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Despicably Rich
Mom with a View

Despicably Rich

Why do so many people dislike the wealthy and secretly desire their downfall?


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.

October 15, 2005

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Visitor Comments: 14

(14) one man, November 26, 2005 12:00 AM

two bits

I Would like to offer my two bits, as that is all that I can afford. In actuality I can not even afford to pay attention. I harbor no ill regards towards the wealthy as I have not been in there position or have I ever known any wealth other than the love of G-D which for myself is more than enough to sustain my life. I have a couple points to ponder for those who may wish to entertain the thoughts and meaning involved. I have been distinguished and honored to have worked alongside the wealthy and afluent as well as those who were desperately deprived of even the very basic of lifes necessities. I have often have wondered if the wealthy have ever experienced what it is like wondering where your next meal will come from or where you will find a place to rest out of the elements. I believe that I have a modest education for which I'm very thankful and grateful to G-D that I have, mainly because its my brain which has allowed me to make it this far in my journey to the end. I have along this journey given to the less fortunate even to my own deprival. I have assisted the wealthy, served the community, and offered what counsel, advice, knowledge, wisdom, and comfort that I could along the way to any one that would benifit from it regardless of their stature. I have often wondered if any one considers the little people in this G-D's great world. I have and am thankful and grateful for all the contributions great and small. I have pondered the struggles of the working class people who for the most part did not come from a well off family but have managed to struggle day to day to carve out a living from what G-D gifted them with. I have also pondered if the wealthy and well off have considered just how valuable the little people really are. For instance the garbage pick-up what would your neiborhood smell like without them??? The sewage system workers, home without a toilet??? The office help, how much information could be processed by one individual??? The road crews, keeping the roadways intact and directing traffic safely, how else would anyone get where they are going??? The teachers, where did the education come from??? The engineers, where do we get the electricity that operates nearly every aspect of modern life??? The gardeners, isn't that scenery beautiful??? The janitor's, cleanliness just how important is that??? And there are so many others that contribute. How taken for granted are the little people that do so much good so often for so little pay and respect. Consider a world without those struggles...If everyone were wealthy what would be gained??? I can imagine a world where everyone is counting on someone else to do the work that is often overlooked nothing would ever be accomplished. As for amassed wealth its not for me, I would miss out on to much living, afterall wealth is not happiness. While I do believe that those that have great wealth owe much of what they have to those that don't, There is no way to convince the wealthy to be poor, for most having not ever been poor before it presents to frightening a prospect to set one's sights in reverse. I'm thankful for the charity and generousity which most of the wealthy do endeavor to undertake. I can only hope that it reaches to those that truely could benefit. Perhaps someday G-D will even the payscales, enhance education to all and balance out all the differences. Until that time comes I will continue to do what I know to be G-D's will and be thankful for the life which I have been blessed with.

(13) A. Wayne Hinson, October 23, 2005 12:00 AM

sour grapes

Several readers have responded with bitter accusations against those with wealth. I suggest that instead of stooping so low as to receive a paycheck from such obviously evil persons, they should go to work for some broke person who has nothing and can pay nothing. Those who so despise those with wealth can be summed up nicely in two words: Sour Grapes.

(12) Marion I. Lipshutz, October 19, 2005 12:00 AM

Ms. Braverman's perspective on the wealthy

Ms. Braverman's economic perspective misuses a literalist interpretation of Rosh Hashanah as an excuse for passivity and fatalism in response to massive economic inequality and injustice.

The wealthy are not wealthy exclusively because of hard work. Would that it were so! Then millions of working poor people around the world who work just as hard (if not harder!) than the Rockefellers would be wealthy too.

There is no excuse for an economic system (the current American system) in which only one percent of the American population controls 90% or more of the nation's wealth. That is inherently unjust from the Jewish ethical imperative of tzedek, tzedek, tirdof.

I suggest that readers of Braverman's column consult Paul Kivel's excellent book, You Call This A Democracy: Who Benefits, Who Pays, and Who Really Decides.

For more information, see:

(11) Lee, October 18, 2005 12:00 AM

Uncomfortable truth

There are so many things in Judaism that involve balancing opposites. We are commanded to pursue justice. And Jews in America and around the world have given their lives in fulfilling this mitzvot, fighting for justice in sweatshops and factories. It is a strong and vital part of Jewish history, both here and around the world. However, Emuna Braverman speaks truth when she says that jealousy is also at work here. It is easy and devastating to look with hatred towards rich people. I find myself often despairing that I can do real good in the world. If I had a million dollars, I'd sure spend it better than the evil rich people in my neighborhood. But since I don't have a million dollars, I am powerless to effect change. ANd by doing this, we fail terribly, because we give rich people responsibility and take it away from ourselves, and this is a terrible, terrible sin. If I think rich people earned every penny, if you think they raped and robbed and murdered to get it, either way, the only solution is to focus on my OWN life and my OWN practices! If I don't think someone else is doing the right thing, well then, I must do the right thing. Rich people are wasting money? Then I must spend wisely. Rich people oppress the poor? Then I must do something good. There is nothing else for us but to take these criticisms of others and turn them onto ourselves. Often, that which we hate in others is growing unchecked in ourselves, and in this, Mrs. Braverman is totally on the mark. And in a larger sense, while we think we know how the rich got that way, we must be careful not to judge anyone. We all have our inner struggle, trying to develop our good inclination so we can control our evil inclination. Who are we to decide that others are all good or all evil based on outward appearances? Only G-d knows. We must turn our attention to ourselves and only look harshly at our own actions.

(10) Paul Partin, October 17, 2005 12:00 AM

Class Warfare

Emuna Braverman hits the nail on the head. We must not envy the rich. They became wealthy by hard work. There has never been anyone who has improved anyone's life by hating or punishing the rich. If we are to truly help the poor, taxing the rich for the benefit of the government will not help the poor. The government does not help the poor to improve their status. It keeps them poor. I know from personal experience.

Some of your readers have some views that make no sense. Being wealthy is not a character trait. If it were, there could be no virtuous rich and that every dollar that one had would make him/her less virtuous. Such a view is ridiculous. As for the unethical rich, there are also the unethical poor. Dishonesty, not wealth is a character trait.

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