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Parsha Eikev: Money

Money, get away
You get a good job with more pay and you’re OK
Money, it’s a gas
Grab that cash with both hands and make a stash
New car, caviar, four-star daydream
Think I’ll buy me a football team
-Pink Floyd

This week’s Torah portion, Eikev focuses on the influence of being prosperous and the ensuing challenge of balancing our material desires on the one hand and our spirituality on the other. Moshe reminds the Jewish people that all their needs were met when they travelled the desert these past 40 years. They didn’t have to worry about food or clothing and it was a very pure and spiritual lifestyle they enjoyed.

He contrasts this passive setting with their soon-to-be new environment, the Land of Israel, painting it in very lush terms. It is a good land with streams, mountains and valleys. We hear of the types of foods that will be found there – wheat, barley, grapes, dates, figs and the ever-wonderful pomegranates, filled with vitamins, minerals and fibre.

Along with this imminent prosperity comes a warning that the Israelites should not get too full of themselves and conclude that “my strength and vigor has got me all this power and wealth!” thereby forgetting where it really came from. They are warned not to pat themselves too much on the back when success happens. 

This warning is a very appropriate and timeless one for too often we see the ill effects that wealth has on the ego. Successful people often deem their achievements to be based solely on their wisdom or intelligence when their fate could have just as easily gone the other way and sent them down a different path. 

People often dream of being wealthy. They fantasize about winning the lottery and line up to buy a ticket for the billion-dollar Powerball, assured that it will bring them happiness and joy. Yet study after study shows that many of those winners have had their lives spin out of control and end up becoming worse. They no longer know whom to trust or who their real friends are. Often we hear of how they quickly fritter away their winnings and find themselves back where they were before their windfall. 

The main error people make when dreaming of becoming mega-wealthy is that they think they will still have the same mindset as when they were making their regular middle-class salary. And this is simply not the case. 

Once your net worth is so many millions more than before, you look at life and opportunities very differently. Your trip to the mall becomes a completely different experience. Whereas you used to stroll past the jewelry store, glance and admire the collection of watches, rings and the like and then keep on walking, now, as a newly minted millionaire, you actually stop in and consider which of those pieces you will buy. And once you indeed buy that gorgeous watch or ring, you go back again to buy something else as you soon grow tired of what you have, which suddenly seems so yesterday. 

The same is true when you visit the Jaguar or Audi showroom after discarding your Hyundai but then conclude maybe you should step it up yet another notch and perhaps get yourself a McLaren, Aston Martin or Bentley. Or maybe all three. Many areas of life that were once off-limits suddenly become available and open for exploration such as political influence, homes in other countries, private jets, boats, etc. The list is endless. As one attains each new plateau of riches, the next one opens up. And on and on, and on it goes. 

The rabbis in the Talmud had an acute understanding of this phenomenon and, as they often do, were able to sum it up in a very succinct fashion. “He who has one hundred wants two hundred, and he who has two hundred wants four hundred, and he who has four hundred …” you get the point. They appreciated that once you attain one level of material success, it doesn’t end there but continues on in an endless chase for more.  

So what is the antidote to this mindset that afflicts all of us, not just the super rich? (Yes all of us for let’s face it, our lifestyles today is like the super rich of 100 years ago. We have things they could never have even dreamed of.) The answer is found in a verse from this week’s Torah portion. To ensure that one doesn’t get lost in this endless game of material pursuit, the Torah reminds us that “Not by bread alone does man live, but rather by all that comes from the mouth of God does man live.” 

This simple verse teaches us the balancing act between our never-ending want for more versus our spiritual needs. We are told that material needs – manifested by its most basic component, bread – will never suffice. By it alone we cannot ever expect to find satisfaction or ultimate happiness. Only when your things – your bread – is combined with the spiritual – with that which “comes from the mouth of God” – then and only then can one truly have a fulfilling life.

If, when filling our belly, we also fill our soul with holy activities – with good deeds, with wisdom, with bettering the world, with growing as a person, with helping our fellow man – then we get a real perspective of those good things in life. We will come to realize that, while material things may provide some fun and excitement, they don’t fill my inner being. My sense of calm, meaning, spirituality and knowing that I am a Godly being created in His image only comes from those higher pursuits above and beyond the material ones. 

So while Judaism is all for enjoying God’s world and His endless bounty, it needs to be enjoyed alongside a regular diet of spirituality, lest the physical desires become an endless, bottomless, all-consuming pit that will only destroy. Material wants have no boundaries or limits unless they are put in check by the spiritual. 

Not by bread alone does man live, but rather by all that comes from the mouth of God does man live. Tempering our good fortune with a constant dose of meaning and Godliness gives us the proper balance that allows us to enjoy His world in the way that it was meant to be enjoyed. If we don’t inject spirituality into our lives, then the material world will end up consuming us instead of us consuming it.

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