May 22, 2024
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Ki Tavo: Material Wealth in the Modern Era

The opening section of Parshat Ki Tavo is framed by the encounter with financial success. Having cultivated a successful harvest, a person presents his finest fruits to the Mikdash amidst fanfare and festivity. The Mishnah describes actual parades that spontaneously assembled to accompany rural farmers on their celebratory journey to Yerushalayim. Exquisitely decorated baskets carrying succulent Israeli fruit were hoisted upon happy shoulders as a religious “carnival” erupted. Another year and another successful harvest promised a comfortable winter period with the availability of well-stocked resources.

Yet a strange recital sits at the heart of this celebration—the recital of the four verses known as “Arami Oved Avi.” These four verses—recited during the Pesach Haggadah—succinctly summarize the story of our exodus. This brief section delineates the descent to Egypt, followed by the harsh enslavement, our prayers for rescue and, ultimately, the verses describe our miraculous Divine redemption. Their recital on Pesach—the actual night of our exodus—is appropriate. Their recital during the ceremony of bikkurim is more curious. Amidst the euphoria and joy surrounding financial success, the ancient history of Egyptian redemption is reviewed!!

Rabbi Soloveitchik described this historical context as a strategy for avoiding the egotism and self-absorption that often follows financial success. Our commitment to a broader historical agenda assures that our personal triumphs serve some larger and more dignified purpose. By invoking Jewish history and the struggle of a Jew, personal comfort is lent a more “idealistic” function. If we are granted health and prosperity we can dedicate greater energy to a historical and religious community and its tasks. This week, many Americans mourned the death of former Senator John McCain. Many have cited a quote of his about living a life of idealism: “Nothing in life is more liberating than to fight for a cause larger than yourself, something that encompasses you but is not defined by your existence alone.” For a Jew, the most compelling “cause” and the one that best liberates us from our egocentrism is the history of a people challenged to both represent God in our world as well as broadcast His message from the Land of Israel. By returning to the genesis of Jewish history and the first phase of this multi-generational struggle, a Jew casts financial wealth or affluence within this “larger cause.” Material comfort is transformed from a potentially hedonistic and self-serving condition to a state that enables the dedication of resources toward that grander cause. The insertion of the Exodus story within the bikkurim celebration unshackles us from our own selfish interests and casts our monetary success in the context of a larger historical narrative. Divinely-enabled financial success carries expectations. In adopting those duties and expectations, wealth is merely an additional “tool” or resource to advance Jewish history and to amplify the Divine presence in this world.

Our generation has been awarded unprecedented financial comfort. Most of the past 2,000 years of Jewish history has been characterized by poverty and financial instability. Constant expulsion and the accompanying forfeiture of financial wealth repeatedly depleted Jewish financial abilities. Remarkably, in the aftermath of the Holocaust and the shocking plundering of Jewish wealth, we have, by and large, recovered our communal wealth. Understandably, we have little to no “tradition” of how to integrate this experience of affluence within our overall religious experience. We have no books or sefarim that provide guidelines for living with wholesale affluence. The sustained condition of communal wealth was unimaginable to previous generations and to their thinkers. Some, today, are bashful at the prospect of wealth, almost ashamed to acknowledge affluence in light of the financial struggles of previous generations. Others completely divorce the experience of wealth from religious consciousness and moral considerations. This dangerous “disconnect” often can lead to a slippery slope and yield morally inappropriate behavior. Wealth can certainly fuel behavior which, if not in violation of actual Jewish law, certainly contravenes both our Jewish value system and general human moral instincts.

Our wealth, in part, has been delivered to advance our stage of Jewish history, the resettling of our land. It is hard to imagine a more impressive international philanthropic project than the rebuilding of our state. Over the past 150 years, how many funds and how many resources have been directed to our beloved state from Jews across the globe? Rabbi Herzog, the original chief rabbi of Israel, once overheard an anti-religious person mocking the “kollel” culture of depending upon the financial support of others. He rebuffed that “the entire State of Israel is one large kollel,” highlighting the financial dependency of the fledgling state. For years the entire country of Israel resembled one large “kollel” being supported heroically by the combined funds and resources of an entire people. Baruch Hashem we have witnessed the development of Israel as a financial superpower, but without question this evolution was fueled by phenomenal Jewish philanthropy. Who would have imagined that the post-Holocaust generations would be capable of accomplishing the ambitious project of constructing a modern Jewish state?

Additionally, our wealth must be cast in broader historical terms—even broader than the construction and refurbishing of our modern state. As history surges to its conclusion, we anticipate and expect the general improvement of the human condition. We believe that religious experience and human welfare overlap, and if we dream of a world of universal recognition of Divine authority we expect that world to enjoy general human welfare. Without question, the past 400 years have witnessed significant improvements in almost every sector of human experience: from politics to the economy and from science to medical treatment. These events—which have become more dramatic over the past century—cannot be “regarded” independent of a historical framework. The advance of human experience should echo the religious evolution toward a state of universal recognition of one God.

If these “universal” improvements to humanity at large augur the end of history, the progress in the Jewish world should certainly indicate that history is coursing toward its inevitable conclusion. As the vanguard of humanity, our national trajectory both reflects and impacts the general unfurling of the human spirit. The Jewish world has never enjoyed the type of financial capabilities it currently possesses. For the first time in centuries Jews can afford to build robust institutions and stout communities. Moshe Moshkowitz—a member of the original Israeli pioneering generation, and a living legend in Israel—has been instrumental in spearheading the revival of Jewish population in Yehuda and Shomron (along with initiating dozens of other national projects). He steered the establishment of the city of Efrat and launched Yeshivat Har Etzion (where I teach). Forty-five years ago, as the palatial beit midrash of our yeshiva was being constructed, he was challenged: “Why are you installing marble floors, vaulted ceilings and a fish pond? Is this a movie theater or a museum?” To which he replied in surprise: “A museum deserves such majesty and a beit midrash doesn’t?” For centuries, economic constraints and socio-political discrimination prevented us from building truly spectacular palaces of study and worship. We have now achieved these capabilities and we honor religion by fashioning these “monuments”; their construction reflects our newly achieved economical ability and, of course, our reconstructed Jewish pride and freedom. Instead of shying away from our financial success we should interpret it as a historical warrant and as an indicator that we are living through a transitional period in history with newly formulated opportunities and responsibilities.

Our wealth can either be turned “inward” to selfish and self-aggrandizing experiences, or can be employed to advance history and our people. Our parsha and the framing of material success within Jewish history should inspire us to accept our luxury, but view it as a challenge and a demand rather than an indulgence merely for personal gratification.

By Moshe Taragin


Rabbi Moshe Taragin is a rebbe at Yeshivat Har Etzion located in Gush Etzion, where he resides.

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