parsha of the week

Can wealth buy Judaism?


On a whim, I checked out the website of a renowned Judaica store to see what’s available these days. That the only Judaica I really buy these days are books, and I felt a little out of touch when I clicked on the “garments” section.

Of course, size will change the price a little. But after going through the “Talis Wizard,” I found that a basic tallis with no trimmings would set me back $160. Once you start throwing in hand-tied strings (especially techeiles), and a simple atarah, you are in the realm of $300 to $400. Throw in a silver or crystal atarah, and the price is anywhere from an additional $250 to $1000.

And the decisions! Do I want a weekday tallis? A Shabbos tallis? Cashmere? Texture? Summer wool? Winter wool? Non-slip? Traditionally slippery?

Then I moved onto kittels. While the cheap ones were $60, an elegant and ornate kittel cost as much as $250.

Challah boards: the low end cost $20. The highest? $460! More decisions — wood, glass, tempered glass, artistic, metal, silver? With a salt dip, with a place for the knife, with a built-in challah cover?

Candlesticks? $13 to $690!

I do not begrudge the store for giving people options. I do not begrudge those who can afford the higher-end items, who would like to beautify their Shabbos table. Similarly, for some, a beautiful tallis and kittel will enhance their davening and connection with G-d. More power to you!

However, let us not fool ourselves into thinking that the only reason we spend this kind of money on “things” is to glorify G-d.

In Beshalach, the second verse of Az Yashir (15:2) includes the phrase “Zeh Keli v’anvehu” — this is my G-d, and I will glorify Him. Rabbi Yishmael, the son of Rabbi Yochanan ben Berokah, asked “Is it possible for a person to glorify G-d? Rather, glorify Him through the performance of mitzvos.” Have a beautiful lulav, a beautiful sukkah, beautiful tzitzis, beautiful tefillin (Pesikta). The Talmud (Shabbat 133b) adds a few more items: a beautiful shofar, a beautiful Torah scroll.

Shabbat 25b makes the following comment: “Who is wealthy? Anyone who takes pleasure in his wealth. These are the words of Rabbi Meir. Rabbi Tarfon says, ‘Anyone who has a hundred vineyards, a hundred fields, and hundred servants.’ Rabbi Akiva says, ‘Anyone who has a wife beautiful in deeds.’ Rabbi Yose says, ‘Anyone who has a bathroom close to his table.’”

The teaching of Rabbi Yishmael at the splitting of the sea is that the people essentially pointed to G-d and said, “Zeh Keli!” This is my G-d! “V’anvehu,” and I will glorify Him!

Today, it seems that many people forget that “Keli” (my G-d) is actually not the correct pronunciation of G-d’s name, which we do not want to say in vain. The word “keli” usually means “vessel.” As a result, it sounds like we are saying “Zeh keli v’anvehu” – this is my vessel and I will glorify it!

When men come hours late to davening on Shabbos, then pull out their tallis with its 7-inch silver atarah, throw it over their heads in a fitting display of ostentation, then sit engrossed in catching up, the focus is on the keli, the vessel, and not on G-d.

The people at the sea were so enamored by their G-d that all they could do was point and say “I want to glorify HIM.” It’s not about me; it’s about how I can use the gifts He has given me to enhance my relationship with Him!

Rabbi Meir and Rabbi Tarfon remind us that those who are blessed with financial wealth are only truly “wealthy” when they can use the money to glorify G-d, whether through charitable or philanthropic work. Rabbi Akiva reminds us that true wealth can be found at home, if we only let the best of others bring out the best in ourselves. Rabbi Yose reminds us that wealth can be described as making good choices for one’s health and hygiene.

Rabbi Yishmael’s view focuses on physical items. But he never recommends that the items become the goal. They are the means for better serving G-d, and not for showing off.

Buy the fancy tallis, the fancy kittel! But be the most humble and inspiring mispallel in the synagogue.

Have the fancy candlesticks, the silver challah board, esrog box, sukkah, and so on. But make sure that their observance is elevated. That the Shabbos table is holy. That the mitzvah experience becomes a source of inspiration to others.

When one uses wealth to properly glorify G-d, without glorifying the wealth itself or the vessels it buys, one truly reaches the heights of His service.