Dear Lauren,

We don’t have as much money as the other people in our neighborhood do, and I’m always embarrassed by my clothes and shoes and our family car and stuff like that. It’s just not fair. I don’t like feeling “less than” because of our finances, but there it is.

Lauren Roth's Answer

1. Money is only a tool, not an end in and of itself. 2. Money is only a tool, not an appraisal of your value as a person.

God decides—on Rosh Hashanah, actually—how much money each person needs for his or her tasks in life. Some people are meant to have more money, others are meant to have less. But God apportions the amount, and it’s always for a good, Heavenly Decided reason.

Our job is not to bemoan our fate, but to use the Heavenly apportioned gifts we were each given to do good things throughout our life.

If I have been given talents, I’m supposed to use them to make the world a better place. If I have been given money, I’m supposed to use that money to make others (in my family and outside my family) more comfortable. I’m supposed to use it to give. If I’ve been blessed with boundless energy, I’m supposed to use that to improve lives. In a nutshell: whatever I’ve been given, I am to use that to serve God.

Money does not equal your value as a person.

Not having as much money as we want can be frustrating and limiting. Not having enough money for basic expenses can be fatal. Money is important. But only as a tool for sustaining our lives or as a tool for helping others. Beyond that, money does not equal your value as a person. A rich man is no more valuable as a person than a poor man. The rich man just has more tools at his disposal.

It happens to be that yesterday was my birthday. And the best birthday present was from my 4-year-old son. He drew a picture of himself (a little stick guy with a huge head, two eyes, and a lopsided, very cute smile) and a picture of me (a big stick guy with an even larger head, two eyes, and some square hair on top of the head!). Inside that decorated paper, he placed a broken green crayon and a broken pink crayon, and presented my gift to me: “Mommy, this is for you, for keeps! Because I know your favorite colors are pink and green.” Sooooo much better than fancy jewelry! Soooo much more meaningful!

The Jewish attitude towards money is: God gives you money to use for good things, especially for sharing it.

Compare and contrast the story of the two brothers from the Midrash, and the story of the two brothers from Roman mythology.

I actually started reviewing my Greek and Roman history, and the text I’m using is sprinkled with myths from the cultures. I thought I remembered the story of Romulus and Remus as being the same story as the Midrashic tale of the two brothers, but I was sorely mistaken. In contrasting the two very different stories, I think the discrepancy between the Jewish attitude towards money and the Greek/Roman/roots of Western culture attitude towards money will be clear.

The Midrash relates the story of two brothers who lived on neighboring farms. One brother was married with children, and the other brother was single, with no children. The single brother reasoned, “My brother has a wife and a family to feed, and I don’t. He probably could use some of my produce.” And he, secretly, in the middle of the night, took produce from his storehouse and placed it in his brother’s. At the same time, the married brother thought to himself, “My brother is probably sad and lonely without a wife and children. I’m going to give him some of my produce to ease his pain.” And he, secretly, in the middle of the night, took produce from his storehouse and placed it in his brother’s.

Each of the brothers was surprised each morning when the amount of produce they had given away was replenished. Finally, one night, the brothers accidentally met on their way to giving the other produce. They were both so moved by the sensitivity and caring of the other that they embraced. In that spot the Holy Temple was built.

Contrast that story of generosity, tzedaka, and brotherly love to the Roman one: the twin brothers Romulus and Remus wanted to found their own city, but couldn’t decide which of them should be king. So Romulus killed his brother, became the sole ruler of the new city, and named it Rome, after himself. Nice guy.

The Greco-Roman ideal was: “Grab all you can, for your glory and for the glory of Rome.”

The Jewish ideal is: “You are given what you are supposed to have, by God, and you should use it well to make your life comfortable and to make other people happy, and in the process of sharing, you will make yourself truly happy, too.”

Nowhere in Jewish philosophy does it say that having more stuff, or nicer stuff, makes you a more valuable person. God values every person equally. It’s the opposite of the T-shirt: “Whoever dies with the most toys, WINS!”

When my husband and I were both students, we had very little money. I remember once our water bill was due and we only had $2.34 in our checking account.

It was stressful not having money. But it was also a beautiful time. We had cost-free dates, like taking walks in the park, dancing to songs on the radio, playing board games with friends, or playing catch in the yard. I found a consignment shop with gorgeous clothes for when I needed something new. I’m not glorifying being poor. I’m just saying that life can be beautiful even without money.

When I had graduated from college and my husband was still a medical student, we had a little more cash, because I got a job. But the place where I worked was horrible—even the plants constantly died! That’s how toxic the environment was. I was so miserable there that I finally quit. (Side note: the woman I worked for was so punitive that she didn’t even let me quit in peace. She said, “You can’t quit, because I’m firing you!” Ugh.) So how did we manage? Well, it was winter in New Haven. To cut costs, we wore sweaters and long johns and turned off our heat. I’m not glorifying being poor, but I have to say: it was really cozy!

Not having enough money to survive or to buy necessities is an unlivable situation. And in that case, money must be acquired; through the government, through the tzedaka of others in the Jewish community, through the charity of other people….

But not having as much money as the neighbors…money doesn’t make the man, my friend.