Rabbi Yonason says: Whoever fulfills the Torah amidst poverty will ultimately fulfill it in wealth. And whoever neglects the Torah amidst wealth will ultimately neglect it in poverty. (Ethics of Fathers 4:11)
Most of us have heard about the 1992 lawsuit filed by a woman from Albuquerque, New Mexico, who suffered second and third degree burns when she spilled a cup of coffee bought at a McDonald’s restaurant in her lap. Even though McDonald’s had received over 700 complaints about the temperature of their coffee, and even though the restaurant chain had offered to pay only $800 of the claimant’s $20,000 in medical and recovery expenses, most people still felt that the $2.86 million decision (based on two days’ worth of coffee revenues) was out of proportion to the damages involved. Even the judge’s reduced verdict of $640,000 seemed excessive to many.
Among the most fundamental concepts in Jewish philosophy is the principle of middah keneged middah, or measure for measure. Both logic and Talmudic tradition assert that any reward or punishment meted out by a true God of justice must be exactly proportional to one’s deeds.
If so, how are we to understand the cause and effect presented by Rabbi Yonason in our mishna? Indeed, the Talmud itself explains elsewhere that neither riches nor poverty is an acceptable excuse for failing to make time for Torah study. That being the case, why should the heavenly response to either the observance or neglect of Torah have any connection to the measure of a person’s wealth?
The following episode provides the beginnings of an answer:
A wealthy matron asked Rabbi Yossi bar Chalafta: “What is the meaning of the verse, [God] grants wisdom to the wise (Daniel 2:21)? Isn’t this superfluous? Should it not rather state that God grants wisdom to the unwise and knowledge to those who lack understanding?”
Rabbi Yossi replied: “Imagine that a rich man and a poor man came to you, each asking to borrow money. To which of them would you make the loan?”
She replied, “To the rich man.” When the rabbi asked her why, she explained, “If the rich man loses the money, he will have the means to repay me; but if the poor man loses the money, how will he pay me back?”
Rabbi Yossi then replied: “Do you not understand your own words? If God gave wisdom to fools, they would sit and ponder in the latrines and theaters and bathhouses. Instead, God gave wisdom to the wise, and they ponder in the synagogues and study houses. That is the meaning of the verse, He gives wisdom to the wise and knowledge to those that know understanding” (Daniel 2:21).”
Contrary to western thinking, the sages saw wisdom not as a function of the intellect but as an expression of character – specifically, they defined wisdom as the combination of a desire to acquire an ever deeper understanding of one’s world and an appreciation of every moment as a new opportunity to learn. Facts, events, situations, and people are all resources to further one’s familiarity with the universe around him and, consequently, with the Creator of all.
Wisdom is not a function of the intellect; it's an expression of character.
Hence Rabbi Yossi bar Chalafta’s answer: a person is wise precisely because he seeks wisdom, whereas a fool is content with his foolishness. When a person devotes every minute of his life to the acquisition not only of knowledge but of true wisdom as well, the Almighty responds by increasing his capacity to apply the knowledge of experience, thereby enabling him to develop ever more rapidly into a spiritual being.
With this insight, we are ready to understand the teaching of Rabbi Yonason in our mishna. From a Torah perspective, money has no intrinsic value; it is merely a resource like any other. Therefore, to use money only for the sake of accumulating possessions or indulging one’s own pleasure is to squander a priceless opportunity, for wealth frees us from the mundane occupation of subsistence and enables us to devote his time to the pursuit of ultimate wisdom through the study and observance of Torah. Should a person be so foolish as to waste his time on frivolous pursuits or on amassing ever increasing wealth to no constructive purpose, he demonstrates to the Almighty that he has no appreciation of the blessing that has been bestowed upon him.
Conversely, no matter how legitimately a person burdened by debt might excuse his lack commitment to Torah, by resolving to persevere in his divine service in the face of hardship he earns the privilege of having every possible resource placed at his disposal. By refusing to crumple under the weight of destitution, he guarantees that he will be rewarded with the blessings of wealth.
And what if he is not? What of those who strive for the heights of spiritual greatness despite their poverty and never acquire riches, and what of those who neglect even the most basic values of Judaism and live out their days in wealth?
The key to fully understanding Rabbi Yonason’s lesson depends upon his use of the word ultimately. Indeed, if every person of virtue received proportional reward in this world and every scoundrel received his just desserts, what would become of free will? The Creator placed us in this world intending that we spend our days laboring to penetrate the veil of randomness and happenstance, directing our actions according to the calling of conscience and the ultimate truths that lie hidden behind the mask of nature. Sometimes, we do see justice in the world; more often, however, we have to wait to reach the ultimate World of Truth before we can recognize that the Almighty is in fact the One True Judge.
And so Rabbi Yonason comes to remind us to trust always in divine justice, to remain always alert to the opportunities that God affords us, and to take advantage of the resources at our disposal to the fullest extent. According to this formula we are assured of changing our fortunes for the better, possibly in this world but certainly in the next.
The King's Daughter
As a final, tantalizing insight, King Solomon offers the parable of a king who instructed his most honored servant to name his own reward and ask for whatever he desired. The servant said to himself: Whether I ask for wealth or ask for power, the king will grant my request. I will ask for the hand of the king’s daughter in marriage, for this request includes all others.
At first reading, Solomon’s parable seems to depict the king’s servant as an opportunist, shamelessly manipulating his sovereign’s heartfelt gesture of appreciation. But the context of the parable tells a different story entirely.
When Solomon succeeded his father, King David, upon the throne of the Jewish kingdom at 12 years of age, the Almighty appeared to him in a dream and instructed him to ask for whatever he desired. The young King Solomon said, Give Your servant an understanding heart with which to judge Your people (1 Kings 3:9).
Replied the Almighty: Because you have asked for yourself neither long life [nor] riches [nor] the lives of your enemies… behold, I have done according to your word… and also I have given you that which you have not asked, both riches and honor (Ibid., 3:11-13).
Solomon himself is the servant in the parable, and the wisdom for which he asked is daughter of the king. For Solomon understood that, no matter how close a servant might be to his master, he is never as close as a son to his father.
By acquiring an understanding of God’s will through the wisdom revealed in the Torah, we cease to be mere servants and become beloved children of the King who reigns over kings. Such closeness to the divine, when experienced, makes material wealth all but meaningless in this world, and promises to make us wealthy beyond our wildest imaginings in the World to Come.