A recent NY Times Book review discussed Charles R. Morris's new book, The Tycoons: How Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, Jay Gould and J.P. Morgan Invented the American Supereconomy. One of the theories of the author, as described in the review, is that these business leaders have been much maligned. He suggests that they didn't succeed through backstabbing, unethical business practices and exploitation of the alienated masses but rather through good old-fashioned American know-how. And lots of hard work. He suggests that they bolstered the economy, actually benefiting most of the workers as opposed to harming them.
Why then the bad rap?
In my daily life, I constantly see many people's expressions of dislike of the wealthy, wishes for their downfall and the desire to ascribe to them the most odious of character traits and the most unscrupulous of business practices.
And I think it all boils down to one issue: jealousy.
If we can't/don't have it, we have to find a way to discredit them and prove them undeserving.
We want what they have. And if we can't/don't have it, we have to find a way to discredit them and their good. We have to prove them undeserving. And it's very unfortunate. In many ways, it makes our lives "poorer".
In the first place, it limits our relationships. Do we only want to surround ourselves with people who agree with everything we say, who see the world the exact same way that we do?
While there are clearly some situations where agreement is necessary, our sages teach us in Ethics of Our Fathers, "Who is the wise man? He who learns from everyone." We do the most learning from people who are different than us. It's one of the most painful experiences in politics today. Each side tries to amass facts to bolster their arguments and no one tries to understand the opposing point of view, no one tries to really analyze the information. Surely the Democrats and Republicans, the Labor and Likud, the rich and the poor can learn from each other. We're "robbing" ourselves when we limit our contact to those exactly like us or when we stigmatize and stereotype those who are more powerful or who have greater financial resources.
Secondly, being wealthy is not a character trait. We all share the same desires -- for meaning, for family, for love, for a relationship with God. None of this is shaped by our pocketbooks. We have a mitzvah of loving our fellow Jews. We have so many superficial qualities that we use to build barriers. The Jewish people needs unity more than anything else. It's what the Almighty wants from us more than anything else. Do we want to let money stand in the way of that lofty goal? "Some of my best friends" are extremely wealthy and it hurts me to see them treated as different than me, either with deference or with disdain. They just want to be treated with love.
In the third place, the quality of empathy is what allows us to have deep and significant relationships with others. If we view those with wealth as "other" than us, we limit our ability to connect. We make ourselves petty, and lonely. Everyone, whatever their economic status, has the same joys and sorrows. And despite our fantasies, we probably don't want to trade our struggles for theirs.
Fourthly, it's important to remember that the amount of our income is decided every year on Rosh Hashana. It's not in our hands. If the Almighty decreed that someone else should be wealthy, they must need it for their growth. And if He decreed we shouldn't, we must not. Perhaps it could even harm us.
When the Almighty allocates to our neighbor tremendous wealth, that's his test and opportunity. If He thinks a more moderate sum would suffice for us, that's our test and opportunity. It's all up to Him. We each have the exact amount we need (even though it's a hard argument to make to the bank officer!)
And finally, jealousy is one of the most destructive traits to harbor. It leads to resentment, bitterness, gossip and senseless hatred (just to name a few!). Obviously, none of these are desirable qualities. But on a simpler level, what a waste of time and energy. All that psychic space and effort invested in jealous when it could be directed to love and caring, to kindness and generosity, to helping bring the Almighty's presence into the world.
True generosity has nothing to do with our bank balances and everything to do with our character. We don't want our children to hear us bad-mouthing anyone; we don't want to get in the habit of slandering the wealthy. We want our children to hear us extolling their open-handedness, their large gift to that charitable organization, the event they hosted in their home, the fundraising campaign they chaired. And let them see us doing the same with our resources -- giving tzedaka with a smile, opening up our homes to classes and parlor meetings, raising money for our schools and chesed organizations, and praising the efforts of everyone, rich and poor who does the same.
Then we'll be too busy to even think about what anyone else has or hasn't, does or doesn't. Then it won't even matter.