For the Love of Money – Parshas Ki Sisa

“Moshe returned to HASHEM and said, “Please! This people has committed a grave sin and made themselves a god of gold.” – Shemos 32:31

When Moshe Rabbenu comes down from Har Sinai

When Moshe Rabbeinu came down from Har Sinai, he found a very different scene than the one he left forty days earlier. A segment of the Jewish nation, in rebellion against HASHEM, had formed a golden calf and was worshiping it. The rest of the nation stood by and didn’t protest. In context, this was such an egregious act that HASHEM threatened to destroy the entire nation.

Rashi explains that during the process of asking for forgiveness, Moshe Rabbeinu said to HASHEM, “You caused this. You gave the Jewish people gold and silver; they left Mitzraim with great riches. Isn’t it obvious that they would come to sin?”

This Rashi seems difficult to understand when we focus on who these people were and where this was taking place.

The Klal Yisroel was living in the desert. They neither worked for a living nor had any use for money. All of their needs were taken care of. They ate Mon that was delivered to their tents daily. They drank water from the Be’er, the rock that followed them in their journeys. Their clothes were washed by the Clouds of Glory, and their shoes never wore out. They didn’t need money and couldn’t use it. How could it become their downfall?

The real danger of wealth

The answer to this question is based on understanding why the Misilas Yesharim calls wealth one of the great tests of man.

Materialism and self-indulgence are the risks of affluence, but an even greater danger is that wealth can lead a person to view himself as different than everyone else. “There are regular people, but I am different because I am rich. The world is full of people, but I am in a different category. I am a rich man.”

With this also comes a sense of self-sufficiency and arrogance. “I am a wealthy man, so I don’t need anyone. I don’t need my children. I don’t need my wife. In fact… I am so wealthy that I don’t really need HASHEM.”

The danger of wealth is the sense of being a rich man

This seems to be the answer to this Rashi. Granted the Jewish people living in the desert needed nothing and could do nothing with their money, but the real risk of wealth is the sense of superiority that comes along with it. In their minds, they were now rich. As rich men, they were significant, important, too big to be dependent upon anyone, and this feeling was the root cause of their rebellion against HASHEM.

Who were these people?

This concept becomes a tremendous chiddush when we take into account that these individuals were on a higher level than any other generation in the history of mankind. They had been slaves in Mitzraim and were freed. They had lived through the entire process of the Maakos and splitting of the Yam Suf. They watched as HASHEM showed total dominion over every facet of nature.

But more than all of this, they had only recently stood at the foot of Har Sinai when HASHEM opened up the heavens and the earth and revealed the greatest secrets of Creation. They had seen and experienced HASHEM more clearly than did the greatest Naviim, which tells us that they knew exactly why they were created and how passing and insignificant is a person’s station in this world. And yet Moshe Rabbeinu compared their being wealthy to such a difficult test that it would be like putting a young man on the doorstep of sin.

This is highly illustrative of the inner workings of the human. HASHEM created deep within our hearts many needs and desires. One of these is the need for honor and prestige. The drive for Kavod is one of the strongest forces in man. Often we are unaware of its existence until a given situation brings it to the fore.

While the Klal Yisroel were then living in the ultimate Kollel community, money still had value to them – not in what it could buy, but in its more alluring sense, in the associated feeling of power and importance that it brought. They were now rich people, and that sense is so dangerous that it can destroy even the greatest of men. For that reason, Moshe said to HASHEM, “You caused this. The gold and the silver that You gave them brought them to sin.”

Living in our age

This concept has particular relevance in our day and age. Never in the history of mankind have so many enjoyed such wealth. On some level, each of us has the opportunity of “one day being rich.”

As with many life situations, prosperity can be either a blessing or a curse. If a person changes because he is now a rich man, he needs more, he feels that he deserves only the best, and he won’t be satisfied with what everyone else gets by with. That sense of superiority will turn him against his Creator, and the very wealth that he acquired will be the source of his ruin. For eternity, he will regret having been given that test – which he failed.

However, if a person remains aware that he was granted wealth for a purpose – that he is not the owner of it, but rather its custodian, duly charged with its proper use – then he can use it as a tool to help him accomplish his purpose in existence. His wealth will then be a true bracha that he enjoys in this world, and for eternity, he will enjoy that which he accomplished with it.

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It’s Starting to Look a Lot Like … December 25th

We American Jews of today are fortunate to be living in a place and a time that is very kindly to Jews. America has indeed been described as a “medina shel Chesed,” and truthfully, I don’t believe that there’s been any other place and time in our long Galus that was friendlier. Yes, occasionally in our long history, princes and caliphs welcomed Jewish merchants and their families to settle in their lands, bringing businesses and jobs and tax revenues that benefited both the ruler and the local populace…but we know all too well the painful end to most of those narratives.

I’m not of course shutting my eyes to the anti-Semitism that exists here, or to the many Orthodox Jews who still have fight in court for the right not to get fired from their jobs for keeping Shabbos or for wearing a yarmulke or for not shaving off a beard. But compared to the many places we Jews ran away from, or used to live in, or where there are now more dead Jews than live Jews (think Egypt, Syria, Lithuania, Poland, Spain….) it is blessedly peaceful.

And then we get to the month of December. Actually, now it seems more like November and December.

There’s no escaping it. The music is ubiquitous. Thankfully, a lot of the holiday hype is cultural-secular-kitsch rather than religious. Listen to the words of some of these so-called “Xmas” songs. (Or maybe not, they’re mostly terrible). For example, “Jingle Bells,” despite its long connection with the holiday, says nothing about “X” or “Xmas,” it’s just about riding in a “one horse open sleigh.” But that song, like a lot of other winter traditions, got co-opted, so to speak. I wouldn’t sing it near a shul or Yeshiva, but it’s not “Xtian.” I don’t think the songs “Let It Snow” or “Sweet Silver Bells” have anything to do with any “Xmas” themes either: they’re just winter songs.

I can remember once years ago that my oldest daughter, a Bais Yaakov graduate, ran around the house singing, “Frosty the Snowman.” (She evidently inherited my own offbeat sense of humor). Obviously she wouldn’t sing it at the Bais Yaakov, but it was more funny than anything else (again it’s not so much “Xtian” as hijacked into the holiday music repertoire). The best thing about all this Xmas music is that it vanishes on Monday, January 3rd, not to reappear for another ten or eleven months.

Also, somebody a long time ago decided that red and green are “Xmas” holiday colors, and that white and blue are Chanukah holiday colors. While I can sort of see the reasoning behind it (green for pine wreaths and trees, red for decorations, while white and blue are the colors of the Israeli flag and the tallit), it’s still sad that you can’t wear a red and green scarf because it looks too “Xmasy.” Likewise you can’t buy a kid pajamas with a snowflake design or a snowman pattern. Too “Goyish.” Too “Xmasy.”

The best thing about all this is the attitude of the Xtians themselves, we’re lucky that most Americans living in Year 2010 of the Common Era.don’t buy into the “Jews killed Jesus” rhetoric, we just have to keep out of their way at the “Black Friday” sales and smile when we ask the non-Jewish postal clerk for the flag stamps, please. I could buy into that smiling “Peace on Earth, Goodwill Towards Men,” stuff too, don’t we Jews greet each other with, “Shalom Aleichem,” and “Aleichem Shalom?” Then again, Muslims greet each other with, “Salaam Alaikum,” and “Alaikum Salaam,” and we all know how peace-loving the Muslims are….but this article is about December 25, not Eid al-Adha. (Another posting).

I live in the Borough of Queens, which is part of the City of New York. It is truly the melting pot of America. So many different nationalities, ethnicities and religions. Besides us Jews (who are also variously Americans, Russians, Israelis, Bukharians, Hungarians, etc. etc. etc.) there are also Buddhist and Confucianist Chinese, Hindus from India, Muslims from Pakistan and Bangladesh, West Africans from Mali and Ghana, Greeks, Italians, Koreans, Japanese, Roma [Gypsies], and American-born Blacks who belong to the many Xtian denominations. Nowhere else in the world could you find Muslim, Hindu, Jewish and Buddhist storekeepers putting up Xmas decorations to lure in the Xmas shoppers buying gifts for the holiday. Only in America.

The December experience may be far different in towns and communities outside the City of New York. Friends who live in a suburb of Toronto, Canada tell me that the December experience where they live is far more serious and far more religious than the secularized-kitschy-wintery-Disneyized version that we get around here. Even then, my friends don’t go hide in a basement on “Nittel Nacht,” as Jews did in Eastern Europe years ago, fearing that the local “Galach” had whipped up “Xtian” frenzy, aided by alcohol, to go do a pogrom against the “Xkiller” Jews. Even those American and Canadian Xtians who attend church faithfully and deplore the secularization of their holiday generally don’t cause any trouble for us Jews. We’re in more danger from punk teenagers throwing frozen eggs on the night of October 31, Halloween, than we are from religious Xtians on the night of December 24th, Xmas Eve.

The biggest problem is what to say to our kids and grandchildren growing up who get exposed to all this. My daughter and her husband have a TV set, mostly used for kiddie videos and DVDs, the Sprout kiddie channel, “Mickey Mouse Clubhouse,” and football games for my son-in-law, a New York Giants fan. Their kids, my cute grandchildren, are 6-1/2, 5-1/2 and 3. Now when the commercials come on….the music comes on….the TV programs come on….this is the only programming during December, and now it reaches back to November too: Xmas programming. One Xmas special after another.

The obvious solution is get rid of your TV set. Of course, as a mother-in-law I don’t or can’t tell them what to do, they have to make their own life choices. For a lot of reasons (not the least being parental sanity) they prefer to keep the television. My son-in-law was saying the other day, he doesn’t know what to tell the kids about Xmas. I gave him some ideas, but as a shvigger I keep them just suggestions, not nagging. It’s best that he speaks to his own mentors, his own Rav, his own posaik, for advice as to what to do. How do you explain about Xmas to young Orthodox Jewish children? And maybe that’s only one part of the larger question of how do we raise our Orthodox Jewish children in a world that is mostly not Jewish and in many ways amoral and antithetical to our values? We have a lot more than just Xmas to explain to our children; we also have to explain to them on their level in a kid-friendly way about “bad touching” and “bad strangers,” and how to keep themselves safe from individuals who would hurt them. We can’t keep them in a bubble, and maybe we wouldn’t even want to keep them in a bubble, because then they wouldn’t recognize what evil is and how to stay away from it.

In the meantime, this week I’ll smile and wish my Latino Xtian co-workers “Happy Holiday” and “Have a nice weekend,” (they all wished me “Happy Chanukah” two weeks ago), and plan to spend December 24th like any other short winter Friday, cooking for Shabbos. Identical plans for December 31 the week after. (You might even catch me humming a “winter” song in my kitchen; shame on me – I should be humming Carlebach or Shwekey).

If enduring eight weeks of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” is the price we have to pay for living in this Medinah Shel Chesed, then it’s a pretty small price to pay. If it all seems too much, get out the earplugs, and just remember…only 12 more days left until January 3!