This was not his only sin, as he slipped away from his initial loyalty to God over the years of his reign. How did this happen?
It is possible that his initial sincerity may have tragically paved the way for his decline. He collected wealth as a vehicle to bring strength and honor to the Jewish nation, God’s nation. He did not see himself as selfish as it was not for himself, but for others. The same was true for his wives, whom he married to strengthen the stature of the state. However, the danger is that this boundary was too easily blurred and, as a human, one cannot stop it from pervading one’s own personality.
This happens today as well. Most people do not feel the need to to amass wealth for ourselves. Rather, we selflessly work to accumulate comforts for others, but in truth it is often really serving ourselves. We might justify indulgences as something that is supporting family members, our communities, or the sake of mitzvot. And that might be true. But sometimes, without realizing it, it becomes self indulging as well. Like King Shlomo demonstrated, it is very difficult to maintain that separation and it can easily impact on our own characters. It can change who we are and also tempt us to cross the lines of ethics and law. We must therefore be mindful of our true motives and careful to strive for moderation and not justify excess indulgences
Parshat Vayikra transitions from the construction of the Miskan to the service inside of it. These laws, in a sense a microcosm of Judaism, are abundant with detailed laws that are all critical. One slight deviation can render an offering invalid, and all must be followed “as God commanded.” This too, I believe, presents a challenge. We can be so busy doing God’s rituals that we can let down our guard when it comes to business ethics, whose laws are a bit more general. We are responsible to apply the values of the Torah to each unique circumstance and we cannot be any less vigilant about them.
Despite the Torah’s focus on sacrificial worship, the prophet Yeshayahu (1) tells us that God is disgusted with meaningless sacrificial rituals for which we “trample His courtyard” on the holidays that “He despises.” If the ritual is not coupled with a devotion to ethics, to charity, to our defense of the most vulnerable in society, then we have only perverted His Torah and distorted its values. In order for us to put our money where our mouth is, we must recognize the fact that the Torah values monetary ethics equal to ritual. The Torah presented the monetary laws (Parshat Mishpatim) before the laws of the Mishkan because of their primary importance. Our ability to live by this value has been a challenge since the dawn of our nationhood and it was therefore the focus of the rebuke of the prophets. It is now the time to listen.
By Rabbi Kenny Schiowitz
Rabbi Kenny Schiowitz is rabbi at Teaneck’s Congregation Shaare Tefillah and president of the Rabbinical Council of Bergen County.