Eleven years ago, a sweet, spoiled and stereotypical silver spooned 12th grade Beverly Hills student of mine excitedly approached me with a new set of keys. “Rav” he said, “today’s my birthday and my parents gave me a present” – proudly displaying his new keys. I kibbitzed with him, telling him it was so nice that his parents had finally seen fit to allow him in the house. He then walked me to the parking lot to show me his sparkling and shiny brand new black Mustang (not a horse). For a moment, I pondered the notion that this young man was now driving a nicer car than I will ever drive. Then, after the student rejected my proposal for a car swap, I got into my station wagon (of blessed memory). Thus concludes story # 1.
Recently, I met some of my students who are living in Israel, at a very lovely reception. Of particular interest to me was a very special young couple who make their home living in the Shomron. The young man’s mother had passed away at a very young age and his wife’s sister had been killed in a bombing at the local pizza place. Vilified by much of secular Israeli society, this special young family’s stark idealism and mesirus nefesh (sense of sacrifice) move me greatly. They live modestly and travel through checkpoints to get to work. Yet even as they barely eek out a living, they display an incredible happiness, an irresistible joie de vivre. They are sweet, smart and humble people. Even as they have little – they live with a sense of so much. They are living embodiments of happy people, sameiach b’chelkam (happy with their lot). Thus concludes story # 2.
Our parsha provides a subtle exposure to these contrasting perceptions of wealth. Hashem implores Moshe (11:2): “Dabeir na – Please make sure to tell the Jews to ask for wealth from their Egyptian neighbors”. Why the please? Rashi treats us to the midrash (Berachos 9a) that Hashem wanted to avoid a potential complaint by Avraham:
“Hashem, the 1st part of the covenant (Bereishis, 15) i.e., the four hundred year exile and enslavement you fulfilled, but you were remiss on the 2nd clause, the guarantee that they will emerge with great wealth (rechush gadol). Therefore, Hashem turns to Moshe – please tell the Jews …
Everyone asks on the midrash: Hashem’s seal is truth; surely, He must keep his word regardless of Avraham?
Perhaps the classic answer (in brief) to this question is that Hashem’s promise of wealth was referring to the beste sechora, the greatest asset, the gift of Torah. No amount of material prowess can mimic the wealthy state of mind that Torah living provides; of course, it is only to the degree that one contemplates, appreciates, and integrates Torah wisdom within one’s own life will that individual be in possession of the great rechush that is Torah (1). If this was God’s promise, he surely delivered in the most magnificent manner.
The meaning of Rashi’s midrash is something else: Avraham the tzaddik lived above the bottom line and always acted beyond suspicion. Witness for example his refusal to take gifts from the King of Sodom – even after he risked his life to save Sodom.
Hashem must provide material wealth (in addition to the Torah), only to avoid a “critique” by Avraham: God, Avraham might say, and what of the cynics who might still claim that You failed to deliver? Quid pro Quo, Avraham davka has the right to make a demand from God. The real bounty resides in our Torah.
If you are thinking that our opening stories represent a stark contrast of these values – material wealth vs. real contentment – you are partially right. To me, they represent much more – a poignant personal continuous vignette of great transformation – for the husband of story # 2 is the very same 12th grader in our opening Mustang story.
In the intervening 11 years, he had lost his mother, home, money, and car. After his family’s swift and sudden Aliyah, he struggled greatly in Eretz Yisrael. Incredibly, over the course of all his tests, he grew up, discovered the beauty of Torah, learned and lived the gift of appreciation and became an incredible sameiach b’chelko. What I have learned from him is that one can have so much and have nothing and another can have precious little and have it all.
Ironically, when I related to his lovely wife the Mustang story, she joked that in their whole lives, they will never be able to afford that car. (I would have offered the station wagon …)
Frankly, they don’t need it. They have great wealth.
Rabbi Asher Brander is the Rabbi of the Westwood Kehilla, Founder/Dean of LINK (Los Angeles Intercommunity Kollel) and is a Rebbe at Yeshiva University High Schools of Los Angeles
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.