I come from humble roots. My Dad sold toys and stationery goods as a wholesaler in
Later, when it came time for Yeshiva University (YU) to place me after I had studied for smicha (ordination), I had no well-connected relatives, no big donors, no name rabbis in my family pulling for me to get a desirable synagogue placement. So YU's rabbinical placement office tried to farm me off to a synagogue in
Many institutions select the people whom they will honor at their annual banquets based on the honorees’ wallets, not on their hearts or deeds of kindness. In one shul where I was rabbi, the person elected Shul President actually was — and still is — the subject of a public internet warning by the County District Attorney, advising the public of a $100,000 settlement and eleven-point injunction that bars the person from engaging in one-after-another form of deceit and business fraud. Yet that person was selected as President of the synagogue, and the person’s spouse now sits on that same Shul Board, even though the spouse was and is named equally in the injunction, monetary settlement, and on the warning website. People value access to money.
There should be a problem with the calculus that if I steal $10 million dollars and keep $9 million of the loot for myself but disperse the remaining $1 million to charitable causes, then I deserve to be guest of honor at an institution's annual dinner dance. There seems something far more noble in the person who never gets honored but who awakes at 5:30 in the morning, dons tefillin, prays to G-d, goes to work, works hard and accounts for every penny, davens again, feeds a family honestly though humbly, comes home late at night, perhaps after finishing a second job because it takes two jobs to break even, then davens a third time and drops into bed from exhaustion after spending a few moments with the children to teach them values like love, honor, respect, honesty, loyalty, trust, devotion.
The people who score the most “Likes” on Facebook and “Hits” on Youtube are idolized. Psy has half a billion hits on one of his posts. Miley Cyrus over a million for her VMA performance. Many of our athletes, who will turn down a one-year-contract offer of $5 million or $10 million because they feel they can command more, are not stars off the field. Is their charity proportionate to their earnings? Are their deeds commensurate with their influence? What have they done to inspire the teenagers who drop out of school classes to watch and imitate them on the playground basketball courts?
It is true that societal values are convoluted. And that brings us back to the Torah, where Judaism’s values are emphasized: Abraham and Sarah for hosting wayfarers and Abraham praying desperately for the survival of people in two cities he barely knew. Moses living the life of humility and teaching. Aaron the life of duty.
If there was one Biblical figure uniquely wealthy beyond all others, it would seem to have been King Solomon. Yet, in his Book of Kohelet (Ecclesiastes), he recalls all the vain pursuits he tried to enjoy thanks to his wealth, and he looks back on a lifetime of vanities. Again and again, he laments that they all were and are vanities. In the end, this wisest of all men figures out that life is about serving G-d, living by His commandments, devoting oneself to one’s spouse and family. In the end, that is what matters. The glory and gold is left behind, to scatter in the wind as in the final scenes of “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” (John Huston, 1948). In the end, the idols crumble. The legends are forgotten. As they age, the celebrities desperately hide from the tabloids. The athletes in their 60s sue their professional sports leagues for early-onset Alzheimers. The idols crumble. Norma Desmond is a recluse. But rabbinic scholars will be mulling the thoughts of Rambam and Rashi from a thousand years ago.