Wealth inequality and spiritual currency
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TorahParshat Lech Lecha

Wealth inequality and spiritual currency

Genesis 12:1 - 17:27

(File photo)
(File photo)

“Lot, who went with Abram, also had flocks and herds and tents. So that the land could not support them staying together; for their possessions were so great that they could not remain together.” — Genesis 13: 5-6

In Parshat Lech Lecha we are presented with a wide array of emotions, ranging from tragedy to triumph. From a macro-perspective, Lech Lecha is a recording of change and growth where we see Abram receive his true name of Abraham and thus the fulfillment of the first portion of his holy mission’s actualization. We read about war and degradation, but we also encounter the first moment of circumcision, and thus, the recording of a deep covenant between God and creation.

We also see moments concerned with humanly needs, including the excerpt posted above, which discusses the wealth divided between Abraham and his nephew, Lot. In this passage, we see issues of class and inequality in the land of Israel.
Millennia before politicians placed explored the problems of wealth, the Torah laid down approaches to understanding the need for a balanced view of excessive wealth.

The rabbis picked up on this biblical observation. One midrash explains that a problem is that people in poverty can’t live together because extreme poverty can lead to violence. However, those who use their wealth as an excuse to influence society in a way that leads to the regressive treatment of the poor are also in violation of Judaism’s commitment to fairness, making extreme wealth just as dangerous.

Indeed, part of creating a safe society is addressing the root problems of poverty. Opulence often grows a sense of entitlement, which leads to corruption, which leads to exploitation of those without access to the same resources. Consider how Egypt’s prosperity factored into the devaluing of the Israelites or how America’s growth to a superpower was largely dependent on slave labor. Being charitable, to remove guilt, does not erase one’s oppression that enabled that charity. Those who view people with less as transactional objects lose their values to a life of lavishness.

On the other hand, Judaism does not condemn wealth. But the responsible approach requires us to think together about our moral obligations to ensure wealth adds dignity rather than destroys spirits. Deuteronomy 15 reminds us that there will always be poor people, and we must never desist from supporting them. In the case of Lot and Abr(ah)am, one might argue that “the land could not support them” precisely because “their possessions were so great” and that this is not a space issue, but a relationship issue. The family can no longer remain a family due to greed and jealousy. It was their relationship to wealth that made it impossible for them to dwell together. Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch suggests that there really was enough land for the two of them, but Lot’s desire for more led him to leave Abraham. Today, there are enough resources to support every human and every animal, yet rampant exploitation and greed leads to global conflicts.

Based on this passage, and many sprinkled throughout our tradition, Judaism condemns a society that tolerates extreme poverty. Rather than retreat into moral callousness by citing “the markets,” or “the job creators” as vehicles of inevitable progress, our Torah portion asks us to rise above the myopia of the next payday. Like Abraham, we can leave behind the idol worship of possessions and instead seek spiritual currency by helping others and advocating for the less fortunate. pjc

Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the president and dean of Valley Beit Midrash and the author of 17 books on Jewish ethics.

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