Everything in this world can either be used for good or evil; the choice is ours. The Torah, our Creator’s instruction manual for life, teaches us how to elevate and infuse spirituality into every aspect of our lives, including monetary matters.
The Torah teaches us (Deuteronomy 6:5), “You shall love Hashem, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your possessions.” Many profess to love God. But is their love for God greater than their love for their possessions and money? Are they willing to follow God’s laws of honesty and ethics, even if it means passing on a lucrative business deal or returning ill-gotten gains?
Life is a series of tests, opportunities to choose between good and evil. One area where we will be tested is monetary matters. Just being on the lookout for your personal test will help you pass with flying colors. Those who fail their test often do so because they separate and compartmentalize money matters from spirituality. They see no contradiction between praying to God for mercy in the morning and in the afternoon, swindling their business partner. But God does not compartmentalize. The laws of business ethics are explicit in the Torah. In addition, the prohibition of stealing is both one of the Ten Commandments and one of the Seven Noahide laws which applies to all humanity.
The Talmud teaches that a person reveals his true character in three ways, “In his cup, his pocket and in his anger (Eruvin 65a).” People reveal their innermost feelings and attitudes when they are drunk, with matters relating to money and when they are angry.
What does money reveal about us?
The strength of our faith.
Money tests our faith, both during difficult times and in one’s quest to increase one’s assets.
Many have their identity tethered to their career. But what happens if they lose their job? They then question their whole identity. We must remind ourselves that we are much more than our careers. How we will be remembered is how we conducted ourselves, not the number of zeros in our bank account. In addition, God did not create us to make money; He created us to live meaningful lives. A poor person can live just as meaningful a life as a wealthy one.
At the same time, it is certainly painful being out of work. During those times, we must not lose sight of what is going right in our lives and to appreciate those blessings. Put in reasonable efforts to find a job (or turn around a challenging financial situation), pray, and have faith that God is with you during your time of need. He will help you, at the right time and in the right way. During this difficult time and especially after God helps you, do what you can to help others. See, “How to Overcome Your Challenges: 10 Ways” and “Three Keys to Success: Persistence, Advice and Prayer.”
While you do your best and wait patiently for God to help you during a time of financial difficulty, do not be jealous of those who are affluent. Wealth is a challenging test. If a person fails the test by not giving sufficiently to charity, being unethical, or allowing their affluence to distract them from what is truly important in life, they would have been better off without their wealth. Unless they repent, God will hold them accountable for misusing the blessing He gave them.
Wealth is such a formidable challenge that Proverbs writes (30:8), "...Do not give me poverty or wealth, but allot me my daily bread." Affluence can certainly be a blessing, but it comes with a big responsibility, one we should not be jealous of.
In people’s quest to increase their assets, some unfortunately turn to dishonest behavior. Yet, those with strong faith that God runs the world, realize that cheating others will not create lasting wealth. Countless people lost their wealth due to fraudulent behavior and spent their last days in shame. As the Prophet Jeremiah said (17:11), “...One who amasses wealth unjustly, in half his days he will leave it, and he will be a degenerate in his end.”
Some people fool themselves into thinking that what they are doing is correct and honest. Yet, if they truly believed that God would hold them accountable for sinful behavior, they would not take a chance by engaging in what is possibly forbidden. Instead, they would find out definitively what is permitted. They may be shocked to discover that what they considered just “aggressive business tactics” was strictly forbidden. Examples of behaviors forbidden by Jewish law include taking or damaging what is not ours, borrowing without permission, being late in agreed upon payments (when we are able to pay), withholding, even temporarily, monies belonging to others, or pressuring people to sell.
Those with strong faith will be generous with others and not think that they need to engage in forbidden behaviors to get ahead. Financial success comes from God. If you are affluent, humbly realize that there are many people who are smarter and work harder than you, yet are not wealthy. Why? Because it is God who decides who will be wealthy, not us.
Being charitable and following God’s laws will not take away from the blessing that God wants to give us. The opposite is true: generosity and honesty will lead to increased blessing, while stinginess and dishonesty will detract from that which one was destined to receive.
Those who selfishly hoard their money or are careless with God’s monetary laws, demonstrate weak faith.
Money talks. What is it saying about your faith in God?
Is there someone you have taken advantage of or been unfair to? Perhaps someone with whom you were not completely honest and ethical?
When will you reach out to them to make things right and ask for their forgiveness?
Asking God to forgive one’s monetary transgressions is insufficient. God does not forgive sins against another, unless the wronged party is appeased.
Running after money
It is tragic that some people spend their whole lives chasing after money; when they die, what value is their money to them?
What truly matters is how we conducted ourselves. Were we honest? Were we charitable? Did we spend time daily on prayer, Torah study and mitzvot, or did we let our career and pursuit of money define us?
Rabbi Bachya ibn Pekuda in his classic, Duties of The Heart, lists thirty ways to do introspection (third chapter of the Eighth Treatise on Examining the Soul). In the twelfth way, he discusses the following truth: People often spend an inordinate amount of time and energy on the pursuit of money, when at the end of the day, they may have little to show for it. At the same time, they often neglect the needs of their soul, where any effort toward elevating their soul would have yielded eternal reward. An English translation of this inspiring section is available here.
Those who make amassing money their primary focus often fall prey to a variety of tragic errors. One is fighting over money. There are people who refuse to compromise and would rather spend their money, health and happiness fighting in court. For what? What could possibly be worth their health and happiness?
Often, the only ones who win are the lawyers, while the clients are left with stress-related ailments and legal bills. See, “Conflict Resolution: How to Win the Battle for Peace.”
Another error is when people spend their lives consumed with building an inheritance for their children. But what do their children spend their lives doing? The same thing. When will the cycle ever end? What is the point of spending one’s life accumulating an inheritance to leave one’s children if the only thing they will accomplish is to leave an inheritance themselves?
Money is a means to something of value, not an end to itself. A life spent solely on accumulating money, is a life wasted.
People who sacrifice their lives so that they can leave money for their grandchildren, ironically, often do more harm than good; whether it is by stifling the initiative of their grandchildren, or giving them money they are ill-equipped to use wisely. (There is nothing wrong with leaving one’s grandchildren an inheritance, if done in a manner that is beneficial to them.)
Money is like fire; it can be used to build or destroy. When people let money take over their lives and their value system, they have not only wasted their lives, they have left destruction in their wake. But if we stay in control, making a decision to be ethical at all costs and using God's blessing of abundance wisely, that blessing will benefit us, our families and those in need.
Here are five ways to have a healthy relationship with money:
1. Be impeccably honest. When in doubt, ask a rabbi knowledgeable in monetary law to advise you.
2. Do your utmost not to fight over money. If you cannot come to an amicable agreement, go for mediation or arbitration, e.g., a rabbi or a Bet Din, Jewish court.
3. Give generously to charity. The more your Father in Heaven has blessed you with resources, the more you should share them with His other children.
4. Live simply and below your means, saving money and investing prudently.
5. Remind yourself often that life is not about making money. Keep your main focus on what is truly important in life. Then you will look back on your life with satisfaction and pride.
Money tests and challenges us like no other.
Will you rise to the challenge?