What if I told you I know the secret to accumulating wealth? I’ll bet you’d want to be my friend. Doesn’t the prospect of gaining this elusive knowledge get you a tad bit excited? But what if I told you it’s available to each of us? Impossible, you might say. But that would be your mistake.
God promised Abraham that his children would descend to Egypt as slaves, but would eventually be redeemed with great wealth. In fact, this week’s parashah states, “They emptied out Egypt” (Exodus 12:36). Now, don’t feel bad for the “poor” Egyptians. Essentially, prosperity was God’s way of rewarding His loyal servant, Abraham. But if that was so, why not just straight out bless his children with wealth? Why was it necessary to reward Abraham by first enslaving his descendants?
The key to this riddle is that one cannot become rich unless he is poor first. King David, as the monarch, was obviously fabulously wealthy. Yet he would constantly proclaim, “For I am poor and destitute.” Why? Because even the total tzaddik, the one who is completely righteous in his deeds, can never repay God for all the goodness in his life. Therefore the verse states, “Because regarding mankind, there is no righteous person in the world that does only good without sinning” (Ecclesiastics 7:20). King David understood that no matter how righteous he was, in comparing his actions to the great kindnesses God had bestowed upon him, he would always fall short. Therefore he saw himself as the poorest and most destitute. Whatever he had was not his; he was eating out of someone else’s hand. Where’s the pride in that?
What about us simple folk? We are certainly no King David. Should we not feel incredible humility before God, as Job said, “In nakedness I left my mother’s womb” (Job 1:21)? Our starting point is the realization of our humble beginnings. We are God’s creation; our actions (or inactions) simply cannot begin to repay our awesome debt.
This understanding is truly the greatest blessing. Our Sages teach, “Who is wealthy? One who is happy with his portion” (Pirkey Avot 4:1). As we develop this attitude, we begin to appreciate everything that we have in our lives and begin to accumulate true wealth.
Someone who is not happy with his portion makes a few bucks and runs to spend his money on status symbols and the latest fads. No matter what he accumulates, his eye is already focused on the next big buy and he’s never content with what he has. This can’t be considered wealth, because his possessions aren’t worth anything to him. But the humble fellow, even when he comes into great riches, never loses his appreciation for the simple things that benefited him until now. His possessions never depreciate; they only yield great profit.
Yes, God could simply have rewarded Abraham by blessing his children with great wealth. But would it have meant anything to them? Would they have appreciated it, or would it have caused them to lust after money and possessions, becoming enslaved to His very blessing? Instead God, in His great kindness, did the complete opposite. He brought about the temporary enslavement of our people, so we would be able to see things in true perspective. Rather than being drawn after money, we could rise above the temptation of the vanity of wealth and utilize this great blessing to benefit ourselves and others.
The secret to wealth is remembering that we are poor. As long as we remember our heavenly balance, we can adjust our bank accounts down here any which way we like.
(Based on Likutey Halakhot, Megillah 6:11)