“Each generation has its challenges”, our wise men say. The general mindset in our consumption-oriented societyis doubtlessone of those challenges today. Values are challenged by this way of thinking –human and godly values.
The situation today is best described by the following quotation by Dr. Jürgen Wilhelm, Chairman of the Christian-Jewish Organization of Cologne, during the fraternity week:
“I buy, therefore I am”. Human beings areincreasinglydegraded to consumers and arecut down totheir economic usefulness. Market criteria are no longer applied only toeconomy; they have turned intoall-encompassing criteria applied to our common social, cultural and political existence. This is rarely questioned and the unbridled market has become a veritable ideal. Or at least it isincreasinglyconsidered as the only indicator. Communication, love, game, caress, have become only goods and barter objects. Every person has his or her“bank account” of relations – what a perverse way of thinking!
In the satiricalwords of author Ephraim Kishon, this mentality is highlighted also in the following example: customers buy thefavour and courtesy of employeesby giving them high tips.
MrsPollak von Parnegg, a nouveau rich woman in Vienna, once visited a picture gallery with her husband. She told an anecdote about her husband who said: “Please, if you like one of these pictures,say it is marvelous, wonderful, artful, but please do not say it is pricelessor valuable”.
What about gratuitousness and generosity in Judaism? Are there priceless and valuable things? Can and should everything be converted intomoney? Which role do money and property play? How is money related to values? Are money and property regarded as something positive or negative?
Money is not everything
Jewish Scripture very often refer to money and property. Firstly we can state – and this is not really surprising – that “Money is not everything”.
In the Psalms,King David says to those who do not agree with that: (49, 7-18)
“(6) [T]hose who trust in their wealthand boast of the abundance of their riches [...] (11) Their graves are their homes forever, their dwelling places to all generations. Though they named lands on their own. (12) Mortals cannot abide in their pomp; they are like animals that perish […] (14) Like sheep they are appointed for Sheol […](17) For when they die they will carry nothing away; their wealth will not go down after them”.
Also the oral traditionof the fathers strengthens this idea. Once Rabbi Jose was asked whether he would movefrom home for a high amount of money and teach Torah there. His answer was very clear: “If you gave me all the silver, gold, jewels and pearls in the world, I would only live in a place of Torah. And we read in the book of psalms (119,72): ‘The Torahof you mouth is better to me than thousands of gold and silver pieces’. In the hour of death silver and gold will not accompany him butonly the wisdom of Torah and good deeds”.
Money should not be overrated. It does notaccompany us into the next world and does nottie our souls to eternity. Money should not be regarded as a goal but as a means. Jewish Scriptureoften warnsus not to considerrichness as an aim of our life or something that gives our lives meaning and sense. In the Ecclesiastes King Solomon exclaimsthat wealth, richness and the joys of life are vanity and chasing after wind (c. 2). The pursuit ofrichnessleads to a long and never satisfying chase aftermore richness:“(10) The lover of money will not be satisfied with money; northe lover of wealth, with gain”. “Property entails a great deal of disadvantages” and “Property causes sorrow”, the fathers say.
Positive comments on wealth and property
On the other hand Judaism does not regard propertyassomething negative, as far as you use itfor a good purpose andrespect a set of principles. In our daily prayer, we pray for a regular income in dignity and honor. It is also a principle of education: parents should help their children to learn agood profession. Many commandments of the Torah can only be fulfilled when you have money or property. You can only give a contribution to a priest, when you have a grain field, trees with fruits as alms for the poor. You need a house when you want to follow the rules of security, for example to put railings on the roof or a mesusa on the doors. You need a farm when you want to raise animals or live according to the rules for animals. You need a dress when you want to follow the rule not to mix different types of cloth and to put on the zizith. You need money for charity. Just to mention some examples.
Various commandments and laws remind us that property and richness are not everything in life. The above mentioned taxes in Torah are often connected tothe admonition that G’dis eternal or – more precisely –that G’d is the source of all being. The commandment not to cultivate grain in a field every seven years has the following reason: “the land is mine; with me you are but aliens and tenants” (Lev 25, 23). We should always remember that G’d made us stewards of his property, especially when we think that we are its owners. The obligation to give a part of everything to his people, to the poor and needy, indeed reminds us of this.
Transitory versus eternal goods – material things versus G’d´s word
Property and richness should be understood for what they truly are. The following commandment shows this very clearly: Jews are not allowed to extinguish fire, even if their own house is on fire. It is better to let the house burn down than to ignore this ban. Normally this rule is not put into practice in this way because lives are in danger at least indirectly when a house is burning. But the mere existence of this commandment shows the intention of religion: to follow a commandment is more important and more valuable than our property.
As regards our everyday needs, we can discover the following paradox: the more essential and important something is for our survival, the less it costs. Human beings can only live three minutes without air, but air does not cost anything. We can only survive three days without water, but water is inexpensive. Men and women can only live for about three weeks without food. Food is more expensive than water. Human beings can live without luxury, but luxury is the most expensive of all these things mentioned above.
Our Scripture teaches that Torah should be taught for free because Moses received Torah from G’d for free. Therefore people should have knowledge of Torah for free. This poses a problem to all teachers of religion and rabbis: How can they work in their profession for free? How can they support their families?
Maimonides, one of the greatest teachers in the MiddleAges held the opinion that this rule should be obeyed absolutely. He could only teach and write his excellent books because his rich brother paid for his living. But when his brother was shipwrecked and all his riches were lost, Maimonides had to spend most of his time on working as the court physician of the khalif to earn his living. Therefore, he was unfortunately unable to realize one of his plans: to write a comment on the entire Talmud. Most teachers are not of his opinion, and they allow teachers and rabbis fortunately to take money for their work. They say that teaching prevents this person from working in another profession. They therefore have to be refunded.
The words of Torah are for free, but they are not less valuable, as I explained above. It is the same with many essential things in our lives, which we often regard as for free. But when we take a closer look we understand how vital they are for us, for example love, kindness, the closeness of God etc. We realize how important they are for our lives and for our survival when we miss in them.
Religion can teachthis generation how to put values above economy-orientated thinking. If we want to make the world a better place, stable and forward looking, we should listen to the teachings of religion and let us be inspired by them.
In conclusion, an anecdote can illustrate this. A man came to one of the most famous cardiologists in town, to get treatment. After having been treated successfully the patient received a very high bill. Then he confessed he was destitute and admitted he would never be able to pay even a little part of it. The cardiologist reacted indignant and furious: “Why did you come to one of the most expensive specialists in town, then?” And the poor man answered: “Nothing is too expensive for my health, you know?”.