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"If I were a rich man..."

How often have we expressed this wish? As successful as we may be, there always seems to be something more that we want. For most of us, those who need to work hard to pay the rent or mortgage, save for retirement, and need to pay college tuition, even the promise of a few more dollars is welcome. We fight for a raise, watch the stock market go up or down, and buy a lottery ticket or two. We dream about what a little extra money could do. It really would be nice to be rich, or as my great-grandmother said, "Rich or poor, it's good to have money."

But on the whole, we are doing ok. Although there are still far too many Jewish people caught in poverty, in general Jews today in the United States, Israel and throughout the world are far more financially secure than Jews have been for centuries. If we are not living the life styles of the rich and famous, most Jews are in the broad middle class and live comfortable lives. For most of us, the grueling poverty of the ghettos of the Old World and the tenements of the New World are part of our family memories and not our everyday reality.

As Americans, we live in a rich and powerful country and fortunately have been able to take full advantage of the opportunities offered by American culture. We have worked hard, created a wonderful life for ourselves and our families, and built strong communal institutions. But we must not deceive ourselves. We are not self-made. What we have rests on a foundation built by the hard labor of the generations that came before us. Although they may not have been able to pull themselves out of material poverty, they bequeathed to us a rich value system, grounded in Torah, that stressed hard work, education, communal responsibility and social consciousness. These values guided our grandparents, our parents and us on the road to material comfort. Our ancestors, though poor themselves, would not begrudge our successes so long as we do not forget their life priorities.

They would not have wanted us to be poor. Poverty is not a value in Jewish culture. Jews want all people to share in the material blessings life can offer. While being poor is no disgrace, we recognize the challenges poverty presents to an individual's spiritual, physical and emotional welfare. Support of the poor, concern for the disadvantaged and aid to the dispossessed are basic Jewish priorities.

This week's Torah portion reminds us that God's greatness is manifest in God's care for the vulnerable members of society -- the orphan, the widow, the stranger and the poor. We are to emulate God in our care for them and always remember that once we, too, were strangers in a strange land (Deuteronomy 10:17-22).

This week's reading, however, does not focus on concern for the poor but rather on the dangers of prosperity. Its deepest worry is that our material successes will turn our hearts from the cultural and spiritual resources that made them possible in the first place. Its greatest fear is that we will forget the formative experiences of our people's past and mistakenly believe that we deserve all the credit for our own prosperity.

In our portion, Moses describes the riches of the Promised Land to the generation of Jews nurtured in the wilderness. He pictures for them a land that is rich and fertile, blessed with many streams and springs and a wide variety of flourishing food crops, and abundant in natural resources. Moses tells our ancestors as they are leaving the poverty of the wilderness that their new home is truly a land in which they shall not lack anything (8:7-9).

Then Moses warns them not to be taken in by their new-found prosperity. They are to remember that the land and its richness are a gift from God. The greatest danger they face in this new land is their own pride in thinking that their own power and strength created their wealth (8:17). As the reading continues, Moses reminds them of their unworthiness for such a gift. He recalls the various occasions during the forty years of wandering when they were disloyal to God. Moses encourages them to be faithful to God and God's teachings because these are the real source of their strength. He warns them that just as God took the Promised Land from the Canaanites because of the Canaanites' wickedness, God can take the land from the Israelites if they, too, prove unworthy.

In spite of this danger, Moses still encourages them to take advantage of the blessings life offers. At the end of his description of the bounty of the Land of Israel, Moses tells our ancestors to enjoy what the land gives them. They are to eat their fill, but then they are to turn their thoughts to God and thankfully acknowledge God's gift of their good land (8:10). They are specifically directed to bless God for the land and its bounty after successfully struggling to settle it. It is most important that when they have achieved a level of financial security, they are to acknowledge God lest they become prideful and ungrateful.

Our people have long known that prosperity is a blessing but we have also understood that it presents us with a spiritual challenge and a social responsibility. As the Torah teaches us this week, we did not earn most of the good we have in this world. It was given to us as a gift by God and made accessible to us through Torah-based traditional Jewish values passed down to us by our ancestors. We are to enjoy our gifts but we also have to thank the One who gave them by emulating him in sharing our blessings with others less fortunate than ourselves. As Moses told our ancestors, "You shall eat and be satisfied, and bless the Eternal, your God, for the good land which God has given you (8:10).
Topics: Divrei Torah
Type: Dvar Torah