Who is rich? —one who is satisfied with his lot. As it is written: "If you eat of toil of your hands, fortunate are you, how good it is for you!"

Ethics of the Fathers, 4:1


Does this mean that only carpenters and porters can taste fortune and goodness? Is the Psalmist advising all businessmen, lawyers and university professors to abandon their offices and classrooms and ``eat of toil of your hands''?

But our mishnah simply states, "Who is rich? —one who is satisfied with his lot," and then proceeds to quote the verse from the Psalms. Obviously, the concept of gaining one's living by the toil of one's "hands" applies to every individual, regardless of vocation.

Patriarchal Precedent

In Genesis 28 the Torah describes the first night in Jacob's journey from the Land of Israel to Charan. When darkness fell, "he took from the stones of the place and placed them about his head" in order to protect him from wild beasts as he slept. But if Jacob was concerned with the threat of physical beasts, why did he shield only his head, exposing his body to the dangers of the wild?

But the Torah is telling us of a deeper, internal barrier that Jacob was erecting. Jacob knew that he was leaving behind his earlier life as a "wholesome man, who dwells in the tents of study,” for the cannibalistic world of commerce and materialism. After decades of secluded study in the Holy Land, he was to spend twenty years in the company of the corrupt and manipulative Laban, in order to build his family and amass the material means to support it. During this time he labored round the clock ("in the day the heat consumed me, and the frost by night; and my sleep departed from my eyes" ) until he was "exceedingly successful," and gained "much cattle, maids, servants, camels and donkeys." Yet he only devoted his "body," his external self, to this necessary but spiritually barren aspect of his life, while jealously reserving his "head," his innermost mind and choice talents, for his higher priorities.

So after twenty years in the jungle of Charan, Jacob could look back at a fortune created by much genius and skill and refer to it as but "the toil of my hands."

If you wish to be truly rich, our Mishnah is saying, expend only the toil of your "hands," the more external elements of your talents and faculties, in your material involvements, reserving "toil of your head" for the more lofty things in life. Save the best of your mind, heart and self to gain true wisdom, serve your Creator, and fulfill your mission in life.