Rabbi's Message, Rabbi Alvin Kass, April 2014

Rabbi Alvin Kass
Chief Chaplain of the NYPD


"If you're so smart, why aren't you rich?" This is the question in our society which is addressed, either implicitly or explicitly, by the rich to those who are not so rich but are frequently regarded as wise, intelligent or learned.

The assumption which underlies this question is the belief that wealth equals worth and that money is the scorecard which measures how we are doing.

According to Lewis H. Lapham in his book, Money and Class in America, the tendency to use money as the badge of success is especially marked in our democratic environment which is permeated by movement and restlessness. In prior eras, men and women had fixed identities which remained with them throughout life, based on religion, class, region, family, and tribal affiliation. In America, however, all of these distinctions have weakened where they have not vanished altogether. In this mobile setting, people are involved in a desperate search for identity. The principal vehicle for carrying out that quest is money and what we buy with it.

Mr. Lapham goes so far as to say that the pursuit of profit has become the "civil religion" of America. Judging from the rapidly increasing number of rich people in this country, this "religion" is being practiced vigorously and enthusiastically.

The IRS, for example, reports that 88,419 taxpayers last year declared income of $500,000, while only 7745 did so a dozen years ago.

These developments do not make Mr. Lapham happy; because, for the most part people use their money just for their own personal pleasure. Even if you occasionally encounter an individual who endows a museum or underwrites a ballet, few possessors of affluence integrate such actions into an overall philosophy of life and commitment of conscience aimed at advancing social progress and the public good. Some of the rich even evolve an attitude of contempt for those who are less well off than themselves. Others abuse their children and make them susceptible to alcoholism, suicide, drug addiction insanity, and despair.

What is needed is a social culture which spells out the obligations of money. Wealth must justify itself by elevating the quality of our civilization. The affluent must share a vision regarding the proper uses of their cash. As Lapham puts it, money is nothing more than a commodity "like pork bellies;" what matters is what we do with it.

Lapham is certainly not opposed to affluence; indeed, he himself is a man of substantial means.

He laments rather the absence of shared feelings, purposes, traditions, and hopes among the wealthy which will assure the appropriate utilization of their money. Such a philosophy is very similar to the Jewish point of view which sees nothing innately wrong with wealth. As Tevye puts it in "Fiddler on the Roof": "Poverty is no crime, but it's no great honor either." The genius of Judaism consists precisely in its offering the blueprint for the proper uses of wealth that is so sorely lacking in the general society. How else do you explain the astronomical sums that Jews donate to charity every year far out of proportion to the paucity of their numbers. The Jewish commitment to tzedaka is the result of three thousand years of indoctrination. No more graphic illustration of this fidelity to charity exists than the life of Moses who gave up the delights, the security, and the prerogatives of the royal palace in order "to go out to his brothers and see their burdens." Tevye the milkman also knew and appreciated the Jewish philosophy of wealth. That is why, when he muses about what life would be like "if I were a rich man," he affirms that "the sweetest thing of all" would be the opportunity to pursue the spiritual and educational purposes of life such as spending more time in the synagogue at prayer in "a seat by the eastern wall" and "discussing the holy books with the learned men seven hours every day."

Wealth is a wonderful boon in life; but there is something even more wonderful the wisdom to know what to do with your wealth. That is why our faith addresses a question different from the one you usually hear. It asks the well-to-do: "If you're so rich, why aren't you smart?"

Miryom, Sarah, Lewis and Sarah, Danny and Debby, Judah, Bennett, and Nava join me in wishing you chag sameach v'kasher, a Happy and Sweet Passover.

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