Money and Spirituality (Part 3/5)


“These are the accounts” — In this week’s Torah portion we read about Moses’ accounting for the contributions made to the Temple. Because of its great power and all its potential for use or misuse, scrupulous accountability is necessary when dealing with finances. Even the great Moses, the most trustworthy servant of G-d, demonstrates detailed accountability for all the Temple contributions, especially considering that they were public funds. How much more so the rest of us.

Here is part three of a paper on the power of wealth.



In order to probe the root of wealth, it is essential to ask some fundamental questions: Why does wealth wield such power? What lies at the heart and soul of money? And finally, how do we address Korach’s concerns that can guarantee a system where individual power is not abused, and wealth is used in its healthy context?

Fundamental to Torah thought, is the essential perspective that every physical entity in the universe has a spiritual counterpart, or better yet, a ‘soul,’ an internal energy that shapes and vivifies each respective fiber of existence. [22] The physical is merely a shell, that contains within it spiritual energy, which when manifested on the physical plane takes on the shape of this respective object.

What the Talmud (the ‘body’ of Torah [23] ) teaches us about the ‘body’ and nature of wealth, Kabbalah and Chassidus (the ‘soul’ of Torah) teaches us about the ‘soul’ of wealth.

The Tanya teaches us [24] that wealth is “chayei nafsho,” ‘soul-life-energy.’ [25] In explaining the power of the mitzvah of charity (which will be discussed later), the Tanya explains:

[Charity] “which a person gives out of the toil of his hands, all the strength of his vital soul and energy is invested and embodied in the execution of his work or occupation by which he earned the money; when he gives it for charity, his whole energy ascends to G-d. Even where one does not depend on his toil for a livelihood, nevertheless since with this money he could have purchased necessities of life, hence he is giving his soul’s life to G-d.”

Because we invest so much of our energy into making money, it represents the very energy of life (as we see it).

Furthermore, our wealth reflects the unique allotment of “divine energy” given to each of us. Commenting on the Talmudic statement, “Torah is concerned over one’s wealth”: [26] the Baal Shem Tov (founder of the Chassidic movement) [27] explains: Within each person’s possessions, wealth and property lie divine spiritual ‘sparks’ that relate to the very root of his soul. These ‘sparks’ are the vitality that sustains each physical entity. It would not exist without the Divine energy within, which gives it its reason for being. Everything that comes a person’s way – their wealth, possessions, food, clothing and property – is a Providential indication that these sparks relate to the person’s soul. In this way, each individual is allocated an allotment of spiritual divine sparks, in order for him to elevate these sparks. Proper use of this wealth, channels its energy toward a higher purpose, redeeming and elevating these sparks, thus actualizing the intended purpose of this wealth, and realizing the mission of you’re the person’s soul, and all the ‘sparks’ allocated to it. [28]

The Baal Shem Tov goes a step farther: When one craves a material delight, even food and drink, it is actually ones soul craving and desiring the divine energy (spiritual sparks) within these items. [29] People’s particular tastes and preferences are determined by the difference of their souls and the ‘sparks’ they are drawn to. [30]

Being that wealth is “soul energy” because it encompasses all mans’ energy (as Tanya explains), therefore it contains all the ‘sparks’ allocated to us, and thus has special value, more than the individual sparks in specific areas of our lives. [31]

This perspective on wealth throws light on the odd Talmudic statement, that Rebbe honored the wealthy. [32] At first perusal this seems strange. Was this great sage swayed by wealth? Are the poor less deserving of honor than the rich?

Everything a person owns is a G-d-given opportunity for him to become a finer person and to serve in a better way. Wealth is a sign of greater opportunity. It indicates that G-d entrusted this wealthy person with additional resources to perfect himself and the world around him. And gave him the ability to make that choice.

But every opportunity is also a challenge. Especially when it comes to personal wealth and success, a person has the tendency to feel that “my success is due to me and me alone – it is my intelligence and strengths that brought me this wealth.” This is the challenge of wealth, and a serious challenge it is: To not be deceived by your own ego that you are self made and self contained and your successes are due solely to your own initiatives and abilities.

The challenge is to recognize that “it was not my own strength and personal power that brought me all this prosperity. Remember that it is G-d who gives you the power to become prosperous.” [33]

The true approach to earning a living is recognizing that one’s sustenance comes from G-d, and no amount of effort and ingenuity on ones part will increase it in the slightest. Why, then, work for a living at all? Why need the laborer toil, the artisan create and the businessman deal if, in any case, G-d will supply them with what they have been assigned? Because G-d has commanded us to fashion a “vessel” through which He then promises to channel His blessings – “G-d shall bless you in all that you shall do.” Our workday efforts, then, are nothing more than a formality, a natural “front” for a supernatural process. G-d provides our needs, without regard to such natural criteria as a person’s expertise, capital and enterprise. On the other hand, G-d insists on this formality, promising the bestowal of his blessing only when man creates the vessel enabled by his natural talents and resources.

These are the economics of faith.

At first glance, it may seem that there is little practical difference between this approach and the conventional approach that “my power and my physical might have generated this fortune.” Both agree that to earn a living one must utilize, to the utmost, the natural tools at one’s disposal, whether it is because these natural tools actually generate one’s income or because they are needed as a “vessel” to receive a unilateral gift from Above. In truth, however, these two approaches result in radically different behaviors in work, business and money management.

What happens, for example, when a business opportunity comes your way that may be cutting ethical corners or going against your religious beliefs, but it will increase revenue? This creates the dilemma of having to choose between your “religious beliefs” and your financial betterment. On the other hand, one who knows that his shop, and all the time and toil invested in it, is only a channel for G-d’s blessing, understands the ludicrousy in expanding the channel in a manner that violates the will of the supernal provider. This would be comparable to reducing the fuel supply of a power plant in order to allocate funds for the construction of additional power lines, in the hope that this would increase the net output of the plant. Certainly, it is important to put up power lines; without them, the energy produced by the plant wouldn’t reach its intended destination. But simply pulling more lines from the plant will not generate more power, especially if such activity is to the detriment of the power’s source. Thus, to violate any divine command (such as the prohibitions against stealing, lying, dealing in merchandise that causes physical or moral harm to its consumers, etc.) to increase one’s income is not only detrimental to one’s spiritual health — it’s also bad business sense.

A marked difference between these two approaches is how a person views his contributions to charity. From the conventional perspective, money given to charity represents a reduction in one’s financial resources. A person may still be moved to give out of compassion, duty or guilt; but he will weigh each dollar against the sacrifice it involves, against what he is “giving up” in order to give. On the other hand, to a person who believes that G-d’s blessing is the ultimate and only source of wealth, charity is an investment. Indeed, to give to charity is far more effective an investment than any business initiative: the latter only serves to construct the channel (the nature of which in no way determines how much will be funneled through it), while the former stimulates the source, as per the divine promise/command, “tithe, so that you may prosper.” [34] To such a person, it is also obvious that he will not ”save” anything by disregarding the divine imperative to aid a fellow in need.

Finally, these two approaches differ in the extent of their devotion to the building of a career or business. True, both concur that the natural effort must be made, that one must utilize, to the utmost, the tools at one’s disposal to earn a living. But what exactly does “utilizing to the utmost” mean? To the person who sees his career or business as the source of his income, “the utmost” is an open-ended parameter: the greater one’s efforts, the greater one’s success, or, at least, the greater one’s chances for success. Eight daily hours become 10 become 12 become 14. Second and third jobs are assumed to cover all possibilities. Plans and anxieties invade every waking (and non-waking) thought.

On the other hand, when a person sees his career or business as nothing more than a vessel constructed at G-d’s behest, “the utmost” is the utmost that G-d requires. Anything beyond that is a waste of time and effort. And what G-d requires is that we create a natural framework that would suffice as the receptacle for our most basic needs. Should He desire to grant us more than our most basic needs, He will do so —within that framework. Going to greater lengths will not increase the chances of this happening –on the contrary, it can only decrease them, by impinging on those pursuits and activities (prayer, Torah study, observance of mitzvoth) that relate directly to the source of all blessing.

This is the challenge of wealth and the meaning of charity. To recognize that though your work and effort was necessary to achieve this wealth, it is ultimately G-d’s blessing that “makes you wealthy”. [35] And this recognition is actualized by understanding the purpose of G-d blessing you – in order that you use your wealth for a greater cause and to help others.

Rebbe therefore honored the wealthy. He saw their wealth as an indication of their additional G-d-given opportunities. He honored them because G-d honored them by bestowing upon then this wealth and entrusting them with its distribution to the needy. He respected their unique challenge to not be distracted by their wealth and to utilize it for good. Wealth is G-d’s vote of confidence in the wealthy person that he will overcome the challenge and utilize his special gifts as an opportunity to utilize the wealth for a greater purpose than selfish gain, and to give and help others.

According to this ‘inner/soul’ understanding of wealth, we can appreciate the root of wealth’s power and its ability to consume us – both ourselves and others. It is the Divine energy that lies embedded in wealth that gives it its power.


Indeed, according to the Tanya, the power of wealth embodies the sheer power of this material universe and all it contains, and thus offers us the greatest opportunity to transform the world through our monetary charity.

The Tanya explains that the entire purpose of existence (including the higher sublime realms) is to spiritualize the material world, to transform it into a “home for G-d.” Each of us does so by utilizing our “corner” of this Earth and all we were blessed with – our wealth and possessions – toward elevating the ‘sparks’ within and thus revealing the true nature of existence. We take our part of the material world and instead of being distracted and using it solely for personal gain, we recognize that it is a shell, a vehicle and means for spiritual expression, a channel for a higher good.

Nowhere is this more powerfully expressed than in the act of charity. In all other mitzvot “only one faculty of the soul is embodied, and than only at the time of the performance of the precept, whilst in the case of charity…all the strength of his soul is embodied…”

Virtuous acts are indeed good, and they elevate the soul, but giving money to charity is the most powerful way to spiritualize the material, for it means giving a piece of everything that we are – our abilities, our efforts, our ambitions, our compassion. Charity relieves the inherent tension between matter and spirit by freeing the material world from its self absorbing tentacles, and allowing us to see within and above. Charity does not destroy or annihilate the selfishness of wealth and the material universe but rather transforms it into a channel for higher divine energy. Charity in its broadest sense is taking our physical corner of world and transforming it into a home for G-d.

Charity is thus the greatest gift G-d bestowed upon us: the gift of giving.

The Midrash relates a dialogue between the psalmist and G-d: Said King David to the Almighty: “Master of the Universe! Why don’t you balance Your world and make equal the rich and the poor? Replied G-d: “If such were the case, ‘Who shall keep kindness and truth?’ If all were rich or all were poor, how would there be an opportunity for human kindness?” [36]

This offers us a radically different view on the uneven distribution of wealth and the diversity of economic classes:  It is not merely a result of circumstances, opportunities or the efforts of our work; it is a result of G-d giving the gift of wealth and the opportunity to be wise in knowing how to use it to refine this material world and fulfill our mission in life. Just as G-d continues to give — every fraction of time, every day on earth  — charity allows us to give, thus becoming G-d-like ourselves.

Indeed, the wealth we share is not truly ours; it is something that G-d has loaned us for our time on Earth, [37] in order to allow us the opportunity to be generous and introduce chesed into the world. Those who have been blessed with more wealth, then, are those who have been blessed by G-d with the opportunity and privilege to be more giving, to be more G-d-like. Philanthropy is not only about helping others, but recognizing that they are helping you. You realize that this additional wealth is really not yours but was given to you in order that you have the gift of being able to give and be generous, which enriches your entire life.

Thus, charity must be given with humility. If a wealthy person gives arrogantly, thinking that he is doing a great favor, he is sadly mistaken: the favor is being done to him.  Recognizing this fact transforms the act of charity and makes it infinitely more compelling.

The universe as an intricate system of give and take; our entire existence revolves around this relationship. Just as plants, for instance, need the carbon dioxide that humans exhale, humans need the oxygen that plants produce.  Charity is yet one more expression of this pattern:  the giver and the receiver need one another.  “More than the rich man does for the pauper,” say the sages, “the pauper does for the rich man”. [38] Through charity, we introduce unity into a diverse world.

On its own, wealth can be a curse. By putting wealth in perspective, and recognizing why it was given to us, it becomes a blessing instead of a curse.  And by using our wealth for charitable and philanthropic purposes, which are ongoing, instead of spending it all on the desire of the moment, our wealth becomes eternal.

Continue Reading the Money and Spirituality Series – Part 4.

[22] See Tanya, section II, Shaar Hayichud V’Hemunah chapter 1.

[23] Zohar III 152a.

[24] Chapter 37.

[25] See Jerusalem Talmud Sanhedrin 8:8: Wealth is valuable to man as his body, his spirit. See Talmud Berachot 61b: He for whom wealth is more precious than his body. See note 24. Baba Kama 119a, citing Proverbs 1:19: One who robs is as if he took his soul from him.

[26] Talmud Rosh Hashana 27a.

[27] 1698-1760.

[28] Keter Shem Tov, section 218. Tzava’at Ha’Rivash section 109.

[29] Keter Shem Tov, section 194.

[30] Tzava’at Ha’Rivash ibid

[31] This may also explain the Talmudic statement that Tzaddikim value their wealth more than their bodies (Talmud Soteh 12a. Chulin 91a), because of the divine sparks embedded in wealth. And this can be applied to explain why one should “value another’s wealth as your own” (Mishne, Avot 2:12. See Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, Sichat Matos-Masei 5740)

[32] Talmud, Eruvin 86a. See Likkutei Sichos vol. 23 p. 336.

[33] Deuteronomy 8:17-18.

[34] Talmud, Shabbat 119a.

[35] Proverbs 10:22.

[36] Midrash, Shemot Rabba 31:5. See Likkutei Sichos vol. 3 p. 909

[37] See Ibn Ezra Exodus 20:14.

[38] Midrash, Vayikra Rabba 34:8.


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