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The Blessing and the Curse of Material Prosperity

  • The Blessing and the Curse of Material Prosperity

    Naso, Numbers 4:21−7:89
D'var Torah By: 

The separate census of the Levites' ancestral houses, Gershon, Kohath, and Merari and their clans, begun in the prior portion, continues in Parashat Naso, along with the assignment of specific tasks to those between the ages of thirty and fifty. Here, the duties principally involve porterage, required when the Israelites were about to relocate and had to dismantle and transport the Tabernacle, the Tent of Meeting, and their sacred contents. The Gershonites' special cargo involved the cloths, coverings, and screens that composed the Tabernacle, the enclosure within which the Tent of Meeting was set. The Merarites carried the structural components of the Tent and Tabernacle. The most sacred objects and service vessels were entrusted to the Kohathites.

Once again, the very orderliness of the communal structure stands in stark contrast to the disorder and dislocations to come during four decades of wandering from oasis to oasis, some forty-two way stations in the desert in all. These assignments completed, God instructs Moses regarding more mundane sources of disruption and defilement: bodily discharges, contact with a corpse, interpersonal wrongs, jealousy, and adultery.

Rules for those who took a Nazirite's vow are elaborated. Though such persons presumably sought to express an aspiration to holiness, they were commanded to bring a sin offering at the expiration of the term of avowal. There is, after all, a degree of presumption, even arrogance, implicit in taking on more obligations than those God has imposed, as if to say, "That's all I have to do?! You haven't asked enough of me." And as for abstaining from intoxicants, not as a health measure but as an ascetic practice, refusing to partake of a source of pleasure God has given us reflects a kind of churlishness. After all, as the Psalmist tells us, "You [God] make[s] . . . wine that cheers the hearts of men" (Psalm 104:14-15). Elliot Dorff writes, "any assumption of further limits on the part of human beings [beyond those divinely ordained] was [considered by rabbinic tradition] an act of both pride and ingratitude." 1

Asceticism also arguably contradicts the first of three blessings given by God to Moses to be pronounced upon the people by Aaron and his sons, "The Eternal bless you and protect you!" (Numbers 6:24). This verse has customarily been understood to refer to the blessing of material prosperity, much to be desired both by the many who lacked it and the fortunate few who enjoyed it, but who knew that the good life, especially for Jews, could be fragile, precarious, and fleeting. Rashi comments on this verse, " 'May the Lord bless you' that your property may increase 'and protect you' that robbers not come and steal your property from you."

In our portion, however, it is asceticism, not comfort, that seemingly evokes ambivalence and, at least, partial disapproval. In today's materialistic, narcissistic culture, on the other hand, the dangers of abundance are more readily apparent. Rather than stimulating gratitude and generosity, affluence too often seems to intensify self-absorption and self-indulgence, corrupting individuals and institutions alike. Thus, the commentary of Dr. J. H. Hertz, though based on Rabbinic sources, has a strikingly contemporary ring, "May God bless thee, with possessions; and keep thee, from these possessions possessing thee"2

As Porgy sings in Gershwin's great classic, Porgy and Bess3:

I got plenty o' nuttin' and nuttin's plenty for me.

I got no car, got no mule. I got no misery.

The Jewish attitude toward poverty is captured better by Tevye, in Fiddler on the Roof," I know it's no disgrace to be poor--but it's no great honor either."4 Still, Porgy has a point. When I applied to rabbinical school in 1977, I was an attorney with a San Francisco law firm. Susie and I, and our two young children, lived in a spacious home in a lovely suburb, with two late model automobiles in the garage and a house full of the predictable belongings. In the course of transitioning back to student life, we sold our house, many of our possessions, and both cars. I recall vividly standing on the sidewalk in front of my inlaws' home on the afternoon the buyer of our second car drove away. I put my hands into my empty pockets and realized I no longer possessed a key to anything. For a long, precious moment, it was as if I was levitating, and I felt incredibly free.

  1. Elliot N. Dorff in Caring and Curing: Health and Medicine in the Western Religious Traditions, edited by Ronald L. Numbers and Darrel W. Amundsen (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998) p. 9
  2. The Pentateuch and Haftorahs, Second Edition, J. H. Hertz, ed. (Brooklyn, NY: The Soncino Press, 1960) p. 595
  3. "I Got Plenty O' Nuttin'," Porgy and Bess, lyrics by Ira Gershwin, Dorothy Heyward, and Dubose Heyward, 1934
  4.  Fiddler on the Roof, book by Joseph Stein, 1964

Rabbi Richard A. Block is senior rabbi of The Temple - Tifereth Israel in Cleveland, Ohio. He is president-elect of the Central Conference of American Rabbis and the vice chair of the Reform Pension Board.

Abundance Isn’t Bad
Davar Acher By: 
Richard Steinberg

Rabbi Block brings to light the issues between asceticism versus abundance. Asceticism is generally frowned upon in Judaism, although sometimes, as with Nazarites, it is seen as a way of elevation toward holiness. And overindulgent abundance is abhorrent to God.

But is abundance, in and of it self, inherently bad? For those who have abundance of material wealth, the question is not how much one has, but rather what one does with what he or she has.

As Rabbi Block explains, the first of the threefold Priestly Benediction in this Torah portion states, "The Eternal bless you and protect you!" (Numbers 6:24). Commentators, including Rashi, interpret this as "May God bless you with material wealth and guard you from robbers." The midrash describes a whole list of additional items that one who has wealth ought to be conscious of.

  • One with wealth should guard that wealth in order to do good deeds with it.
  • One should treat his money as he would a person and be sure to keep it from being influenced by the Yetzer HaRah, the Evil Inclination.
  • One ought to guard herself from the influence and power money could produce.
  • One ought to protect himself from the demons that surround him (in other words, others who would manipulate or take advantage of the rich person).

(see Midrash B'midbar Rabbah 11:5)

If you had a million dollars or more, what would you do with it? Judaism is a religion of action and what we do, defines who we are. How we spend the money we have is an indication of our essence. Being free from abundance can be liberating, but so too can much good come from using the abundance we have in order to help others and free them from their pain. Abundance is not always bad. May God bless us with abundance and protect us with the wisdom of how to use it.

Rabbi Richard Steinberg , senior rabbi is Congregation Shir Ha-Ma'alot, Irvine, California.

Reference Materials: 

"Naso, Numbers 4:21-7:89
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 1,043-1,075; Revised Edition, pp. 921-945;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 815-842 "