Why must man toil for a living?
This is one of the laws of nature that G-d created, which came into being after Adam and Eve sinned and left the Garden of Eden. A new world order was created by G-d – one that involved a tremendous amount of effort required to earn a living. As the verse says, “By the sweat of your brow you shall eat your bread”. It is unnatural to earn a living without the toil, and sustenance, parnossah, is one of the key struggles of a human being. But the important thing is this: even though one has to work hard, the parnossah comes from Hashem. And that is a big challenge.
Why is that the challenge?
We work hard, we earn money, and the natural human instinct is then to think,’ I earned this’. But money is a blessing from G-d, the ultimate distributor of all ‘goods’ in the world. He gives us this blessing through our practical efforts in this world.
Then why do we strive for more at all?
We have to keep on trying, because we cannot rely on miracles – but after we have put in that effort, the outcome is in Hashem’s hands. We have to make peace with that, and that is the root of real happiness. Our Sages say in Pirkei Avot, ‘Who is wealthy? One who is satisfied with his lot’.
Yet it’s more of an effort for some than for others…
At Rosh Hashanah time, a person’s parnossah is determined for the year, and many complex factors make up how much one gets in the end, including the effort a person invests. But it is ultimately up to Hashem.
If parnossah comes from Hashem, does that mean it’s a blessing?
It certainly is a blessing. But people can turn blessing into a curse if it is misused. The verse says, ‘May Hashem bless you and protect you’. The conventional understanding of this is ‘May Hashem protect the blessings he gives you’ – so that, the Talmud gives the example, the money isn’t then stolen from you. But the Netziv says that it means, ‘May He bless you, and protect you from the blessings’. He must protect you from the blessing itself – so that it doesn’t turn into a curse.
How would it?
Wealth can make one arrogant, where we think of ourselves as self-made, without recognising that everything comes from Hashem. Money can also make one heartless to those around him. He thinks, ‘I earned this, so everyone can work hard and earn the same’ – he has a sense of entitlement.
And as a blessing…
Wealth can do enormous good to help make the world a better place. It enables us to give tzedokkah to the poor, helps the establishment of Torah education – it facilitates good things in the world. And without it, a person cannot survive.
So how should we approach wealth?
All wealth belongs to Hashem and he entrusts us to disperse it in accordance with His will, to achieve certain things in the world. That is why the blessing for tzedokkah is wealth – if you use it for the purpose for which G-d gave it to you, He will give you more.
Then it is ok to want more…
Judaism’s basic philosophy toward money and physical possessions is to ask ‘why do you want it?’ our Sages teach us the beautiful concept of ‘for the sake of heaven’. Everything we do should be for the sake of heaven. The pursuit of money and physical possessions should be for the sake of doing good in the world.
Do we want money for money’s sake?
There is a natural human desire to accumulate. But we have to realise that material things will never fill a person’s life. It says in Kohellet, ‘One who loves money will never be satisfied with money…’. Real fulfilment in life comes from living a meaningful life according to the will of G-d.
But it is very easy to fall into the trap of materialism…
Yes, and we have to be careful. Materialism dominates the western world – but Judaism teaches that the physical is merely the platform to achieve much greater things.
But even if we are content, some part of us always wants what someone else has…
Jealousy affects all aspects of life. About the commandment not to covet, Ibn Ezra, explains: A land animal is not jealous of the bird that can fly, nor is the bird jealous of the fish that can swim –because it is not even in their realm of possibility. Every one of us is a unique soul that comes into the world with a contribution to make, and Hashem gives us whatever we need to accomplish that mission. We all have what we need as decided by G-d. What others have doesn’t detract from what I have, and if they have more, it doesn’t mean I will have less.
On a practical level…
If we strengthen our faith in G-d, the ultimate controller of human affairs, we will find peace. And key to that faith is prayer and Torah. And to be at peace with the world, two things are pivotal. A good relationship with G-d, which comes from prayer, and the right perspective in life, which comes from learning Torah.
Q&A: Money – July 2009 – "Jewish Life" magazine
Why must man toil for a living?