Rabbi ben Zoma taught: Who is rich? Those who are happy with their portion; as it is written (Psalm 128:2): “You shall enjoy the fruit of your labors; you shall be happy and you shall prosper.” (Pirke Avot 4:1) For the ancient rabbis wealth and riches are about perspective. Happiness is not a matter of winning the lottery. It is instead about being content with one’s lot. It is about not pining after what others have.
This week we see that Abraham is described as wealthy. “Now Abram was very rich in cattle, silver and gold.” (Genesis 13:2) The Hebrew uses a curious phrase. “Avram kaved maod…” A literal rendition might thus read: Abram was very heavy with cattle, silver and gold. The Hebrew suggests that he was weighed down by his riches.
The plain meaning is clear. The journey on which God sends Abraham is difficult not only because he must leave his ancestral home but also because of all the riches he must carry with him. It is not easy to travel across the desert with so many belongings. It is not easy to shepherd a flock across the wilderness. Better to travel light. Abraham is unable to do so. And thus he travels in stages. “And he proceeded by stages from the Negev as far as Bethel…” (13:3)
Perhaps there is an even greater truth in the turning of this phrase. How do our riches weigh us down? How do they prevent us from seeing beyond ourselves? For Abraham the Torah suggests that his accumulated wealth could have prevented him from leaving his home and answering God’s call, from setting out on the journey that forever defines the Jewish people.
I once learned that Holocaust survivors tend to accumulate portable wealth. They do not purchase valuable paintings and sculptures, but instead jewelry and watches. Such items can be easily carried on a person if one is forced to flee. Jewels can even be sewed into jacket liners if one needs to secret a family across borders. Such are the scars that survivors continue to carry. They are always ready to escape.
For others wealth is often a stumbling block to change. We do no march forward for fear that we might lose our precious possessions. But have we not learned? Wealth is a matter of a perspective. Who is rich? Those who are happy with their portion. We must remain on guard and not allow our riches to prevent us from setting out on new journeys.
There are many reasons why Abraham is called righteous. One reason is suggested by this new reading and the Etz Hayim Commentary. Righteousness is when wealth is transformed into obligation. For the righteous, wealth is weighty because it is a burden. It is call to use it for others and not just for ourselves.
Wealth is not a privilege. It is instead a challenge. It is a call. “Lech lecha—Go forth!”