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Who Is (Really) Rich

My brother called me and excitedly screamed. “Steve, I bought a lottery ticket. It’s up to 1.2 billion dollars!” “That’s great,” I said. “I am sure if you win, you will share it with your brother.” He retorted, “No can do. I already promised to buy the cashier a new car with my winnings.”

Rabbi ben Zoma taught: “Who is rich? Those who are happy with their portion.” (Pirke Avot) For the ancient rabbis wealth is 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.

To be fair. My brother has not lost perspective. His heart is truly filled with gratitude. I have great admiration for how hope rules his thoughts (and guides many of his sermons). Even 300 million to one odds will not deter him!

The Torah calls to Abraham, “Lech lecha. Go forth from your native land.” (Genesis 12). It goes on to describes our forefather as wealthy. “Now Abram was very rich in cattle, silver and gold.” (The Hebrew uses a curious phrase. “Avram kaved maod…” A literal rendition might instead read: Abram was very heavy with cattle, silver and gold. The Hebrew adds a layer of meaning. It suggests 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.”

Perhaps there is an even greater truth hidden within this verse. How do our riches weigh us down? How do they prevent us from seeing beyond ourselves?

Holocaust survivors tend to accumulate portable wealth. Some lack faith in financial institutions. Many do not purchase valuable paintings and sculptures. Instead, they buy jewelry and watches. Such items can be carried on a person if one is forced to flee. Jewels can be sewed into jacket liners if one needs to secret a family across borders. Such are the scars that survivors carry. They are always ready to escape.

And yet wealth can often be a stumbling block to change. We do not march forward for fear that we might lose our precious possessions. We worry how each and every decision might effect our riches.

Wealth is a matter of a perspective. Who is rich? Those who are happy with their portion.

Abraham is called righteous. Why? Because his accumulated wealth does not prevent him changing. It does not stand in the way of leaving his home and answering God’s call. All the riches in the world do not deter him from setting out on the journey that forever defines the Jewish people.

The rabbis teach. Righteousness is when wealth is transformed into obligation. For the righteous, wealth is indeed weighty. It is a call to use our riches for others and not just ourselves.

Wealth is not a privilege. It is instead a challenge. It is a call. “Lech lecha—Go forth!”

And may the lottery winner shower the world with riches.