The main theme of this week’s parasha is the entitlement and arrogance of rich people. The main thesis is that that entitlement and that arrogance, the main features of wealth, undermine religious life and social responsibility. While this theme and this thesis are pervasive, let’s train our focus on one particularly sharp articulation (Devarim/Deuteronomy 8:11-20):
“Be on guard lest you forget YHWH your God and neglect to observe [God’s] commandments, rules, and laws, which I command you today. Lest you eat and be sated, and build fine houses and dwell in them, and your cattle and sheep multiply, and your silver and gold multiply for you, and everything you have multiplies, and your heart becomes haughty and you forget YHWH your God — Who brings you out of the land of Egypt, from the slave house; Who leads you through the great and terrible wilderness with its seraph serpents and scorpions and thirst, where there is no water; Who brings you water out from flintstone; Who feeds you manna in the wilderness, which your parents had never known, in order to afflict you and in order to try you, to make it go well for you in the end — and you say in your heart, ‘My own power and the might of my own hand made me this wealth’, Remember that it is YHWH your God who gives you the power to get wealth, in order to fulfill the covenant sworn to your ancestors, as on this day. And if you do, indeed, forget YHWH your God and go after other gods and serve them or bow down to them, I bear witness against you today that you shall certainly perish. Like the nations that YHWH will cause to perish before you, so shall you perish, because you would not heed the voice of YHWH your God.”
The Rabbis offer us a Tl;Dr summary, since this message is as elusive as it is simple: “Human beings rebel against God only from satiety” (Midrash Sifrei Devarim #43). Accumulation of wealth leads to entitlement and arrogance, which leads to forgetting God, Who brings us out of Egypt. Moreover, rich people’s entitlement is the essential cause of rejection of God. Any other cause is a distraction: “Human beings rebel against God only from satiety.” Being rich is incompatible with religious Judaism. This idea is pervasive throughout Torah literature, but the pressures against dependent Torah teachers not to make rich people uncomfortable has led to the neglect of this prominent Torah theme. Maybe that’s not the reason why people tiptoe around the idea or skip it entirely; I don’t know. That’s just my sociological speculation. I’ll stick to my lane and share some representative Rabbinic passages unpacking the implications of the incompatibility of being rich with Torah life.
Rabbi Yitzhak Arama (c. 1420–1494, Spain) unpacks our verses with his own observations: “The impediments to achieving ultimate purpose are twofold, and stem from people having either too much or too little. Of the two impediments, having too much is undoubtedly the greater impediment on our path towards salvation. A surplus of worldly goods acts as a greater hindrance to our achieving our spiritual goals than a shortage of such material possessions. We know of many poor people who became great Torah scholars, whereas only a few Jews managed to combine both material wealth and great spiritual leadership in one person. Among those blessed with wealth, some have used it to provide comforts for their families, others, such as the tribe of Zevulun, to enable others to pursue a life of Torah study not interrupted by the need to earn a livelihood. However, the vast majority were snared by material wealth to feed their own greed. As a result, all the good their wealth might have accomplished was wasted. Of the latter people, David says ‘they have ended their days in vanity, their years in confusion’ (Psalms 78:33). Deuteronomy 8:11-14, warns of the dangers of wealth which can lead one astray” (Akeidat Yitzhak 41 1:6). That is why, he explains, God made the people sustain themselves through manna for their first forty years of communal life, which was given equally, in abundance, and with no possibility for accumulation. The necessary training for the possibility of engaging in commercial choice was years of radical equality, provided by the Central Government, God Godself. If you hold a lot of wealth, that means you have an urgent responsibility to redistribute it, because it is not properly yours and puts you in grave danger.
The Hid”a (Rav Haim Yosef David Azulai, 1724-1806, Jerusalem) raises an astute observation. The Torah expects that rich people will forget God and threatens Divine capital punishment for doing so. How can God punish someone for forgetfulness? Much ink has been spilled in the Jewish legal tradition, in general, as to whether one can be held accountable for forgetting something. While many authorities argue that one can, many others argue that one cannot, since forgetting is involuntary, almost by definition, and therefore should be regarded as an unavoidable circumstance, for which one cannot be held legally liable. However, notes the Hid”a, everyone agrees that if one begins with criminal negligence and ends under unavoidable circumstances, one is legally liable. For example, if you have legally committed to being a guardian of someone’s property and you exercised negligence — eg, failing to secure it properly, and then later lost it under unavoidable circumstances, you’re liable (Shulhan Arukh, HM 291:6). The Hid”a explains that the attitudes of entitlement and arrogance that accompany wealth accumulation (“your heart becomes haughty”) are themselves criminal, and therefore, even if the subsequent forgetting is involuntary, you’re liable for it: it is a product of your criminal entitlement (Homat Anakh on Deut. 8:13, cited in A.Y. Greenberg’s ‘Itturei Torah VI, p. 67).
What is the character of forgetting God about which the Torah is so concerned, against which the Torah warns so grimly, and which it sees as a direct consequence of wealth accumulation? Surely any rich person reading this is saying, “Well, that doesn’t refer to me. I’m not that kind of rich person; I haven’t forgotten God. After all, I’m studying Torah right now!” There are many rich people deeply committed and habituated to mitzvot and religious practices and deeply committed to the community. Does that empirically disprove the Torah’s thesis in this week’s parasha? Alternatively, does it show that wealth accumulation has risks, but it’s possible to overcome them through devotion and dedication? If you’re rich, just keep praying and learning and doing the mitzvot, and working extra hard to praise God for the gold, silver, big houses, and wealth you’ve accumulated? Who is the God whom you must not forget? “YHWH your God Who brings you out of Egypt”. Rav Yaakov Moshe Charlap (1882-1951, Jerusalem) notes that the verb is in the present continuous tense, not the past tense: “Who brings you out”, not the more common, “Who brought you out”. Even if you remember that God brought you out, in the past, as an historical event, “but you don’t feel that the exodus from Egypt continues uninterrupted eternally, at each and every moment, this is considered forgetting God, which comes from arrogance.” (Mei Marom, cited in ‘Itturei Torah VI, p. 67). Another recent expression of this was expressed in a famous 1966 letter to the Chicago Federation of the Reform Movement, by one of their leaders, Rabbi Robert Marx (1936-2021, Chicago), founder of Avodah placement the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs, explaining why he was taking the very controversial step of publicly aligning with the fair housing movement, marching with Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and the masses of poor Black Chicagoans uprising against racist, exploitative abuses Black people faced — and still face — in the housing market: “I feel that freedom is Judaism, that Passover is not 3,000 years old — that it is today, and that we are part of it. I feel even more deeply that unless Jews — Jews who are devoted to their faith and their synagogues, as I am devoted to my faith and my synagogue — unless all of us are involved in the crucial issues of the world, Judaism will not exist in future generations for our children and our children’s children. And perhaps it ought not to exist.” If we remember that the exodus from Egypt is ongoing, that God is still liberating the oppressed, that Passover is today, then then we must be in the movement to stop rich people from hoarding wealth they’ve accumulated by shaking down the poor and vulnerable, the wealth they’ve hoarded by underpaying workers for labor, by outsourcing jobs to the least regulated market, by wiggling out of their responsibility to pay taxes, by abusing the planet and sticking the bill on the public and dumping toxins most aggressively where poor people live. Jewish continuity is worthless if it is not grounded in wealth redistribution.
Our parasha says J’Accuse to people pre-emptively smacking their lips at the bounty of a land to which they may already be starting to feel entitled. The Rabbinic tradition continues to do so. The Talmud records a disgusted condemnation of its contemporary, wealthy Jews: “Rav Natan bar Abba said that Rav said: The wealthy of Babylonia will descend to Gehenna.” The Talmud connects this to the experience of one Shabbetai bar Marinus, who came to Babylonia and requested participation in a mutually beneficial business venture, but was shut out and refused by the local wealth-hoarders, who then added insult to injury by refusing even to provide this visitor with food. The Talmud approvingly quotes the conclusion he drew that these rich people are not Jewish. “Anyone who has compassion for creatures, it is known that they are of the descendants of Avraham, our father, and anyone who does not have compassion for creatures, it is known that he is not of the descendants of Avraham, our father” (Talmud Bavli, Beitzah 32b). Similarly, the Talmud elsewhere attributes to King David the recognition of three distinctive, identifying marks of Jews: “They are compassionate, they are bashful, and they are performers of lovingkindness” (Talmud Bavli, Yevamot 79a).
I know what you’re thinking: this is bigoted, self-serving, and empirically ridiculous ethnic essentialism, and yes, unavoidably, some rich people in our community will make farcical claims on the backs of these texts: Jews are definitionally kind, and I’m a big-shot Jew, so what I do is kind. The Rabbinic tradition reads in a different direction, a direction more like Rabbi Marx’s framing of what Judaism means. The Rambam (Rav Moshe ben Maimon, 1135-1204, Egypt, Spain) uses these texts to warn us against cruelty in three different legal contexts. In the laws of tzedaka, he warns that if anyone who balks at redistributing their money “and is cruel and not compassionate, we should suspect their lineage, because cruelty is the domain of idolatry” (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Gifts to the Poor, 10:2). When someone has paid appropriate restitution for a damage they did to another person, shows genuine contrition, and asks for forgiveness appropriately, the person they originally wronged should not dig in on their grudge and refuse reconciliation, as “this is not the way of the seed of Israel” (Laws of Injury and Damage 5:10). Finally, in the laws about marriage and sexual relationships, the Rambam codifies the Rabbis’ strenuous urging that Jews not delegitimize other Jews, questioning their status and lineage: “all [Jewish] families have the legal presumption of legitimacy and it is permitted to marry with them.” Then he shares the exemptions, including, “anyone who is arrogant or cruel, disdains creatures and does not show kindness should be suspected” for not being a Jew (Laws of Forbidden Intercourse 19:17). In other words, the Rabbis are saying: if you conduct yourself in corrupt, cruel, or sociopathic ways, you’ll be ex-communicated. The root core of that inadmissible behavior is wealth hoarding. And we’re willing to lose members over maintaining that culture.
I’ll close with a story from, perhaps, a more courageous moment in American Jewish history, when the message of this week’s parasha was, perhaps, more embraced by the rabbinic class. Nelson Morris (1838-1907) was one of the richest men in America at the turn of the previous century, through wealth accumulated as owner of one of Chicago’s three meatpacking empires, Morris & Co. — companies notorious for wage theft, vicious strike-breaking, horrific safety conditions and animal abuse, as depicted in Upton Sinclair’s 1906 novel, The Jungle. He was also a prominent member of Sinai Temple. One day, he walked in to services in the majestic, 2,500-seat sanctuary, on the same day that the Chicago newspapers splashed a lead story that Morris’s company was stealing from the city by building pipes around the city’s water meters in order to avoid paying for the exorbitant amount of water used in his factory. Sinai’s rabbi, Dr. Emil G. Hirsch (1851-1923) sermonized that day on the law we read last Shabbat in the Ten Commandments, “Thou Shalt Not Steal”, and deep into his sermon, pointed at Nelson Morris, and quoting the words of Nathan the Prophet to King David after David sent innocent Uriah to his death in order to take his wife, Bathsheba (II Samuel 12:7), the rabbi thundered at Morris, before the stunned congregation, “Thou art the man!” Morris walked out and Sinai lost him as a member. Had he not said it like it was, they would have lost Torah as a member.