By Rabbi Douglas Goldhamer, Torah Columnist
Torah Portion: Naso (Numbers 4:21−7:89)
My congregation is not filled with people who are physically wealthy, though I am blessed to be the rabbi of a synagogue that is very rich. Many people in our shul are not only happy with their wealth, but they are very glad to share their wealth with one another.
In this week’s Torah portion, Naso, G-d teaches Moses and Aaron the three-fold priestly blessing, which is used to this day in synagogues, churches and mosques. “May the Lord bless you and keep you. May the Lord make His face to shine upon you and be gracious to you. May the Lord lift up His countenance upon you and give you peace. The first part of the blessing is “May the Lord bless you,” (Numbers 6:24) which the Midrash Tanchuma interprets as meaning, “May G-d grant you wealth.” But, doesn’t it seem strange that the first blessing should be one for physical riches—what about the importance of physical health or spiritual well-being? You would think that the spiritual blessing is of primary importance and should precede the physical blessing of material wealth.
We must first understand the underlying foundation of the blessing of material wealth. According to Judaism, what does it mean to have material wealth? In Pirke Avot 4:1, we learn who is a rich man – he who is happy with his portion. This means only one who is happy and satisfied with what he has can be considered a wealthy man. Otherwise, whatever he has is not enough. One who does not have enough is not wealthy. If one is not satisfied with what one has, then winning the mega-millions lottery will not fulfill his needs. Even if someone has an enormous amount of wealth, he will not be happy unless he has more than everyone else. And, he will still not be happy; he will want still more.
Our synagogue, Congregation Bene Shalom, is a congregation with many deaf members, as well as some deaf and blind, and many of them don’t have the material wealth of their brothers and sisters and neighbors on the North Shore. But they still seek for G-d to bless them, because it affirms G-d’s Presence in their lives. G-d’s Presence allows them to feel wealthy.
I remember last month, a member of our synagogue received a cochlear implant, a physical device which allowed him to hear more than he had ever heard before in his life. He was so satisfied with this miraculous device which allowed him to hear one fifth of what other people hear every day. He still could not hear his young son’s whisper, but he could hear his son’s scream. Yet, he was so happy with this device that he embraced this miracle and he embraced Hashem who allowed him to receive hearing.
He was so happy that G-d have him the miracle of hearing, which, to him, was equivalent to the miracle of wealth. He realized that the spiritual blessing is of primary significance and should therefore precede the physical blessing of material wealth. This text teaches that he who is happy with his portion in life recognizes that Hashem is always blessing him. Hashem did this with a member of our synagogue by granting him the gift of healing through a cochlear implant. His wife denied the sanctity and the value of this gift.
But, I saw firsthand that the teaching of Pirke Avot 4:1 is really powerful and overcomes the wife’s myopic behavior. I share schnapps with our newly rich member, and I saw firsthand that the teaching of Pirke Avot is really powerful. “Who is a rich man? He who is happy with his portion.” Only one who is happy and satisfied with what he has can be considered a wealthy man. Otherwise, whatever he has is not enough. One who does not have enough is not wealthy.
Indeed, as Rav Sheps writes: “The Yesod Ha’chaim principle of life is that one should feel that he never has enough Yerat Shamayim, fear of heaven. But that he has more than enough material wealth.” Regrettably, many of us settle for the opposite. This man in my congregation was thrilled to receive a cochlear implant which allowed him to hear the voice of his child. What a gift Hashem gave him that morning. What a miracle Hashem allowed him to participate in that morning. He now felt he was more wealthy than a rich man.
Rabbi Douglas Goldhamer is the senior rabbi of Congregation Bene Shalom, Skokie and president and professor of Jewish Mysticism, Hebrew Seminary, Skokie.