Second Thoughts: Financial Concerns

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20 Apr 2009

Who am I, with my minuscule (and usually depleted) bank account, to speak about the great financial concerns of the world? What wisdom can I scrounge up which can help fill the empty coffers, or soothe the taut nerves of the world’s bankers, investors, depositors and filing clerks? In short, what can I, with my limited knowledge and experience in these matters, possibly add to a discussion about the world’s financial welfare?

In case you thought the answer was “Nothing”, you are wrong. Oceans of ink have been spilled and millions of pages printed on the subject but the last word has not yet been written. In fact, there is never a last word on matters such as these, and just as the multitudes of columnists, journalists, reporters; physicists, philosophers and politicians; scientists, midwives and madmen all have some unique perspective to add to the discussion, so do I. After all, have I not been spending money my entire life? Do I not have a respectable overdraft in Israel’s national bank? Have I not opened and closed at least a score of bank accounts throughout the years? And have I not, like millions of others, succumbed and opened a useless new account in order to receive a free gift or two? (On a trip to the US many years ago, I was presented with five or six overdue stuffed Leo the Lion dolls from the Harris Bank which I then duly distributed to my grateful grandchildren.)

The financial situation is so much on my mind that I actually had an almost-argument about it with my rarely argumentative husband. On the advice of a friend, we had, many years back, invested a small amount of money with a reputable firm (despite everything, there still are a few of them around). In those heady days when the market was doing well, we received a modest return on our modest investment. Feeling that I should know more about these matters, I followed the weekly economic column in the local paper, faithfully reporting what I had read each week to my husband. This was not a fruitful idea. The economist was invariably pessimistic about the way things were going, even when they seemed to be going well, while my eternally optimistic husband saw no reason to worry. Could everyone be wrong, he asked, and only the worrisome columnist be right? Besides, G-d controlled the stock market and He knew what He was doing. At the very worst, our investment was so insignificant that we had very little to lose. True, I replied, but all the more reason not to lose it. There was nothing to take its place.

This conversation led us nowhere in particular until the black clouds blew in, the headlines screamed “CRASH” and the stories went round and round. I found myself worrying, even for those people who had lost half their fortune and were now left with only a mere fifteen or sixteen million dollars in their accounts. After all, fifteen or sixteen million lost is not hay. And when the scythe struck closer to home and people I knew began losing jobs I decided it was time to act, not talk.

But before I continue, I must explain my economic stand. When it comes to money matters, I am a staunch conservative. I do not believe one should play with money unless one has a game of Monopoly available. Despite Leo the Lion, our family motto was: Son’ey matanot yichyeh… He who despises freebees will warrant long life. My parents never used credit cards. Remember the slogan “Buy now, pay later”? In our house, it was “First save, then spend!” I tried, with varying degrees of success, to instill these values into my own children but today’s world being what it is, survival is all but impossible without a credit card.

Still, my purchases are made only after much philosophical searching: Do I really need this? Why? Do I even want it, or is it only tempting because it looks like a bargain? Why do I want a bargain I don’t even need? You get the idea.

And whenever one of our kids would come home brimming with enthusiasm about some new, cockeyed financial venture making the rounds, guaranteed to triple your investment in three days (or months or years) we’d invariably warn them: Hands off or you’ll get burned. Thank G-d, they listened although many of their friends did not. But to get back to my husband and our seemingly endangered shalom bayit…

We reached a point where our investment lost much of its value and our gratefully accrued interest disappeared. I insisted that our remaining fortunes, small as they were, be withdrawn from the account immediately, before they all floated off to Never Never Land, leaving a trail of worthless statements in their wake.

Withdraw? asked my husband. What for? To do what? To invest in Israeli real estate, I answered with fervor. Land in the Holy Land cannot go wrong. The only problem was that the sum we now had available would have been sufficient to purchase a small apartment in Ashkelon or Ashdod thirty years ago. But thirty years ago, we didn’t have the sum and now it wasn’t enough for a one room kitchenette in the backwaters of Amman. So the real estate option was quickly eliminated.

Leave our millions where they are, said my husband. It’s no big deal. We’ll wait and see what happens. No, I insisted. I have a better idea. Let’s split it. You keep your half in the fund if you like, and if I can’t afford an apartment, I’ll just bury my half in the ground, snuggled safely away inside the belly of the Holy Land. It’s safer there than in that crazy global galut! (My husband did not seem to think this was an overly brilliant strategy but a couple is allowed to disagree on some things, aren’t they?)

In the end, one of our kids came home and said that many of his friends were withdrawing their money from the banks where it now made little or no interest, and instead were offering loans to needy family and friends who will repay them sometime in the future when, B’ezrat Hashem, they are in better shape. Sort of like personal, mini-free loan societies.

But what collateral do they have? I asked. What surety? How do your friends know they’ll get their money back?

How does anyone know anything? countered my son. Your investments seemed to be good ones – until now but look what happened! A loan to a needy Jew is a deposit in G-d’s Bank. That’s about as sure as we can get. My husband bought this idea immediately. Instead of burying money in G-d’s Country, he said, invest it in His Bank! I needed to think it over.

I remembered the story of the rav who gave away every last penny each night before he went to sleep. He was sure that on the morrow, the Almighty would provide. One night he could not fall asleep. He arose from bed and searched his house until he found a few kopecks in back of a drawer. He hadn’t known they were there. He immediately dressed, went out in search of a poor man and gave them away. Then he came home and with no worries, was able to immediately fall asleep.

I never quite understood that rav. Was he a tzadik, or a fool? We do need money. We do need to care for our finances and pay our bills. It’s true that Hashem is our only real supporter, but He gives us funds to function and it’s our duty to use them wisely and well. Yet this time, our wisdom did not produce the desired results. I mulled over it a bit longer and finally came to a decision.

G-d’s Bank sounded like a pretty safe investment idea after all. Whatever else happens, the bank is secure – infinitely safer than Wall Street or Tokyo. The interest it earns is long term, and come what may, to the best of my knowledge, it’s irrevocable. What else can one ask for? Even Leo the Lion can’t compete with a deal like that.

© 2009 Yaffa Ganz. Yaffa Ganz is the award winning author of more than forty Jewish children’s books including Sand and Stars – a 2000 year saga of Jewish history for teen readers. Her latest book – “A Different Dimension” published by Hamodia Publishers – is an anthology of essays on contemporary Jewish life.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.