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Wealth Addiction

Wealth Addiction

When a $3.6 million bonus isn’t enough.


A fantastic recent essay in the New York Times brought to mind a fantastic Talmudic narrative. The latter [in Tamid 32b] describes the would-be world-conqueror Alexander the Great approaching the gates of the Garden of Eden. When denied entry (insufficient righteousness the grounds), he asks for, at least, a souvenir and is given an eyeball (or, perhaps, a skull’s eye-socket).

Seeking to somehow gauge the odd gift, he places it on one pan of a scale, with gold and silver in the other pan. The precious metal pan rises. And it continues to do so, no matter how much gold and silver he adds. Asking the rabbis accompanying him what is happening, they explain that the eye represents the impetus for human desire; it is that which sees and wants, and is never satisfied. He is skeptical but the rabbis then prove their point by placing some dirt, a reminder of the reality of mortality, atop the eye. Its pan then rises high, outweighed by, unconcerned with, oblivious to, all the precious metal.

All of us have likely desired to possess something we don’t. But I have always been confounded by the spectacle of very wealthy people consumed with the relentless pursuit of greater wealth. It just wasn’t anything I could relate to, or understand. And so the opening words of the New York Times piece grabbed me and wouldn’t let me go.

“In my last year on Wall Street,” the author, Sam Polk, writes, “my bonus was $3.6 million – and I was angry because it wasn’t big enough. I was 30 years old, had no children to raise, no debts to pay, no philanthropic goal in mind. I wanted more money for exactly the same reason an alcoholic needs another drink: I was addicted.”

To wealth, that is, and the power he saw it as conferring.

Mr. Polk goes on to recount subsequent years in his life, how he became a “bond and credit default swap trader,” a job description he might as well have offered in Swahili for all it means to me – “one of the more lucrative roles in the business.” And how making a million or two wasn’t enough.

“When the guy next to you makes $10 million, $1 million or $2 million doesn’t look so sweet.”

“Ever see what a drug addict is like when he’s used up his junk?” Mr. Polk asks his readers, and tells them: “He’ll do anything – walk 20 miles in the snow, rob a grandma – to get a fix. Wall Street was like that.”

“When the guy next to you makes $10 million,” he explains, “$1 million or $2 million doesn’t look so sweet.” Frankly, I wouldn’t know, but I do trust Mr. Polk. And the Midrash, which informs us that “He who has one hundred wants two hundred” and that “no man dies with half his desires in hand.”

The eye-opening article helped me understand that greed isn’t necessarily a sign of depravity. It can be a type of simple irrationality, what Mr. Polk calls an “addiction.”

Or what the Talmud calls “ta’avos” – irrational lusts – things even those of us unfamiliar with heroin or cocaine can relate to. For smokers or alcoholics, the concept is an easy one to understand. But even if our daily desires are limited to junk food or other things that we know are unhealthy for our bodies or our souls, and that we struggle to control, the idea of a ta’avah/lust is certainly recognizable. If we’re not obsessed with wealth, well, that’s just because, blessedly, we fortunately lack that particular lust. But we might try to be a bit more understanding of those who do suffer such obsessions, no less than we pity an alcoholic.

Eventually, though, Mr. Polk “cashed out,” so to speak. His turning point came when he realized that his immensely more wealthy boss was “afraid of losing money, despite all that he had.”

To his credit, he found a new life, marrying, speaking in jails and juvenile detention centers about the benefits of sobriety, teaching and starting a nonprofit to help poor families struggling with obesity and food addiction. “I am,” he confides, “much happier.”

He seems to have discovered something else the Talmud teaches, that our worth is measured by how we live, not by what we have. And proven himself a “strong” man, as per the sage Ben Zoma’s teaching that “Who is strong? He who subdues his inclination” (Ethics of the Fathers, 4:1).

And as having absorbed another of Ben Zoma’s teachings, too: “Who is wealthy? He who is happy with his lot.”

February 1, 2014

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Visitor Comments: 8

(8) Anonymous, January 2, 2017 11:09 AM

Re: Being grateful for what one has

During the past year I have been decluttering items I no longer need or want. I gave an expensive pocketbook to a very good friend of mine, and she was happy to get it. I can only wear one pair of shoes/one nice outfit at a time. With a much cleaner closet, I am very grateful for the things I DO have. When I first moved into my home, one of my relatives asked if it was a "starter house." No. Who says I need to live in a mansion to be happy? I certainly do not feel that way. Yes, I DO like nice things & enjoy indulging every so often. However, I have also learned that constantly shopping until I drop is no way for me to live.

(7) Humble Heather, May 30, 2016 5:41 PM

Being Grateful can Make you feel better

The people who used to live next door used to make 90K. They felt poor for some time. For the longest time I thought 90K was a nice amount of money. My friends and family convinced me 90K is not a huge amount. I have no respect for people who complain that they are being screwed bc they make only $60 hr. I respect those who are grateful. I've hear many good people say if you are grateful you have less chance of becoming addicted. It's interesting that where I live many have swimming pools. I have lived in a warm climate for 40 yrs. Never had a pool. People used to ask if I was spoiled as a child. Don't think so but there is middle class spoiled. Last but far from least, I just turned 47 and have never been to Europe or had a luxury car. Our kIds never went to sleepaway camp. We are simple people who try to be decent and usually succeed. I value honesty and being grateful more than being rich and "looking like the cool kids. " It's lonely sometimes, being different. Hashem does not mind it at all.

(6) Anonymous, March 1, 2015 11:44 PM

My wealth is my health. When my health was failing it didn't matter any more that my income was only 40K, and that I needed to make at least 40K more. It mattered that Hashem saved me from something much worse.

(5) Jay, February 9, 2014 3:10 PM

Stop reading the NYT

Why would a good Jew give Jew money to a newspaper that hates us? Stop reading the NYSlimes and certainly stop giving them our money. Let them go broke as they should

(4) Sanford (Sandy) & Chana Goodman, February 7, 2014 5:46 AM

Addiction to wealth is self frustrating

As one gets older and really observes life, he/she will probably observe, if not experience, what is learned from the Scriptures and the Talmud.

How Koheless's statement, "A lover of money will never be satisfied." No matter how much one has the more he/she wants. It's a never ending cycle.

Also don't try to keep up with the Goldberg's or the Steins. It will drive you to frustration.

From Perkei Avos we are told " Who is rich? He who is satisfied with his portion." How true this really is!

It does not mean that we have to be complacent. One should always strive to improve him/herself. What it does mean is that if you have the basics--food, water, clothes, shelter etc--you should be satisfied.

We are glad that we have each other and that we live in a very comfortable nice middle class Jewish neighborhood near 2 shuls. If Hashem has decreed that we shall not be wealthy, it's good for us. He knows best.

Excellent article! You hit the nail on the head!

Sandy & Chana Goodman, Dallas Texas

PS About 75% of our neighbors have swimming pools and high ceilings. We're happy not to have a pool (who needs the maintenance and the liability insurance) We also are happy to have a 1 story house (in Texas homes don't have basements). We don't need to run up and down stairs and pay high heating and air conditioning bills.

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