If I were rich, I’d have the time that I lack
To sit in the synagogue and pray,
And maybe have a seat by the Eastern wall,
And I’d discuss the learned books with the holy men Seven hours every day–
That would be the sweetest thing of all…
from If I Were a Rich man
written by Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock
for the musical Fiddler on the Roof
Now Jacob was settled in the land where his father had sojourned, the land of Canaan. –Genesis 37:1
Rabbi Eli Touger’s commentary on Torah Portion Vayeishev says in part, that Jacob desired to live in prosperity, as do all righteous men, but was unable to (according to Rashi) because of his distress over the disappearance and apparent death of his son Joseph. I’ve written previously about the fallacy of “prosperity theology” in the church, so can we conclude (assuming Rashi is correct) that Jacob’s desire to live in prosperity is a problem for me? Rabbi Touger quotes Rashi’s response to this question.
Yaakov desired to dwell in prosperity, but the distress of Yosef’s [disappearance] beset him. The righteous desire to dwell in prosperity, but the Holy One, blessed be He, says: “Is not what is prepared for them in the World to Come enough for the righteous? Must they also desire prosperity in this world?”
Rashi’s statement is problematic, for a casual reading gives the impression that G-d does not approve of the righteous wanting prosperity. On the other hand, the fact that “the righteous” follow this path of conduct indicates that the desire for prosperity is a positive trait and not a character flaw. (Rashi’s apparent source is Bereishis Rabbah 84:3)
This difficulty can be resolved by focusing on the fact that Rashi speaks about a desire for prosperity expressed by the righteous. Why only the righteous? Everyone wants to enjoy an abundance of good without strife, contention, or difficulty.
On the surface, this interpretation seems to support the prosperity theology position that the righteous “should” want to have wealth and comfort in the present world as well as rewards in the world to come. But it’s amazing to me that Rashi, a French medieval Talmudic sage, should agree with a modern Christian doctrine. Is God so simple that he rewards the righteous with material wealth and punishes the less worthy with poverty and hardship? The history of both righteous Christians and Jews would seem to deny this, since many faithful men and women have suffered great difficulties and even died penniless for the sake of God.
And what does “Fiddler on the Roof” have to do with anything?
When a person is beset… with sickness, war, and hunger, he cannot occupy himself neither with wisdom nor with mitzvos. For this reason, all Israel and [in particular,] their prophets and sages have desired the Era of the Mashiach. (Mishneh Torah, Hilchos Teshuvah 9:2)
The Sages and the prophets did not yearn for the Era of the Mashiach so that [the Jewish people] would rule the world… nor to eat, drink, and celebrate. Rather, their aspiration was to be free [to involve themselves] in the Torah and its wisdom, without anyone oppressing or disturbing them. (Ibid., Hilchos Melachim 12:4.)
That sounds like Tevye’s wish as well. But as noble as this wish appears, it has a serious flaw. The righteous receive their reward in the Kingdom of Heaven (Matthew 6:20) and not on Earth (at least not always) and in fact, the Master said that:
“So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. –Matthew 6:2-4
The Master is saying a couple of things. The first is that if we have the means, we should use them to benefit the poor. Nowhere does he say that our primary duty is to be occupied in study but rather the mitzvot related to helping the needy. He also says that if we receive our reward here in the form of wealth and prestige (maybe wealth, if used in secret to help others and not just to make ourselves look good is OK), it is in full and there may be no additional reward (which isn’t the same as salvation) in Heaven. Interestingly enough, his point finds its parallel in Rabbi Touger’s teaching:
Nevertheless, a distinction must be made. The World to Come represents G-d’s reward to man just recompense for man’s Divine service. This is a departure from the pattern of our present existence, of which it is said, “Today to perform them (the mitzvos); tomorrow to receive their reward.”
So was Jacob’s desire, as interpreted by Rashi, in vain? I still think the answer is still in Tevye’s song.
The righteous, by contrast, are not concerned with reward. On the contrary, to refer to the passage cited above, they long to involve themselves in the Torah and its mitzvos. Their aspiration is only that they be freed from external difficulties. They want to grow in understanding and personal development. Why must they be confronted with challenges from the outside? Let all their efforts be devoted to the internal challenges of spiritual growth.
I can’t say if this truly speaks to Jacob’s desire, but what we see here is that a righteous person, when desiring prosperity, isn’t thinking of reward in the conventional sense. They are thinking probably what you and I have considered at one point or another. If we could be freed from the constraints of a “normal” life of work and problems, we could spend more time serving God and ministering to people, even devoting our great material possessions to the well being of those around us. I think that would work for a truly righteous person, such as Joseph, who used the exalted position given to him by Pharaoh, King of Egypt (and ultimately God), to save his family and the world. For the rest of us though, we would be enormously tempted to use our wealth and “free time” for less than noble pursuits.
My opinion is that the toil and hardship of day-to-day life, though it limits the amount of time and energy we have to pray, to perform mitzvot (acts of kindness and righteousness), and to honor God, also focuses those few hours we do have through a lens whereby we can see God and do His will more effectively, without the temptations material prosperity brings. I tend to think that the truly righteous can manage extreme poverty and extreme wealth with equal grace as Paul said he had learned to do (Philippians 4:12-13).
Please understand that I’m not making a simple statement that the very rich and the very poor are always righteous. We know that wealth and poverty visit the just and the unjust alike. We know that God grants us what He chooses to grant us and doesn’t owe us an explanation for how things work out in our lives. Our circumstances aren’t a particularly accurate barometer of our state of holiness and relationship with the Almighty. But it is one type of challenge we may face as part of His plan for our lives.
In addition to our material state of being, we can also experience spiritual prosperity or poverty. Since God’s gifts are endless in this arena, I have to believe that we have the majority of control in this area of our existence. This has nothing to do with dollar signs or a “feeling” of peace inside, and everything to do with a burning desire to draw closer to Him and to do His will. The pursuit of “spiritual reward” is also fraught with problems because we poor, dumb, human beings have a tendency to get our priorities and desires mixed up with His. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard Christians report that they prayed about a certain decision they had to make and then “felt a peace” about the decision they wanted to make anyway. Was that drawing closer to God or using God as an excuse to fulfill their personal wants rather than God’s requirements?
When Christians say that Jesus freed them from the Leviticus 11 food laws, I sometimes want to ask them, if God came to them right now and really told them to give up their ham sandwiches, and they really, really knew it was from God, would they give up the pork, or find an excuse not to? I use this as an example and not to say that I think the Torah kosher laws necessarily apply to the Gentile, but it’s a good illustration. In keeping with my theme for the past week or so, I might ask Gentile Messianics if God told them to be forgiving and tolerant of Christians who put up Christmas trees instead of reviling them and “standing their ground” against paganism, would they be truly forgiving and tolerant, or would they argue with God that the Christmas tree people deserved to be condemned?
I have to say at this point, that I am somewhat heartened how some of the detractors of Christmas on Boaz Michael’s Facebook page seem to be softening their approach and being clear that they are not actually attacking Christians. I’m also thankful to Jacob Fronczak for posting the very well researched article The Syncretism Boogeyman on his blog, which provides excellent information on the history of cultic practices in ancient times, including during the time of Moses. I’m stepping off my soapbox now. Back to the topic at hand.
From my own personal experiences (humble though they may be), I’ve become convinced that when God actually speaks to me (rather than the voice of my own desires and ego in my head), He surprises me and frankly, asks me to say and do things that aren’t naturally easy for me. He asks me to take on duties I don’t feel comfortable with and requires that I surrender behaviors and even thoughts with which I am very at ease. That’s the nature of God, to push us forward, to urge us to move further on and in directions we would never consider on our own.
So be careful in the sorts of rewards you ask from God and in what role you seek to play in His service. He just may give you a type of reward and prosperity you don’t expect and require that you actually rise to the challenge. How many years was Joseph a slave and prisoner in Egypt before he became all but a king? How many years did Jacob live in grief and abject sorrow, though materially wealthy, before he was comforted by his son in Egypt?