It is difficult to tell you much about my high school friend without disclosing his identity. He is now world-famous, having become a major figure in the field of high finance. So, in the interests of protecting his privacy, I will alter some of the facts of the story I am about to tell. For starters, let's call him Eugene.
Our friendship began in our freshman year. I was new to the school, but he had attended grade school in the same institution. He reached out to me and showed me the ropes. We were pretty close friends for a year or two, but then our paths diverged. His intellectual interests were in the areas of economics and politics; I was more inclined toward the fields of literature and philosophy.
By our junior year, the bond between us was ruptured. He chose to abandon religious observance at precisely the time that I was becoming much more committed to religion. We found ourselves in entirely different social circles and, by the time we graduated, were barely on speaking terms. He chose not to continue his post-high school Jewish education and enrolled in a very prestigious business college.
Within five years, he was a millionaire.
Had it been just up to me, I probably never would have seen him again. But in those years, I was under the influence of a very unusual, creative, and compassionate rabbinic mentor. Let's call him Reb Shmuel.
Reb Shmuel approached me one morning and asked whether I had any ongoing contact with Eugene. When I answered in the negative, he reproached me. "He was once a good friend of yours and he helped you acclimate to a new school. You owe him a visit."
My forceful attempts to argue that such a visit would be futile did not impress Reb Shmuel. "There are many things that one must do in life," he said, "even if they indeed turn out to be futile."
To make a long story short, I did visit Eugene. I came to his office in the financial district of Manhattan. He greeted me warmly, but the conversation soon deteriorated into a raucous argument about religion. We covered some of the usual ground of such arguments until he pounded his fist on the table and said, "I have absolute proof that the lifestyle I have chosen is correct."
I looked at him quizzically and asked incredulously, "Absolute truth? I am eager to hear that."
With a wave of his hand, he drew my attention to all of the luxurious trappings of his office and to the view of the New York Harbor that he could see through his window. "This is just one of my offices," he said. "And I have two homes which are even more lavish. Not to speak of my sports car and extensive financial portfolio."
"I am successful. Hence, I am obviously correct in my beliefs." I have heard this argument countless times since that visit. Sometimes it is offered by those, like Eugene, who have rejected religion. But it is also sometimes used by religious people who point to their material success as evidence of God's favor and of the correctness of their theological stance.
This was not the first time that I encountered this argument that material success carries theological weight. The first time that I encountered it was when I first reflected deeply on a passage in this week's Torah portion, Parshat Re'eh (Deuteronomy 11:26-17:17).
The passage reads:
"If there appears among you a prophet or a dream-diviner and he gives you a sign or a portent, saying, 'Let us follow and worship another god'—whom you have not experienced—even if the sign or portent that he named to you comes true, do not heed the words of that prophet or that dream-diviner. For the Lord your God is testing you to see whether you really love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul."
Many of the students in the numerous Bible classes that I have taught over the years are put off by the above passage. "What relevance," they ask, "can there be in a passage which tells of a false prophet who can make all sorts of signs and portents happen? Perhaps he is a sorcerer? Is that what the Bible is teaching us?"
My confrontation with Eugene provided me with an answer that I have used again and again to respond to such a question.
"Truth to tell," I would argue, "this is one of the most relevant passages in the entire Bible, especially in our modern times. What we can learn from this passage is that the truth of a religious message is not at all related to whether or not material success is attached to that religious message. We cannot judge a prophet's authenticity by his ability to produce facts in the so-called real world."
Reb Shmuel taught me another way of expressing this lesson. "Human beings," he would say, "live in two worlds. We live in a world of values, and in that world our beliefs reign. We also live in a world of facts, and that is where your friend Eugene resides. For us, however, facts do not determine values."
For a religious person values, are determined by sacred texts and time-honored traditions. The Jewish people especially have confronted nations and cultures which economically, politically, and militarily were successful and powerful, while we were weak and impotent. Our greatness lies in the fact that we remained immune to the glitter of the success of those nations and cultures. We resisted the temptation to base our values upon facts, however strong and powerful those facts seemed to be.
The Torah portion this week teaches us that we can often expect to see successful signs and convincing portents all around us. But we are not to follow them if they are inconsistent with the essential messages of our Torah. God tests us by exposing us to the glitter of success. Our greatness throughout our history is attributable to our ability to avoid the seductive trap of being attracted to that glitter.
We have learned, and we must teach our children, that material success has no bearing upon religious truth.