The carnival of carnage that seems a constant in the Islamic world proceeded tragically apace last week, with a suicide bombing at a gathering in Ibb, Yemen, to commemorate Islam’s founder’s birthday. At least 23 people were killed; an al-Qaida affiliate is the suspected culprit.
Then, over in Afghanistan, at least 26 people attending a wedding party were killed, and 45 wounded, when a rocket struck a house during a firefight between government forces and Taliban terrorists.
But what might rank as the week’s most senseless loss of life took place in a non-Islamic land, China. At least 35 people were killed and 43 injured during a stampede in an area of Shanghai where tens of thousands had gathered to celebrate the advent of a new calendar year.
The cause of that disaster is unclear, but it was reported that shortly before the crowd had grown restless, people in a nearby building had dropped green pieces of paper that looked like American $100 bills.
Now, there’s an awful metaphor for our covetous times. The pursuit of money is nothing new, of course. It has been the engine powering many a civilization, and the rot destroying many a human life. And while it’s easy to decry the venality and greed of the worst that Wall Street and the entertainment industry have to offer, it’s considerably harder to check our own individual inclinations to grab what green we can.
It’s a silly inclination, of course. Not only can money buy only stuff, not happiness, but a believing Jew should have well absorbed the truism that his financial status is, in the end, a function of what is decreed for him by Hashem at the start of each Jewish year. To pursue money, then, for the sake of, well, pursuing money, to exert oneself in a quest to have more than one needs, is just to court expenses that one wouldn’t otherwise have.
Still and all, mindless greed somehow seeps into countless lives, even Jewish ones, even Jewishly educated ones. Lavan, after all, is in our family tree.
Yet possessions are valuable things.
Yaakov Avinu, we all know, recrossed Nachal Yabok in order to retrieve small jars inadvertently left behind. “From here we see,” Chazal explain, “that the possessions of the righteous are as dear to them as their bodies.”
That comment, of course, does not mean to counsel greed or miserliness; Yaakov, after all, is the man of emes, the forefather who embodies the ideal of “truth” or honesty. It is meant to teach us something deeply Jewish, that possessions have worth. And that is because they can be utilized for truly meaningful things. A dollar can be converted not only into a euro but into a mitzvah.
It can buy a soft drink or a packet of aspirin or part of a New York subway fare. But it can also buy a thirsty friend a drink, or a get-well card for someone ailing, or part of the fare for the ride to the hospital to deliver it in person. It can be put into the pushke or given as a reward to a child who has done something reward-worthy.
Possessions are tools, in their essence morally neutral. Put to a holy purpose, though, they are sublime. And so, the Torah teaches, valuing a small jar can be a sign not of avarice but of wisdom.
It’s unfortunate — no, dreadful — that some of us seem only to remember the importance of valuing money but have forgotten the reason for its value. Greed — all the more so when it leads to less than honest expression — is the very antithesis of the example set by the Jewish forefather associated with emes. The righteous, continue Chazal in their statement about Yaakov’s retrieval of the small jars, “do not extend their hands toward theft.” Truly Jewish-minded Jews see money not as an end justified by any means but as a means that can lead to a holy end.
And if it’s only the end that matters, as it should, the means cannot be of any inherent importance. Means can take many forms. A wealthy person can, as many do, use his financial resources to help others and support Torah. But the financially unendowed are at no disadvantage. They simply resort to what other wealth they may have: their time, their intellect, their talents.
And so, should we find ourselves with dollars, actual ones, raining down upon us, the Jewish thing to do would be to perhaps hold out our hands, but to stand perfectly, happily still.