Living in the Land of Wealth

Zachary Truboff

30 June 2019
Reading time: 25 min read

In the Land of Wealth, money dominated all aspects of society. First and foremost, it determined an individual’s social status.

Rebbe Nachman lived at a time when capitalism was just beginning to remake the world, and in the midst of this transformation, he was able to discern that something fundamental changed in our attitude towards money.

Capitalism’s rise was accompanied by religion’s decline. It replaced religion as the primary framework through which people engaged the world, and in this context, money took on new idolatrous meaning.

Even though we conceive of tzedakah as a gift, it usually serves as a form of exchange. We give because on some level, we get.

The avodah of tzedakah requires us to radically change our attitude towards money, and therefore the resistance we feel is visceral.

The insights of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov and Rav Shagar can help us appreciate the difficulty of escaping from capitalism’s grasp, and the way in which tzedekah can be a profound act of liberation.

While still young and somewhat naive, I imagined the synagogue to be a place immune to the pressures of the market. Few enter the rabbinate with dreams of courting donors and pouring over spreadsheets. However, the truth is that synagogues are institutions like any other under modern capitalism. They provide a service for their customers who have the freedom to purchase it or consume it elsewhere. They need capital in order to survive and therefore are constantly on the lookout for new investors. Synagogue rabbis are told that if they want to be successful, they should act like entrepreneurs. Nevertheless, I could never shake the nagging suspicion that something was not quite right. First, there was the constant temptation to treat synagogue members differently based on their wealth. Then, there was the feeling that spending countless hours pursuing donations was hurting my ability to help those who needed me the most. Worst of all, were the moments I felt morally compromised by decisions I made to ensure the steady flow of contributions to the synagogue. Most rabbis do not like to speak about these parts of the job but years of tending to the spiritual needs of others taught me an important truth: the failure to talk about problems inevitably tightens their grip on us.

It was not until I encountered the writings of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov that I found a religious voice who could articulate these concerns. He identifies how our lives are dominated by the pursuit of money along with the moral and spiritual costs that are the result. His most biting critique appears not in a theological essay but a story, for Rebbe Nachman understood that our most profound spiritual struggles often cannot be addressed directly. In fact, it is said that when all his attempts at teaching and persuasion had failed him, he would tell his students a story.1 These were not the standard Chassidic fables meant to offer inspiration and comfort, but rather, the kinds of stories that can transform the way people look at the world.

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The Land of Wealth

In one of his famous stories, The Master of Prayer, Rebbe Nachman brilliantly deconstructs society’s attitude towards money through his depiction of a place he calls the Land of Wealth. The tale itself is about a holy tzadik who dedicates his life to travel to distant lands to bring others closer to God. Although he had many successes, his teachings fell upon deaf ears in the Land of Wealth. Unlike other places, the Land of Wealth had more than enough riches to provide all its citizens with a comfortable life, but instead of doing so, strange practices and customs emerged there.

In the Land of Wealth, money dominated all aspects of society. First and foremost, it determined an individual’s social status. With more money came greater rank and prestige. Second, it established the political order. Kingship was not inherited but instead given to the richest man in all the land. No matter how much one tried, they could not escape the social and political hierarchy. Citizens were forced to carry around banners at all times, designating their rank. Because money was the source of all power in the Land of Wealth, the poor and needy were particularly vulnerable. If one lacked sufficient funds, then one was no longer treated as human. Instead, their banner indicated that they were an animal such as a dog or a horse.

Money was also a central feature of religion in the Land of Wealth. Being rich was seen as a sign of God’s favor, and since God had poured his blessings upon the ultra-wealthy, it must mean that He wanted them to be close to Him. With enough money, it was ordained that a wealthy person could become a star, an angel, or even a god themselves. People would then bring offerings to these ‘gods’, with some even sacrificing their own lives, out of the hope to be reborn as wealthy men. Under the influence of such a religion, violence and oppression were the norm. People were willing to both kill and steal to acquire money and preserve their wealth. The act of charity was considered to be a great sin because giving away one’s wealth even to help others would be a rejection of God’s blessing.

At the heart of the Rebbe Nachman’s depiction of the Land of Wealth is a society completely corrupted by the pursuit of money. Though written two centuries ago, it remains compelling because it is impossible to read it and not see similarities to our own time. Like in the Land of Wealth, so many critical aspects of our lives are determined by money. Where we live, the type of work we do, and our closest friends are usually a direct reflection of our socioeconomic status. Furthermore, we feel intense pressure to spend our money in such a way that allows us to project an image of who we are for others to see. We may not carry banners, but our clothes, cars, and social media profile achieve similar results. In our time, those with the most money often have the most political power. Success in business is viewed as a necessity for public service, and it is no longer unseemly for a billionaire to use their wealth to be elected head of state. Under these conditions, the poor are often powerless. The inability to afford basic services such as food, shelter, and healthcare, relegates them to the margins of society where they are treated as less than human. Money’s influence on contemporary religion is also profound. The prosperity gospel teaches that financial success is a sure sign of God’s favor. Though preached from the pulpit of megachurches, its evangelists can also be found throughout the business world. Instead of idolatrous temples, the rich and famous are worshiped through social media where their followers can buy their products with the promise that someday they too can become wealthy.

Because we too live in our own Land of Wealth, it is essential that we pay close attention to Rebbe Nachman’s radical critique. The Land of Wealth has not just succumbed to greed, but has also perpetrated a much greater sin. It is a place where money has become an idol and the pursuit of money a form of idol worship. This criticism is not limited to Rebbe Nachman’s stories and is in fact, made explicit in his theological writings. He reinterprets the Biblical prohibition of idolatry ‘And you shall have no other gods besides me’2 as ‘these are the people who have fallen into the desire for money’.3

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How did Money Turn into an Idol?

Rebbe Nachman’s belief that the desire for money is a form of idol worship is a surprising position, one that seems at odds with classical Jewish sources that emphasize the importance of working for a living and state ‘poverty is like death’.4 However, Rebbe Nachman lived at a time when capitalism was just beginning to remake the world, and in the midst of this transformation, he was able to discern that something fundamental changed in our attitude towards money. To fully appreciate why Rebbe Nachman viewed the pursuit of money as a form of idol worship, we must turn to two of capitalism’s most influential theorists, Max Weber and Karl Marx. Their writings are deeply sensitive to the changes wrought by capitalism, and though they lived decades after Rebbe Nachman, their thought contains surprisingly similar insights to his own.

For Max Weber, capitalism was the outgrowth of rationalization, a process which shaped modern life as we know it.5 Whereas in the pre-modern world society was guided by religious tradition, rationalization emphasized that meaningful action could only be determined by calculating the appropriate means for the desired ends. It was a way of thinking predicated on the notion that the world could be known and controlled and that human action could be both predictable and efficient. While rationalization transformed society in many ways, its most significant contribution was the birth of capitalism. It allowed for the creation of the free market and the development of hierarchies and bureaucracies that became the foundation of modern corporations. While rationalization was an immensely powerful tool in driving economic growth, it was not without its consequences. For Weber, it led not only to capitalism but also to an inevitable outcome he called disenchantment. If the world could be known and controlled, it no longer was to be viewed as mysterious. The presence of magic and the supernatural, which had long been used to explain the unexplainable, no longer retained plausibility. With an increasing emphasis on rationalization, religion was rejected as being irrational, and the reality of God receded from day to day life.

As religion’s aura of transcendence decline and capitalism spread, money increasingly took on new significance. Religious values, virtues, and traditions were shunted to the side as money was regarded more and more as the sole source of power in the world. The writings of Karl Marx are particularly sensitive to this point. He explains, ‘The extent of the power of money is the extent of my power. Money’s properties are my – the possessor’s – properties and essential powers. Thus, what I am and am capable of is by no means determined by my individuality. I am ugly, but I can buy for myself the most beautiful of women. Therefore I am not ugly, for the effect of ugliness – its deterrent power – is nullified by money.’6 Though money is only a social construct, nearly anything human beings might imagine can be achieved with enough of it. Ultimately, we perceive it as godlike, ‘the visible divinity- the transformation of all human and natural properties into their contrasts, the universal confounding and distorting of things: impossibilities are soldered together by it.’7 For Marx, the consequences of treating money as a god are clear. Instead of enjoying the full expression of our creative potential, our day to day lives are subjugated by activities whose worth is solely determined by their financial value. Though Marx was an atheist and built his philosophy around a materialistic worldview, he used the language of idolatry to condemn the way money was treated under capitalism. In his famously anti-Semitic essay, ‘On the Jewish Question’, he criticizes the Jews for exemplifying the worst of these tendencies He writes, ‘Money is the jealous god of Israel, in face of which no other god may exist.’8

With this background, we can now better understand the connection Rebbe Nachman makes between the pursuit of money and idol worship. Capitalism’s rise was accompanied by religion’s decline. It replaced religion as the primary framework through which people engaged the world, and in this context, money took on new idolatrous meaning.

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A Hunger that Can Never be Satisfied

There is, however, one more important dimension to Rebbe Nachman’s thinking that must be emphasized. Capitalism creates a desire for money that is not just idolatrous but also insatiable. No matter how much we have, it will never be enough.9 Rav Shagar, one of the great explicators of Rebbe Nachman for our generation, explains that this stems from a profound spiritual dilemma. A life of faith is meant to ground us in the absolute and bring a sense of peace and security to our lives. There are no guarantees against suffering, but authentic faith at least allows us to feel that our lives are anchored in something real. We, however, live in a disenchanted world where faith in God is unimaginable for most. With God’s absence, we yearn for something, anything to put our faith in. Under such conditions, most of us turn to the next most powerful force available to us: money. Rav Shagar describes it as follows, ‘The modern individual does not find their refuge in God but rather in their money and possessions – a reality that is fitting for the Land of Wealth described by Rebbe Nachman… Money grants a person security and something firm to hold on to. It constitutes a replacement for grasping hold of God.’10 Money may appear to offer us something solid, but like any idol, it can only grant a false sense of security. ‘As opposed to trust in God,’ Rav Shagar explains, ‘trust in money is never able to be fully realized. The desire for money is directed towards that which is not.’11 Because money is at best only a means to an end, it alone can never satisfy our deepest existential and spiritual needs. Pursuing money will instead leave us wanting more and more. Rebbe Nachman himself notes, ‘The world deceives us completely. It makes us think that we are constantly gaining, but in the end we have nothing. People spend years earning money, but are left with an empty hand.’12 It is for this reason, Rebbe Nachman declares, that the desire for money is the most dangerous and seductive of all desires. It is a hunger that can never be satisfied.

I experienced this first hand in my rabbinic work. Before I arrived at my synagogue, it had a history of financial problems, and there was always a pervasive fear that it would run out of money. The focus of nearly every board meeting was on the income and expenses of the synagogue. While I knew there were more weighty spiritual issues of concern to many members, there just never seemed to be time in our meetings to address them. I would spend months or even years working on fundraising projects for the shul with the hope that the next major gift would relieve some of the anxiety people felt. In those days when I were successful, I would go to bed at night feeling satisfied. But, I would inevitably wake up the next morning thinking about all the ways the money could disappear, and start furiously planning for the next fundraising project. I came to realize that no matter how much money the synagogue had in its bank account, it would never be enough to alleviate the fears and anxieties that we all felt.

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The Power of Tzedakah

If we find ourselves living in the Land of Wealth, how can we escape from the insatiable desire for money that comes along with it? Must we see money as the sole source of value and meaning in our lives, the only thing that can offer us peace and security? For Karl Marx, revolution was the answer to the oppressive domination of modern capitalism. Workers of the world must unite, overthrow the bourgeoisie, and seize the means of production. This would then allow communal ownership of all property, relieving the need for money. The resulting world would be a utopia. Rebbe Nachman, however, argues for a fundamentally different solution, one that is far simpler and perhaps even more radical. Whereas Marx focused on the collective, Rebbe Nachman stresses the role of the individual. He explains that an authentic religious life is not possible in the Land of Wealth, ‘unless one first shatters the desire for money’ and ‘its shattering is achieved through tzedakah.’13

He uses a kabbalistic metaphor to explain how this is possible: ‘”A ruach [wind/spirit] descends to allay the burning of the heart…”14 This ruach corresponds to [giving] tzedakah, which is [indicative of] a generous ruach [spirit]. With this [ruach], the burning desire for money is cooled.’15 If money is a false God, it will never truly satisfy our deepest yearnings, and our desire for it will threaten to consume us whole. Tzedakah alone has the ability to cool the burning desire we feel for money.

At first glance, the reason for this appears simple. The pursuit of money is an inherently selfish act. We attempt to accumulate more and more of it for ourselves because of the misguided notion that it will bring us peace and security. Tzedakah, however, is an act of selflessness. Every genuine act of tzedakah contains within it the potential of recognizing that we do not need money as much as we think and that we can in fact, be satisfied with less. The rabbis themselves made this clear when they stated,’Who is rich? The one who rejoices in what they have.’16 It is for this reason that tzedakah was declared illegal in the Land of Wealth. Charity goes against the fundamental values of a society that treats money as an idol and is consumed by a never-ending desire for more of it.

Even though it is easy to idealize tzedakah, we have to recognize that it is rarely a selfless act. People give for all sorts of selfish reasons. They may seek recognition from their peers or want to gain influence over the receiver. Even though we conceive of tzedakah as a gift, it usually serves as a form of exchange. We give because on some level, we get. After working at the synagogue for several years, I saw my own tzedakah increase significantly, because I was able to recognize that my contributions could achieve results that were both meaningful and beneficial for me. Giving enabled me to receive something of value in return, even if it were just an expression of gratitude.17 The Talmudic rabbis were not blind to this, and for the most part, did not see it as problematic. They state:

One who says: I am contributing this sela to charity so that my sons will live, or if he says: I am performing the mitzva so that I will merit a share in the World-to-Come, this person is a full-fledged righteous person.18

Nevertheless, I would like to suggest that this is not the kind of tzedakah that Rebbe Nachman is describing when he claims that it can shatter our desire for money. Tzedakah has transformative potential, but it cannot be achieved when done with ulterior motives. The act of tzedakah can only help us break our desire for money when there is no value proposition at hand. In an important teaching, Rebbe Nachman describes a different kind of tzedakah, one that he calls an avodah (an act of devotion or spiritual work). Most significantly, he explains, this kind of tzedakah does not emerge from feelings of compassion but rather surprisingly from a place of cruelty. He writes:

When someone naturally compassionate gives tzedakah purely out of his compassionate instinct, it is not an act of devotion—there are <also animals> that are compassionate by nature. Rather, the essential devotion is transforming cruelty into compassion.19

If one gives out of a sense of compassion, then they receive something in return – the knowledge that one’s actions are good and meaningful. If, however, the act of tzedakah begins from a place of cruelty, it is radically different. To illustrate this point, Rebbe Nachman offers the following example:

This is the meaning of ‘And I have commanded the ravens to feed you.’ The raven, cruel by nature, turned compassionate in order to feed Eliyahu.20 It must be the same with tzedakah. And even those who are benevolent—all who are generous must first undergo this process of ‘And the ravens.’ In other words, in order to donate tzedakah they first have to break their heartlessness—their initial tendency to be cruel—and turn it into compassion.21

A truly selfless act of tzedakah cannot be experienced as a form of exchange, and that is why it begins from a place of cruelty. We initially resist giving because the act appears worthless to us. We believe neither in the cause or the receiver. This creates a tremendous sense of internal resistance that manifests itself outwardly as genuine cruelty. We feel fully justified in refusing to share our money with others who might truly need it. Attempting to overcome this cruelty, Rebbe Nachman explains, is brutally hard for us.

Beginning the avodah of tzedakah is very difficult and demanding. All avodah and all acts of teshuvah—whatever act one wants to carry out in service of God—must be preceded by many cries of ‘Oy vavoy!’ and many groans, genuflections and gesticulations {i.e., the contortions which the God-fearing make during their devotions}. This is mainly at the beginning, for it is very difficult then, because all beginnings are difficult (Mekhilta: Bachodesh 2).22

The avodah of tzedakah requires us to radically change our attitude towards money, and therefore the resistance we feel is visceral. Rebbe Nachman encourages us not to bottle up our struggle but rather allow it to express itself in our words and expressions. He compares the giving of tzedakah to teshuvah, because like teshuvah, a truly selfless act of tzedakah requires us to change our orientation and outlook on the world. It becomes an act of sacrifice and sacrifice is never painless. He compares it to giving birth, a moment of transformation that is accompanied by real pain.

How many times does a woman cry out, how many labor-pangs and contractions does she have until she bears the progeny! This is especially so for a first-time birth, because a woman’s first delivery is very difficult for her, as it is written, ‘in anguish, like she that gives birth for the first time’ (Jeremiah 4:31). This is a beginning, <which is very difficult, as in,> ‘all beginnings are hard’.23

There were indeed moments where I have felt the cruelty described by Rebbe Nachman. In my rabbinic work, it occurred when individuals who were not part of my community would come to the synagogue seeking tzedakah. Each one of them arrived with a story about how their lives had fallen apart due to circumstances beyond their control. They never asked for large amounts of money, but it was impossible for me to judge whether their needs were legitimate or just attempts to manipulate me. I knew that giving them money would not bring me any of the standard ‘compensation’ I typically derived from giving tzedakah. There would be no proud feelings of having helped someone I cared about or the satisfaction that my tzedakah made an actual difference in their life. I am sorry to say that there were many times that I refused to give and instead chose to direct them elsewhere. I would tell myself that this was the only way to ensure I was not fueling a drug habit or some other form of self-destructive behavior, but I knew deep down that the real reason was the sense of cruelty described by Rebbe Nachman.

Though cruelty may be part of human nature, Rav Shagar insightfully notes that it is accentuated by life under capitalism. In its pure form, capitalism pits individuals against each other, as was depicted in the Land of Wealth. Because it conditions us to view all interpersonal interactions as a form of exchange, we cannot escape the sense that we are in competition with others. Social and economic life is experienced as a zero-sum game where another’s profit is my loss. This, he explains, creates a profound sense of estrangement for those who live in capitalism’s shadow.

The foundation of stubborn capitalism is the rule of cruel competition that has no boundaries- ‘man is wolf to man.’ I versus I, ego versus ego. Rabbi Sampson Raphael Hirsch explains the word cruel (achzar) as ‘(ach zar) only estranged: the one who is cruel relates to the other with complete estrangement, without any feelings of love, he is estranged from him.’ Estrangement and alienation is the source of cruelty, and this estrangement is the foundational principle of capitalism.24

According to Rav Shagar, the only way to overcome capitalism’s alienation and the cruelty that it causes is through the act of tzedakah, for ‘Tzedakah expresses faith, trust, and a lack of estrangement. It is the ability to see the other in their realness and give them trust.’ Instead of asking myself what I can gain from the interaction, I see the one asking for tzedekah as a human being in deep need of my assistance. Furthermore, the act of tzedakah expresses not only our faith in the other but our faith in God as well. When we treat money as an idol, we turn away from God and attempt to satisfy our deepest spiritual yearnings through the accumulation of wealth. As a result, we falsely assume that the act of tzedakah will diminish us. However, Rav Shagar explains that ‘The ability to act differently from one’s nature and yet not experience a sense of missed opportunity is made possible only by the power of faith that enables one to give to others and not feel loss.’ This occurs because true faith grounds us in something real, and helps us recognize the deceptive nature of money.  Giving tzedekah ‘is dependent on moving from an illusory subjective relationship to my ownership over money and its connection to me, towards a more objective truth, towards faith in God that he is the owner of the entire created world.’25

In those rare circumstances when I was able to force myself to give, I felt a sense of the transformation described by Rebbe Nachman and Rav Shagar. Deep down we know that money is nothing more than printed paper we treat as all-powerful. We tell ourselves that with enough of it, our lives will feel full, and, consequently, we lust for it at every opportunity. When I gave to those who could offer me nothing in return, I was at least for a moment able to recognize that there will never be enough money to alleviate my deepest fears and anxieties. More importantly, after forcing myself to give, I was able to look at the person across from me differently. Instead of seeing them as competition, I was able to recognize them as created in the image of God and deserving of my compassion and love. In this sense, a truly selfless act of tzedakah can help us orient ourselves towards higher truths. It can affirm our faith in our fellow human beings and in God, allowing us to see them not as a means to an end, but as an end unto themselves.

Freeing ourselves from the Land of Wealth, where money is worshipped as a false God, requires tremendous effort. For those of us born into modern capitalism, it requires us to start viewing money in a radically different fashion. It will not be easy, for as Rebbe Nachman reminds us ‘all beginnings are hard.’ Nevertheless, everything has the potential to change with a simple act of tzedekah.

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