Friday, October 27, 2017

Do You Know this Wealthy Jew?

A quick Web search of the Detroit Jewish News Archives from the past two decades will yield a handful of covers featuring head shots of some of our Jewish community’s most successful businessmen who are remembered for their generous charitable contributions. These individuals were mega-wealthy, but they were glorified for their mega-philanthropy. What many may not realize is that the founder of our faith was a wealthy businessman too and the Torah’s first Hebrew might serve as a paragon of virtue for today’s mega-wealthy.

In this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Lech Lecha, Abraham is commanded by God to "lech lecha," that he should leave his ancestral land and travel to a new place that God will show him. Right after this divine order, we are informed about Abraham’s financial status. V’Avram Kaved Meod (Abram was very rich.” Our patriarch was rich in cattle, silver and gold. There is much to be learned from this word kaved, or rich. The word most often used for rich or wealthy in the Torah is ashir. So we must be curious about the choice to use kaved here.

In modern Hebrew, we use the word kaved to mean heavy, as in a physical weight, but it can also mean a burden. Rashi mentions this meaning in his commentary on the verse, and adds another meaning of kaved that we are familiar with from the fifth commandment of the Ten Commandments -- kabed et avicha v’et imecha (you must honor your parents). Similarly, from the same root is the word for an honor that is given out in synagogue, a kibood. Finally, the word kaved also means liver, which is the heaviest part of our body. So, in the Torah portion, we learn that Abraham is very wealthy and that the term used to demonstrate his wealth is an unusual choice.

"Kaved" is used to tell us that Abraham was weighted down with many possessions because of his wealth showing that it can be a challenge to have a financial fortune. In the very next verse, we learn that Abraham traveled from the Negev desert to Beit El “in stages,” which Rashi explains as meaning that Abraham took the same route on his return staying in the same places he had lodged on his way down to Egypt before he had wealth. This means that while Abraham is wealthier now, he has retained his humility and doesn’t choose to stay in nicer places. Abraham, our patriarch, was not altered by his accumulation of wealth. Recognizing the tendency to be burdened by money and possessions, Abraham maintain his kavod (honor) when he became kaved (wealthy). This is not always the case.

We tend to only see the positive side of enormous financial wealth. But, having power and wealth can be burdensome, it can be a challenge. In our society, such a vast possession of wealth requires much responsibility and integrity. It catapults people into the public eye, living life in a fishbowl, having every business decision scrutinized, every investment maneuver questioned. There are many advantages to a life of wealth, but it must be done while maintaining kavod.

There is much to learn from our patriarch Abraham. He was wealthy, but he was also well respected and humble. A model for us in modern times, Abraham possessed the dignity to keep him from a life of over-indulgence in material wealth. Many of the mega-rich tycoons in the corporate world of the 20th and 21st centuries were not paragons of virtue. Their wealth became burdensome, they became greedy and many ultimately got into legal trouble before their ultimate downfall. Such has not been the case with the Detroit Jewish community’s leaders over the past century. By and large, our community has been blessed with a disproportionate number of mega-philanthropists who have used their fortunes for the common good, bolstering noble causes in our community. Like our patriarch Abraham, the pillars of our dynamic community have maintained their kavod while being kaved.

For further discussion:

1. Have you noticed behavioral differences in friends or relatives who have become wealthy suddenly?

2. What are ways we can teach our children to make philanthropy a priority in their lives?

Originally published in The Detroit Jewish News

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