What is the purpose of wealth?

It is hard to remain humble when you are wealthy.

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Rabbi Lazer Gurkow,

Rabbi Lazer Gurkow
Rabbi Lazer Gurkow
Rabbi Lazer Gurkow


Dividing the WealthWhen Rebeca was pregnant with twins, she went to ask the prophet why she was feeling so much turmoil and pain. The prophet told her that she was carrying two nations and that they would separate from the womb; each in their own direction.

Our sages recorded a conversation between Jacob and Esau that took place while they were yet in the womb. Esau’s soul said to Jacob’s soul, “we are two brothers to one father and there are two worlds before us, this world and the world to come. This world has food, drink, business, marriage, children, all things that hold little interest for you. Why don’t we split up, you take this world and I will take the next? 

Jacob agreed and activated the deal fifteen years later; Esau’s birthright for Jacob’s soup. If Esau wanted the earthly soup, he would need to keep his word and surrender the heavenly birthright.

Seventy-five years later, Jacob returned from Charan a wealthy man. Esau saw Jacob’s wealth and immediately objected, “did we not agree that I would receive earthly goods while you receive heavenly goods, how do you come by all this wealth?” To which Jacob replied, “this wealth is just what G-d gave me to live on.” I don’t seek to grow rich, just to have enough to devote myself to G-dly living.

Grabbing the Heel

We now come to a better understanding of a curious episode in the Torah. Esau was born first, and Jacob came along moments later, his little hand grasped tightly around Esau’s heel. There are many explanations for why he did this, and I want to share one based on the agreement we discussed above.

When Jacob agreed to allow Esau earthly possession in exchange for heavenly blessing, he assumed that the brothers would operate under the same rules that his own sons, Issachar and Zebulun, would operate, only one generation later. Zebulun was a wealthy merchant and Issachar was an esteemed scholar. The wealthy Zebulun supported his scholarly brother and shared in the merit of his Torah study. 

Jacob assumed that his agreement with Esau would work along similar lines. Esau would travel, invest, grow wealthy, enjoy a big beautiful home with exotic art and fancy furnishings. Jacob would live in a tent, where he would fulfill his heart’s only desire– to study Torah. He was content to let Esau travel the world and enjoy its gifts because he assumed Esau would use his wealth to support Torah students.

Jacob was not mistaken in this assessment because while in the womb, Esau was still righteous. If you recall, the prophet informed Rebeca that the two fetuses would separate from the womb, but in the womb, they were on the same page. Esau wanted the earthly benefits, but he wasn’t against heavenly blessings. His attitude was like that of Zebulun. He would use the wealth to support the scholar.

Jacob didn’t object to Esau’s emerging from the womb ahead of him. Let Esau go first, he needs time to prepare in order to support my Torah studies. This is, after all, the way of the world. The less important precedes the more important. Evening comes before morning. This world comes before the world to come. Earthly wealth comes before heavenly blessing. 

This works so long as evening recognizes that it is a prelude to morning, this world serves as a corridor to the next world and the wealthy realize that their purpose is to support holy causes. But when the priorities are reversed and evening comes to believe that it is more important than morning because it came first, earth believes it is more important than the heaven, when the philanthropist believes that he is more important because he has the money, the entire system collapses.

So long as Esau was in the womb, he recognized that he went first to enable him to support the Torah. However, the moment Esau emerged from the womb, his entire attitude shifted. He became anti Jacob, anti Torah and anti G-d. He was now interested in wealth for its own sake. He would now use it to establish his own power, fame and reputation.

Jacob’s soul sensed it immediately and his little hand struck out to clutch at Esau’s heel. Alas it was too late. The partnership as envisioned by Jacob and Esau in the womb was not meant to be.  That would have been too easy and G-d’s script for life is never easy. G-d always places challenges before us and rarely allows us the easy path. He wants us to struggle and to grow, not to relax and have it easy.

Contemporary Lesson

Our sages taught that G-d created gold so that it could be used in the Temple for the glory of G-d. But once created, He allowed us to enjoy some of it too. This teaching is important because it reminds us that the true purpose of wealth and power is the glorification of G-d. If we find ourselves in possession of either, we must remember that its ultimate purpose is not for us, but for G-d.

Wealthy people are often solicited for donations. The solicitors use all forms of flattery to open the donors’ hearts and wallets. It takes a lot of discipline to maintain humility and perspective under such circumstances. Donors begin to believe that if so many rabbis and activists visit their office and beg for their attention, they must be exceedingly important.

But the truth is that they are not important. The support that they offer to Torah is important. Issachar respected Zebulun, not because Zebulun was wealthy, but because Zebulun respected and supported Issachar. The charity collector comes to the donor, to give the donor the privilege of using his or her wealth for a mitzvah. It is not so that the donor can grow haughty.

The purpose of gold is to glorify G-d, but once we have it, we are permitted to use it too. The purpose of wealth is to support holy causes and once we have it we may use some of it too. But if we reverse the values and use our wealth to glorify ourselves, we are not worthy of the gold.
Heaven and earth must meet, the only question is how. When the wealthy acknowledge that wealth’s purpose is to support holy causes, then earth has been lifted to meet with heaven. When the wealthy believe that they are visited by distinguished personas because of their personal importance, then heaven is hurled down to earth. Money is still given to holy causes, but only to glorify the donor. Heaven and earth still meet, but rather than lifting earth to the heavens, the heavens are lowered to earth.

Don’t use your money, power, talent, strength or fame to bring heaven down to earth. Use them to bring earth up to heaven. Use every resource that G-d gave you to make this world a better and holier place. Not so that people could glorify you, but so that together, you and the recipient, could glorify G-d. 








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