Money and Spirituality (Part 2/5)


This is a continuation of Money and Spirituality Part One, which discussed the paradox of money in light of the Golden Calf. This, the second part of this series, discusses the uses and abuses of wealth in the context of financial contributions made to the Temple. 


A significant insight into the Torah’s attitude toward wealth is illustrated in the incident in which Korach and his cohorts mutiny against Moses and the hierarchy. They challenged the class system and Moses and Aaron’s leadership and authority demanding: “Why did you empower yourselves when the entire nation is holy.” 1 One can say that this was the first documented instance of rebellion against class struggle. [7] The Bible relates that they were duly punished. In all other incidences of wrongdoing, the individual was punished, however, here, since their wealth and status drove their rebellion, they and their belongings were consumed by the earth: “they and their houses, along with all the men who were with Korach and their property,” “they, along with their houses, their tents, and all the substance that was at their feet.”

Torah does not as a result categorically reject the value of wealth and repeal mans’ right to private property. Nor does it revoke the distinctions of classes (as Korach argued), and its inevitable result: class struggle. Torah retains all that, despite the risks involved.

But what is the Torah’s answer to Korach’s contentions that all the people are equal?

For this we need to explore the very nature and root of wealth.

In explaining the abovementioned verse “All the substance (yekum) that was at their feet,” [8] the Talmud states: [9] “this is mans’ wealth, [10] which firmly puts (establishes) him on his feet.” [11]

Clearly, the Talmud sees wealth as a virtue: It establishes a person. [12] However, it seems strange that a verse relating the destruction caused by wealth (how Dathan and Aviram, along with their wealth, are consumed by the earth as a result of their selfish greed) should be the Talmudic source in describing the positive virtue of wealth! If anything, this verse teaches us the vices of wealth and its ill effects!

Perhaps this can be understood by analyzing the precise choice of words used in the sentence: If the verse wants to tell us that their wealth was consumed along with them, why does the verse not just say: “with all their wealth” (as the Bible actually states earlier when this incident is first related [13] ) rather than the cryptic “all that exists that were at their feet”?! Even if we are to understand “kol ha’yekum” as “all their wealth/property,” why add: “that were at their feet”?! And why the word “feet” instead of  “in their possession” or the like?

The Talmud is teaching us the dual nature of wealth. In this material world wealth is the foundation upon which all rests. Yet, like a foundation, it rests below, at the feet of the structure, holding it up, like the feet that carry the body. Wealth and money, like feet, are not the mind nor heart, they are the lowest part of the body that touch the ground. Feet are means, not the end. They carry the body, but do not dictate where the body is to be carried. The mind does that, and the feet follow the mind’s instructions. Yet, without feet, a mind alone – indeed, the entire body – cannot move. In this material world, the feet are crucial for transportation- they are the vehicle which carry a person to his desired destination.

Wealth, which establishes man on his feet, is only a means to fulfill a higher goal, to realize a greater purpose. When wealth becomes an end unto itself, it consumes man and becomes a “land that consumes its inhabitants.” [14] This is precisely what happens to Dathan and Aviram: their selfish use of wealth – earthiness – consumed them and all their wealth “that lay at their feet” touching the very ground. When wealth itself becomes more important than the goal, it can cause a person to stand upright in arrogance, [15] where his feet and wealth are more important than the destination, Ultimately such a person will be consumed by the very wealth he worships. [16]

But when wealth is used as a means for a greater good, it becomes the feet and foundation that establish a man and society, lifting and carrying him to great heights. Like the feet that are essential to lift and carry a person, with all his higher faculties, to places he could not have reached to on his own.

The power of wealth as a foundation causes it to have such a powerful impact on man [17] and society. “Odom bohul al momono,” [18] man is excited when his wealth is at stake. Man is consumed by acquiring wealth. Wealth, like feet, is the lowest entity, but can lift one to the greatest heights. It can bring man down to the lowest depths, or it can be a vehicle to extraordinary achievement.

Despite Korach, Dathan and Aviram’s blatant abuse of wealth, the Torah does not fear its inherent risks. When understood in context, and spelling out the dangers and actual destructive consequences of individual wealth, the Torah has confidence in man to use his wealth accordingly. The Korach episode teaches us the risks of self-absorbed materialistic abuse, and its subsequent effect of consuming the very perpetrators; yet, at the same time, this is due to mans’ weakness, not the fault of the wealth per se, which still lies on the ground, waiting to lift man to great heights.

So too regarding the class system. Despite Korach’s strong and persuasive argument against social classes, and his legitimate reason for rebellion (testified by the fact that Moses reckoned with him and needed to prove that Korach was wrong, and the Torah documents for posterity the entire episode, including Korach’s argument, indicating its timeless relevance) due to the inevitable class struggle that would ensue as a result of class distinctions, nevertheless the Torah maintains and validates with even more adamance the class system and hierarchy, as subsequently related in the Bible.

The Torah is sensitive to and respects the inherent diversity in existence and in society, [19] and thus teaches us to align ourselves (rather than battle) with our base diversity, and channel it to a higher goal. [20]

[Here is not the place, but a comprehensive study deserves to be made in the parallels between Korach’s rebellion and that of socialist thought. Much can be derived from Korach’s story teaching us about the nature of class diversity and struggle, the nature of leadership and its relationship with the mass population.]

Wealth, in effect, reflects this inherent diversity, which is the foundation that establishes man on his feet.

This is the Talmud’s inimitable method of defining wealth for us, in brief, succinct terms, when analyzed offer profound meaning, with far-reaching implications. [21]

Continue Reading the Money and Spirituality Series – Part 3.

[6] Numbers 16:3. Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, Likkutei Sichos vol. 8 pp. 102. Vol. 18 p. 191.

[7] Cain’s murder of Abel can also be classified as a challenge of hierarchy, though not as pronounced as Korach’s rebellion (see Shaloh and Tzeidah L’Derech Parshat Korach: Korach reincarnate of Cain). The insurgence of the Tower of Babel generation was against G-d, which also connotes a challenge to hierarchy. Interestingly, that was resolved by creating a fundamental distinction through the confusion of languages, essentially marking the birth of national and cultural diversity.

[8] Deuteronomy 11:6.

[9] Pesachim 119a. Sanhedrin 110a. Midrash Rabba, Bamidbar 18:13; Kohelet 6:3; See Bereishit Rabba 32:5, and Maharza”v commentary.  Rashi Deuteronomy ibid.

[10] ‘Yekum’ in Hebrew can also be translated “living things” (Radak, Sherashim, as in Genesis 6:23) or “existence” (see Midrash Rabba ibid). This can be reconciled with the Talmud’s ‘wealth,’ according to the explanation below that the spiritual power of wealth encompasses all of existence, all living things.

[11] Because it delights mans’ heart (Rashi Pesachim ibid).

[12] See Tzeidah L’Derech (commentary on Rashi) ibid, explaining the Talmud’s equating poverty with death (Talmud, Baba Batra 116a). A corpse falls to the ground, unable to stand on its feet. Wealth gives life that puts man on his feet.

[13] Numbers 16:32.

[14] Ibid 13:32.

[15] Panim Yafot (R’ Pinchas Horowitz, the Baal Hafloah) explains (Numbers 16:32. Deuteronomy ibid) that their wealth “placed them on their feet,” it caused them to stand in an upright posture and arrogant defiance toward the G-dly man, Moses.

[16] See Marx’s description of money cited below, as a force that creates “universal confusion and exchange of all things, an inverted world.”

[17] See Talmud, Berochos 57b: Beautiful home, beautiful furnishings…expand mans’ mind (daat).

[18] Talmud Shabbos 117b. Pesachim 10a.

[19] G-d divided the world with boundaries – Rashi Numbers 16:5. See Likkutei Sichos vol. 18 pp. 204.

[20] See Likkutei Sichos vol. 33 p. 243.

[21] Interesting to note, that the beauty of the original Hebrew verse as explained by the Talmud, is entirely lost in the King James translation, “all the substance in their possession.”

Show 1 footnote

  1. Numbers 16:3. Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, Likkutei Sichos vol. 8 pp. 102. Vol. 18 p. 191.

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Joyce The Voice
6 years ago

Wonderful explanation. Clear and illuminating.

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