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The Money Trap

The Money Trap

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Forgetting G‑d

Moses was still atop Mount Sinai, but he had been slated to return the day beforehand. When he failed to return on the designated day, the people worried that G‑d may have taken him. They feared that he might never return and asked Aaron to create a new material god.1

Aaron was shocked. A new god? It was barely forty days since G‑d, the creator of heaven and earth, instructed them at Sinai to worship only Him. He expressly forbade the worship of any other entity. Had they so quickly forgotten?

Aaron was then struck by a sudden insight. Blame for this must be attributed to the fabulous wealth that the people had been granted before their exodus from Egypt.

People of wealth are accustomed to having their every desire fulfilled and they learn to feel entitled. If they wanted a material god then they felt entitled to one. Was there a problem? No worries, we'll throw money at it and the problem will surely disappear. All other problems seem to solve themselves when palms are greased with appropriate sums.2

Aaron attempted to address the root of the problemWith this insight Aaron attempted to address the root of the problem. He asked the people, "Who owns gold?" He meant to explain that all gold comes from G‑d and that when we merit wealth we ought to be humbled by G‑d's generosity. He intended to encourage them to meditate on this concept, thinking that such meditation might solve the underlying cause of the problem.3

Throwing Money at the Problem

But the people never gave him a chance to finish his thought. When they heard him ask for money, they thought they recognized his request. In the end it always came down to money. "You want gold," they said, "No problem. We have plenty of gold." They proceeded to bring forth a huge amount.4

What was Aaron to do? At this point it was too late for words. The radical situation called for decisive action. He threw the gold into the fire. With this he meant to communicate that all gold comes from heaven and that wealth ought to fuel our flames of love for G‑d, rather than the reverse.

To his chagrin, it was too late. Their attitude was so corrosive that it could not be changed overnight. As Aaron was later to testify, "I threw the gold into the fire and out came this calf." The very image of glistening gold shimmering in the fire aroused the nation's passion for money. It aroused in them a sense of their own infallibility. The fire gave birth to a golden calf and this, they worshiped.

When the "I" is Paramount

Moses perceived the problem as well as its roots and origins immediately upon his descent from the mountain. He told his student, Joshua, who awaited him at the foot of the mountain, "This is not a sound of victory, this is not a sound of defeat, [rather] a sound of blasphemy I hear."5

Why did he conclude his statement with the seemingly superfluous words, "I hear"? According to at least one commentator, Moses was telling Joshua that the source of the blasphemy was an inflated sense of self. It was the people's arrogant sense of "I" that he was sensing. "I see that it is the 'I' which is stimulated their blasphemy and idolatry."6

This dilemma has followed mankind through the generations. The wealthy rarely perceive themselves as common members of society. They prefer the more rarefied echelons. However, the highest praise that can be heaped upon a wealthy person is that he or she has overcome this very temptation. Wealthy people who travel in common circles are usually highly regarded by all.

A Message of Humility

It was the people's arrogant sense of “I” that he was sensingThis was G‑d's message to Moses when he consented to grant him a second set of tablets. G‑d told Moses to carve out the tablets from a special sapphire quarry that was created for this purpose beneath Moses' tent. When G‑d told him to carve out the tablets, he added the word "lecha," which means, for yourself. "Carve out for yourself."7

The tablets didn't belong to Moses. They were the heritage of the entire nation. Why did G‑d tell Moses to carve them out for himself? The Hebrew word for carve is "psal," a word which also means inferior. Our sages taught that Moses grew wealthy from the inferior stone bits that fell away during the carving.

G‑d was not telling Moses that the tablets belonged to him, but that "psal lecha" -- the inferior (stone bits) is for you.8

The inner meaning of these words is that a Jew must always retain a sense of inferiority when he contemplates G‑d. When we stand before the tablets upon which G‑d's commandments are inscribed, a sense of inferiority is appropriate because humility is appropriate in the dominating presence of G‑d.

Even as we are blessed with immense wealth, as Moses was, we must remember, as Moses did, that wealth, and the person blessed with it, is inferior to the source of the wealth. The source of the blessing is G‑d and it is to Him that our allegiance is due.

I Want the King

The Baal Shem Tov once explained this concept with a parable. One day the King offered to grant his citizens their every wish. They lined up and asked for everything their hearts desired. One citizen made a unique request. "I would like to be granted a daily audience with the King."9

When we are granted our wishes, the blessings are as limited as our wishes are and the wealth can lead us to hubris. When we throw ourselves on his majesty's mercy, the blessings are infinite and, more importantly, we remain forever humble and grateful.

Footnotes
1.

Exodus 32.

2.

See Rashi's commentary to Deuteronomy 1:1 that the sin of the Golden Calf was a direct result of their fabulous wealth (R. Shlomo Yitzchaki, Troyes France, 1040-1105). See also Deuteronomy 8:11-18.

3.

This essay follows Aaron's account of his exchange with the people. Aaron reported to Moses (Exodus 32:44) that all he had said to the people was, "Who has gold?" In the account of the event itself, the Torah tells us that Aaron actually said, "Remove your rings of gold that are on your wives, sons and daughters and bring it to me" (32:2). Aaron was, of course, paraphrasing when he reported to Moses, but even the longer version of Aaron's words can be interpreted in the same manner. Aaron said, "Remove your sense of ownership from the gold. You gave it to your family as if you are entitled to it. Bring it to me and I will show you how to treat the blessing of wealth appropriately."

4.

This interpretation is advanced by Divrei Yisrael Al Hatorah (R. Yisrael of Maditz, 1901).

6.

See footnote 4.

8.

See Rashi's commentary on Exodus 34:21. Tanchumah on Exodus 29 and Vayikra Rabbah 32:2.

9.

This parable is quoted in many sources, including Maor Enayim on Exodus 31:13.

Rabbi Lazer Gurkow is spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Tefilah in London, Ontario, and a frequent contributor to The Judaism Website—Chabad.org. He has lectured extensively on a variety of Jewish topics, and his articles have appeared in many print and online publications. For more on Rabbi Gurkow and his writings, visit InnerStream.ca.
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