There is a bad joke told of a man who comes into a wealthy synagogue to collect charity for the needy. A certain member of the synagogue, a successful businessman, takes a $100 bill out of his wallet and puts it into the box. Everyone in the synagogue looks at him with admiration for his generosity.
A short while later, the collector places the box on a table and leaves the room for a minute. The generous donor quickly runs over to the box and retrieves his $100 bill.
The rabbi of the synagogue goes over to the man and asks for an explanation.
“Look, Rabbi,” the man says, “I think it’s important to give charity, so I did. But I’m a thief, and business is business.”
We might chuckle at the absurdity of thinking there’s any value to charity which one then steals from the recipient, but the unfortunate and painful truth is that there are many who live with this mindset – that religion is nice, but “business is business,” and what they do in the office should not be connected in any way to the synagogue, to Torah, to religious teaching. This is a grotesque misconception of what Torah is all about.
“My Strength and the Might of My Hand”
Moshe Rabbenu devoted a full section of his farewell speech to Beneh Yisraelto this subject – the interface between religion and money. In Parashat Ekev (chapter 8), Moshe foresees the time when the people, after spending forty years in the desert under the supernatural care of Gd, will enter the Land of Israel and develop a large, flourishing economy. They will enjoy wealth and prosperity, and will live in large homes and amass fortunes of gold and silver. Moshe warns, “Your heart will become haughty, and you will forget Hashem your Gd who took you from the land of Egypt, from the house of slaves, who led you in the great, awesome desert…who fed you manna in the desert… You will say in your heart: My strength and the might of my hand achieved all this wealth.” Moshe then admonishes, “You shall remember Hashem your Gd, for it is He who gives you the strength to achieve wealth.”
During the years of travel in the desert, it was unmistakably evident that Gd was sustaining the people. They spent this period in areas where people could not naturally sustain themselves. There was no food or water, and no possibility of cultivating the land to produce food. When the people awoke every morning to find their portions of manna outside the camp, they could not forget that Gd sustained them. When the people received water from a rock, they could not forget that Gd sustained them. Moshe wondered, however, whether this realization would remain after the people crossed into the Land of Israel and began working for their livelihood. When a person opens a business, putting in long days from early in the morning until late at night developing his enterprise, and the business gradually takes off, its volume of sales continually rising and its customer base continually expanding, it is exceedingly difficult to see Gd’s involvement. When a person who started off with nothing builds a multimillion dollar enterprise through years of hard work and ingenuity, he is prone to fall into the mindset of, “My strength and the might of my hand achieved all this wealth.”
The Inextricable Bond Between Integrity and Faith
This mindset has a direct and considerable impact on the way one conducts his commercial and financial affairs.
Our sages famously teach that one of the questions we will be asked when we come to the next world is, “Nasata veanata be’emunah” – which is generally understood to mean, “Did you conduct your business honestly?” Honesty and integrity is part of the basic foundation of Jewish life, the ABC’s of our religion, and so naturally, the first area of life for which a reckoning will be made is the area of honesty. But the phrase “nasata venatata be’emunah” also has a second meaning: “Did you conduct your business with faith, with the belief that your livelihood depends on the Almighty? When you went out to work each morning, did you recognize that Gd determines the success of your efforts, or did you view your success as your own doing, the result of your hard work and skill?”
Indeed, these two are inextricably linked. When a person comes to the office recognizing that ultimately, his livelihood depends on Gd, he conducts his affairs differently than somebody who assumes his success depends on his own efforts. A person who runs his business with faith does not even consider for a fleeting moment the possibility of making a profit through dishonesty. After all, would Gd grant him more money if he violates the most basic and elementary laws of the Torah? It is only the nonbeliever, the one who does not recognize Gd as the source of his livelihood, who could entertain such a notion. If a person conducts his business with faith in Hashem, then he necessarily conducts his business with honesty.
Faith affects the nature of one’s conduct in the marketplace in other ways, as well. If a person believes that his financial success depends on Gd, then he will find himself entangled far less frequently in bitter arguments and lawsuits. Gd wants us to live peacefully with one another, and this often requires us to give in, to forego on something we rightfully believe we deserve to avoid a conflict. Of course, this does not mean we should allow ourselves to be taken advantage of and abused. Certainly, there are situations when we need to defend ourselves and our property from crooks who try to infringe upon our rights. But there are many fights that are simply not worth waging. And if a person believes that Hashem “is the one who gives you the strength to achieve wealth,” that He alone determines how much money we will have, he will be far more flexible and less insistent in the marketplace. He will avoid unnecessary fights and will learn to compromise. Once he recognizes that his financial success depends on Gd, he will obey Gd’s will to maintain peaceful relations with people even when this entails some degree of sacrifice.
Additionally, faith in the workplace means less stress in the workplace. If a person goes to the office knowing that he is entirely in Gd’s hands, he will be able to enjoy what he does without the constant anxiety that plagues so many people. He will not fret over every decision or worry about every mistake, as he is fully confident in Gd’s unlimited ability to provide.
Let us imagine what our society would look like if people went to work knowing that although Gd requires us to make an effort to earn a livelihood, it is ultimately He who decides how much money we have. How much less corruption would there be if people worked with this mindset? How many lawsuits and fights could be avoided if people placed their trust in Gd, rather than in their own efforts?
There is a verse in Tehillim which we joyfully sing every Yom Tov in Hallel, but when we probe deeper, it becomes very frightening. The verse ridicules idol-worshippers, observing, “Atzabeihem kesef vezahav– Their deities are silver and gold.” We might assume that this refers to the worship of statues made from gold and silver – some odd form of religion that none of us would ever think of joining. But the verse continues, “ma’aseh yedeh adam – the handiwork of people.” The verse is telling us that when we rely too heavily on “ma’aseh yedeh adam,” on our “handiwork” and efforts, then we turn our “silver and gold,” our assets, into “deities.”
Frighteningly, this means that if a person goes about his commercial or professional pursuits with the attitude of “my strength and the might of my hand,” that his success depends entirely on his efforts, and not on Gd, then he is guilty of a form of idolatry.
Idolatry is not merely bowing down to a statue. Idolatry is affording inordinate importance to something, viewing it as far more valuable than it really is. And this is why obsession with one’s business and career constitutes a form of idolatry. Undoubtedly, our work is extremely important. Gd expects us to work for a living, rather than sit around at home expecting a paycheck to miraculously fall from the heavens. We must work for a living, and we should take our work very seriously. But when we take our work too seriously, when we fret and obsess over it, and when we think that we cannot survive without a certain job, a certain customer, a certain contract, or a certain position, then we are guilty of “atzabeihem kesef vezahav,” of turning our material pursuits into a deity.
This is truly a frightening concept. It means that a person can pray in the synagogue three times a day, wear a tallitand two pairs of tefillin– Rashi and Rabbenu Tam – ensure to eat only yashanand halav Yisrael, and learn the Daf Yomi, but still be guilty of no less an offense than idolatry. If he goes to work thinking that he makes his money, and it is not given to him by Gd, then he “worships” his “handiwork.” He is guilty of a form of idolatry, regardless of how long he spent praying the Amidah that morning, or how many passages of Tosafot he studied.
Worshipping the Dust of Our Feet
Our sages warn us of this form of idolatry in the Midrash’s famous comments regarding the three angels who visited Avraham Avinu. As we read in Sefer Beresheet (18), the three angels appeared to Avraham as ordinary wayfarers, and Avraham excitedly ran over to them and invited them in, offering them water so they could wash their feet. While this offer seems straightforward, the Midrash gives a surprising, and puzzling, interpretation. The Midrash writes that there were people at that time who would worship the dust on their feet, and Avraham assumed that these travelers practiced this peculiar form of paganism. Not wanting objects of pagan worship in his home, he offered them water so they would rinse the dust off their feet before entering his property.
What kind of people would worship dust or dirt? Why would anybody think to look at the dirt on his feet as a divine being?
Undoubtedly, the Midrash is teaching us a deep lesson. Businessmen, especially in ancient times, before the advent of modern communication, spent a great deal of time traveling to buy and sell their wares. The “religion” the Midrash refers to is the “religion” that is, unfortunately, so prevalent in our society – the “worship” of one’s hard work and effort. It is the religion that believes that a person’s financial status depends solely on his “feet,” on his work and acumen, and not on the Almighty. Our sages teach that if we want to enter Avraham’s home, if we want to bear his legacy and follow his teaching, we need to rinse the dust off our feet. We need to understand that our hard work is important but not the actual source of our financial success. As important as it is to work hard for a living, it is equally important to recognize that our wealth ultimately depends on Gd.
This might also be the meaning of Rashi’s famous comments at the beginning of Parashat Ekev, in explaining the Torah’s promise of great reward in exchange for our observance of Gd’s laws. Commenting on the word “ekev,” Rashi writes that the Torah refers here to “mitzvot sheha’adam dash ba’akavav – Commands that a person tramples on with his heels.” This is commonly understood as a reference to the laws of the Torah that are often neglected. Nowadays, this would mean things like avoiding lashon hara (negative speech about other people), and remaining silent and attentive during the repetition of the Amidahand during the Torah reading. Additionally, however, this may refer to the “dust of our feet,” to the proper perspective on our material pursuits. If we ensure not to worship the “dust,” and we recognize that our livelihood depends on Gd, then we will earn His blessing. The Torah assures us that if we put in a hard day’s work with the understanding that Gd alone determines the success of our work, then He will grant us the success and prosperity that we desire.
The Greatest Blessing
Later in the Book of Devarim (28:3), the Torah promises that in reward for observing Gd’s laws, “Baruch atah ba’ir – You will be blessed in the city.” The Gemara in Masechet Baba Metzia explains this to mean, “Sheyeheh betecha samuch levet hakenesset – Your home shall be adjacent to the synagogue.” The greatest blessing we can have “in the city,” the Gemara seems to be teaching us, is that we live close to a synagogue.
Is this really the greatest possible blessing? Sure, it is very convenient to live near one’s synagogue, and we know full well that real estate prices go up the closer we get to a large synagogue. But is this really the greatest blessing of all?
The answer is that the Gemara is not referring to geographic proximity. Rather, it refers to blurring the lines between the synagogue and the other areas of life. We must ensure that our offices, figuratively speaking, are situated close to the synagogue, meaning, they are brought under the influence of the values of the synagogue, and are operated in the spirit of those values. After we finish praying and studying in the synagogue, we must not leave it at the door when we leave. We need to take it with us wherever we go, whether it’s our homes, our businesses, our travels, our leisurely activities, or our ordinary errands. We cannot compartmentalize our lives, keeping religion in the synagogue with the attitude of “business is business.” Business is every bit as much a part of our religion as praying and studying Gemara. We serve Gd in the synagogue by praying and studying the right way, and we serve Gd in the office by working the right way, with the proper mindset, and with the proper values and ideals.
Sadly, the application of our religious ideals to the workplace is an area about which we can say, “adam dash ba’akavav” – many people “trample” on it. Our synagogues and adult education programs are, baruch Hashem, full, but I am afraid that the values embodied by our synagogues too often remain in the synagogues, and do not extend outward into the workplace. One lives a truly blessed life when there is no space between his synagogue and his office, when the latter becomes a natural extension of the former. The greatest blessing is when one infuses his entire life, including his profession or business, with the lofty ideals and values of the Torah.
If we want to be blessed “ba’ir,” when we go off to work in the city, then we must ensure to keep Torah values in our minds and hearts throughout our workday, and conduct all our affairs in strict accordance with those values, at the very highest standards of honesty and integrity, and with firm, unwavering belief in Gd’s ability to provide for us and our families.