In many, if not most, Jewish parables, the righteous and scholarly are often presented as living in a state of poverty. Indeed, it might often seem as if poverty is an attribute of righteousness. As Tevye the Milkman (Fiddler on the Roof) says: “It’s no shame to be poor… but it’s no great honor either!”
It is not a mitzvah to be poor. However, the effect of wealth (and the power that comes with it) has always been a challenge for humanity. That does not mean that having money is considered a bad thing. Judaism does not subscribe to an ethic of poverty. In fact, the Torah very specifically describes the fact that Abraham was very wealthy.
An interesting perspective on the Jewish view of wealth may be seen in the following Mishna from Pirkei Avot, Ethics of the Fathers: “Rabbi Yonatan said: He who fulfills the Torah in poverty shall in the end fulfill it in wealth. He who disregards the Torah in wealth shall in the end disregard it in poverty” (4:11).
Rich or poor, what matters is one’s attitude. The primary goals of a person’s life should be spiritual rather than material. If a person of meager means is able see God’s goodness even while struggling to make his/her way in the world, then that person will have the inner strength to remain attached to Torah even if life becomes more comfortable. Those who have all of the comforts of life and disregard the Torah are often lacking in a basic respect for spiritual life.
This Mishna is in the fourth chapter of Pirkei Avot, and it is interesting to note that the very first Mishna of this chapter gives us an extremely insightful view of the Jewish perspective on wealth: “Who is rich? He who rejoices in his portion, as it is written (Psalms 128:2) ‘You shall eat the fruit of the labor of your hands; you shall be happy, and it shall go well with you'” (4:1).
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