For most people the answer appears obvious. “Of course,” they would answer, “who wouldn’t?” Prosperity is a wonderful blessing. We all want to live well. We pray that our children will never lack the things they need and will be able to enjoy at least some of what they want. At the beginning of each Jewish year, we wish each other health and happiness, blessing and wealth, but we also know that wealth is not enough for a good life.
In the Jewish tradition, there is nothing wrong with being wealthy. For Jews, the spiritual and ethical issues surrounding money focus on how one acquires wealth and what one does with it, and not with wealth itself. Financial well being, just like any other material blessing, has no intrinsic value. How we use it determines its value and measures our character, and to use it correctly, we need wisdom.
The book of Exodus contrasts the proper and improper use of our monetary blessings by placing the story of the Golden Calf, the story of our ancestors’ idolatrous rebellion against God, in the midst of its description of the building of the Mishkan, God’s holy Tabernacle. The construction of both, the Golden Calf and the Mishkan, required the generous gifts of the Jewish people, but one, the Golden Calf, became a powerful metaphor of base materialism and the other, the Tabernacle, became an enduring sacred symbol of spiritual strength, insight and wisdom.
It is al lright to pray for wealth but there are better things to desire. This understanding is underscored in a brief discussion from the Talmud inspired by the description of the Mishkan in this week’s Torah portion, Terumah. In this passage, we learn of Rabbi Isaac’s suggestion that one who wishes to become wise should turn southward when praying, while one who wishes to become rich should turn northward when praying. The sages ask him why this is so, and he responds by referring to the description of the Mishkan. Rabbi Isaac reminds them that in the Tabernacle the golden table, the symbol of plenty, was on the north side while the Menorah, the seven-branched lamp stand, the symbol of the light of wisdom, was on the south side. Obviously, then, he explains, if one wishes to be wealthy, one should pray in the direction of the golden table, but if one wishes to acquire wisdom, one should pray in the direction of the Menorah.
But R. Joshua ben Levi disagrees with him. He argues that one should always turn in prayer to the south, in the direction of the Menorah. He claims that when one becomes wise, one also becomes rich, and he supports his position with a passage from the Book of Proverbs: “Length of days is in wisdom’s right hand; in her left hand are riches and honor” (Proverbs 3:16). (From the Talmud, Bava Batra 25b)
Rabbi Joshua understood that wealth without honor has no value and riches without wisdom are mere vanity. But there is more to his argument. It is that one who is blessed with wisdom will never be truly poor and that the ultimate blessing is that of wisdom. No matter what one’s station in life may be, each of us needs to be blessed with the light of wisdom.
In this context, Rabbi Joshua’s choice of a proof text from Proverbs gains deeper significance. The biblical legend of King Solomon, to whom the Book of Proverbs is traditionally ascribed, itself supports Rabbi Joshua’s position. According to the Book of First Kings, at the beginning of Solomon’s reign, God came to the new king in a dream and offered him whatever gift he might desire. Solomon could have asked for power, wealth, military prowess or anything else a king might need, but he had only one wish. That wish was to be blessed with wisdom. God granted Solomon not only the blessing for which he asked, wisdom, but also blessings for which he did not ask – wealth and honor, greater than that of any king. (1 Kings 3:5-14). Solomon the Wise enters history as the greatest of Israel’s kings and the builder of the Beit HaMikdash, God’s Holy Temple in Jerusalem.
Today, the Mishkan and Solomon’s Temple are no more. They survive only in the memory of our people. Each year, we recall them as we read the Torah and Haftara portions that tell of their creation. But it is not surprising that of all the ornate items that filled the Tabernacle of Old and Solomon’s Temple, only the seven-branched Menorah, the lamp of wisdom, has remained an enduring symbol of Jewish faith.