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Torah Attitude: Parashas Lech Lecha: Overcoming challenges of wealth and poverty
We are living in trying times. Rabbi Luzatto explains that G'd challenges us with many different situations that can pull us away from Him. G'd instructs Abraham to leave his parental home to go to an unspecified destination that G'd will show him. A righteous observant person, who follows G'd's instructions, nevertheless may go through one hardship after another. Life is like a school with different classes. Wealth is not always a blessing. We never know why G'd brings us into different circumstances, but we firmly believe that every situation is an opportunity to grow and overcome our challenges. We all have our Heavenly accounts and everything has to be paid for one way or another. "Always remember that G'd is righteous, and His judgment is just, and He sees everything that is happening." As we go through challenging times we must bear in mind that our loving Father in Heaven only wants our benefit.
We are living in trying times. Many people have lost their jobs. Many more have lost substantial assets in their stock portfolios. The financial insecurity is palpable and everybody is affected one way or another. This is a real life example of the tests in life Rabbi Moishe Chaim Luzatto writes about in Path of the Just (Chapter 1). Rabbi Luzatto elaborates on our purpose in this world and he explains that we are here to fulfill the commandments of the Torah, to serve G'd and to overcome various tests in life.
Attacks from all sides
Rabbi Luzatto further explains that G'd challenges us with many different situations that can pull us away from Him. He compares this world to a battlefield where the enemy attacks from all sides. Some will be attacked with challenges of poverty. Others will be attacked with challenges due to wealth. Some are challenged with a situation where everything goes well. Others are challenged with a life full of pain and turmoil. In every situation one has to find the way to do the will of G'd and to serve Him.
Abraham's ten tests
This is nothing new. The Mishnah (Pirkei Avos 5:4) relates how our Patriarch Abraham was tested with ten trials. He paved the way for us and showed how to overcome even the most difficult tests in life without losing one's faith in G'd. In the beginning of this week's Parasha, G'd instructs Abraham to leave his parental home to go to an unspecified destination that G'd will show him. This in itself was a difficult test. Despite any difficulty one may experience at home, there is always the fear of the unknown. Nevertheless, Abraham followed G'd's instructions and travelled to the Land of Canaan. However, not long after he arrived at his destination, the Torah (Bereishis 12:18) relates a new problem, as it says: "And there was a famine in the land and Avrom went down to Egypt …"
Test of famine
Rashi quotes from the Midrash Tanchuma (para. 5) that the famine was confined to the land of Canaan. This was yet another test to see how Abraham would react when he realized that the only place that suffered from hunger was the very land G'd had instructed him to go to. Abraham accepted this new challenge without any questions and went down to Egypt together with his family. The Torah here teaches us how a righteous observant person, who follows G'd's instructions, nevertheless may go through one hardship after another. As the Torah relates further, how, as soon as Abraham and his family arrived in Egypt, his wife Sarah was taken away from him to the palace of King Pharaoh.
School of life
In the days of the Chofetz Chaim a well-known, respected philanthropist lost everything overnight to the shock of everyone. People asked the Chofetz Chaim how could it be that such a G'd-fearing, generous person, who was always ready to give and share, lost everything? The Chofetz Chaim answered that life is like a school with different classes. After this person had completed the class where one had to learn how to deal with wealth, he was now put in a class where he would have to learn how to deal with poverty. Obviously, G'd does not put everyone through such trials, but for this particular person to reach his purpose in life he had to go through both the challenges connected with wealth and those connected with poverty.
Misfortune of wealth
We live in a world where success is generally measured by a person's assets and worth. The vast majority of people would like to be wealthy. We tend to forget that wealth is not always a blessing. As King Solomon writes (Koheles 5:12): "There is a sick evil that I have seen under the sun. Wealth kept for its owner for his misfortune." Our sages give a classical example of this in the case of Korach. Korach was immensely wealthy and only because of his wealth did he have the arrogance to stand up against Moses. Korach was not the only one with such challenges. It is not easy for anyone to stay humble when one can have anything one wants with money.
Stand up against G'd
Wealth can even bring a person to stand up against G'd. As King Solomon prays in Mishlei (30:9): "Let me not get saturated with wealth that I should not come to deny and say, 'Who is G'd?' And let me not be poor that I should come to steal and profane the name of G'd." We never know why G'd brings us into different circumstances, but we firmly believe that every situation is an opportunity to grow and overcome our challenges.
The beautiful way to pay
On the one hand the Midrash Rabbah (Shemos 31:11) says that poverty is the most difficult affliction in the world. But on the other hand, the Talmud (Chagigah 9b) expresses that to be poor is "beautiful" for the Jewish people. This sounds very strange, but maybe we can attempt to understand this with an anecdote regarding Rabbi Yitzchak Ze'ev Soloveitchik of Brisk who later lived in Jerusalem. After marrying off his daughter, Rabbi Soloveitchik came to pay for the banquet hall where he had celebrated her wedding. The owner of the hall told the Rabbi that it was an honour for him to have such a distinguished client, and therefore the affair was on the house. The Rabbi would not hear of this and insisted on paying for the wedding. After leaving the office, the Rabbi's personal assistant asked him why he had not accepted the owner's offer. He pointed out that the owner was very sincere and really would have been happy to cover the cost. Rabbi Soloveitchik answered, "You do not understand. Nothing in this world is for free. One way or another I will have to pay the owner for his generosity. The cheapest way to pay is with money." As we go through life, we all have our Heavenly accounts and everything has to be paid for one way or another. If we can pay for these accounts with our money then we have paid our accounts in a "beautiful" way.
Better the cow than the wife
Rav Nissim Gaon relates in a Midrash how one of the rabbis of the Mishnah, Rabbi Yoshua ben Levy, fasted many days and prayed to G'd that he should merit the revelation of the Prophet Eliahu. His request was granted, and the rabbi asked Eliahu for permission to accompany him as he was travelling throughout the world, so that he could learn from his ways. Eliahu warned him that he would not be able to understand and that he was not very keen to explain every act that he performed. Rabbi Yoshua promised not to ask any questions. On that condition Eliahu agreed to take him along, but he warned him again that if he asked for an explanation he would have to cease going with him. They travelled together to several destinations and at every place Eliahu did things, one stranger than the other. At the first stop they came to the house of a pauper and his wife who came out to meet them. They were invited in and were afforded much honour by their host and hostess. In the morning, before leaving their generous host, Eliahu prayed that his single cow, that provided him with his only source of income, should die. Obviously, Rabbi Yoshua could not understand what was going on and he wondered to himself how this could be the way to repay this poor man for his extraordinary hospitality? He could not hold himself back and asked Eliahu for an explanation. Eliahu reminded him of their agreement, and they continued on their travels. After a number of strange incidents, Rabbi Yoshua could no longer contain himself and requested an explanation even if it would mean that he could not continue their joint travel. "You should know", said Eliahu, "that on the day that I prayed for G'd to kill the cow of our gracious host, there had been a Heavenly decree that his wife should pass away." With my prayers, I accomplished to save the wife and their account was settled with the death of the cow. And so Eliahu explained his strange behaviour at very place. In conclusion, Eliahu said to Rabbi Yoshua, "Now that I am leaving you, I shall give you some very useful information. If you see an evil person who is successful, do not be so surprised. Eventually, this is not for his benefit. On the other hand, if you see a righteous person suffering in any way, do not get angry and start having doubts about your Creator. But always remember that G'd is righteous, and His judgment is just, and He sees everything that is happening. " And with this he bid his companion farewell.
Never doubt G'd
As we go through challenging times we must bear in mind that our loving Father in Heaven only wants our benefit. And as Eliahu said, we should never doubt that whatever G'd does is righteous and for our good. With this in mind we will find it easier to overcome our difficulties, and hopefully we will soon see the turning of the wheel that will bring good fortune and prosperity for everyone. Amen.
These words were based on a talk given by Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.
Shalom. Michael Deverett
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