Judaism: The Shmuz on Ki Tisa
Moses returned to G-d and said, “Please! This people has committed a grave sin and made themselves a god of gold.” – Exodus 32:31
When Moses Returned from Sinai
When Moses returned from Mount Sinai, he found a very different scene than the one he left forty days before. A segment of the Jewish nation, in rebellion against G-d, had formed a golden calf and was worshiping it. The rest of the nation stood by and didn’t protest. In context, this was such an egregious act that G-d threatened to destroy the entire nation.
Rashi explains that during the process of asking for forgiveness, Moses said to G-d, “You caused this. You gave the Jewish people gold and silver; they left Egypt with great riches. Wasn’t it obvious that they would come to sin?”
This Rashi seems difficult to understand when we focus on who these people were and where this was taking place.
The Jewish people were living in the desert. They neither worked for a living nor had any use for money. All of their needs were taken care of. They ate manna that was delivered to their tents daily. They drank water from the miraculous rock that followed them on their journeys. Their clothes were washed by the Clouds of Glory, and their shoes never wore out. They didn’t need money and couldn’t use it. How could it become their downfall?
The Real Danger of Wealth
The answer to this question is based on understanding why wealth is considered one of the great tests of man.
Materialism and self-indulgence are the risks of affluence, but an even greater danger is that wealth can lead a person to view himself as different than everyone else. “There are regular people, but I am different because I am rich. The world is full of people, but I am in a different category. I am a rich man.”
With this also comes a sense of self-sufficiency and arrogance. “I am a wealthy man, so I don’t need anyone. I don’t need my children. I don’t need my wife. In fact… I am so wealthy that I don’t really need G-d.”
This seems to be the answer to this Rashi. Granted, the Jewish people living in the desert needed nothing and could do nothing with their money, but the real risk of wealth is the sense of superiority that comes along with it. In their minds, they were now rich. As rich men, they were significant, important, too big to be dependent upon anyone, and this feeling was the root cause of their rebellion against G-d.
Who Were These People?
This concept becomes a tremendous insight when we take into account that these individuals were on a higher level than any other generation in the history of mankind. They had been slaves in Egypt and were freed. They had lived through the entire process of the plagues and splitting of the Reed Sea. They watched as G-d showed total dominion over every facet of nature.
But more than all of this, they had only recently stood at the foot of Sinai when G-d opened up the heavens and the earth and revealed the greatest secrets of Creation. They had seen and experienced G-d more clearly than did the greatest prophets, which tells us that they knew exactly why they were created and how passing and insignificant is a person’s station in this world. And yet Moses compared their being wealthy to such a difficult test that it would be like putting a young man on the doorstep of sin.
This is highly illustrative of the inner workings of the human. G-d created deep within our hearts many needs and desires. One of these is the need for honor and prestige. The drive for honor is one of the strongest forces in man. Often we are unaware of its existence until a given situation brings it to the fore.
While the Jewish people were then living under ideal spiritual conditions, money still had value to them – not in what it could buy, but in its more alluring sense, in the associated feeling of power and importance that it brought. They were now rich people, and that sense is so dangerous that it can destroy even the greatest of men. For that reason, Moses said to G-d, “You caused this. The gold and the silver that You gave them brought them to sin.”
Living in Our Age
This concept has particular relevance in our day and age. Never in the history of mankind have so many enjoyed such wealth. On some level, each of us has the opportunity of “one day being rich.”
As with many life situations, prosperity can be either a blessing or a curse. If a person changes because he is now a rich man, he needs more. He feels that he deserves only the best, and he won’t be satisfied with what everyone else gets by with. That sense of superiority will turn him against his Creator, and the very wealth that he acquired will be the source of his ruin. For eternity, he will regret having been given that test – which he failed.
However, if a person remains aware that he was granted wealth for a purpose – that he is not the owner of it, but rather its custodian, duly charged with its proper use – then he can use it as a tool to help him accomplish his purpose in existence. His wealth will then be a true blessing that he enjoys in this world, and for eternity, he will enjoy that which he accomplished with it.