You Can Be Too Rich. We are justly proud of the ability of our economy to provide so much comfort and so many fundamentals to our own people and to those around the world. The power of American enterprise, with its abundance and its energy, is remarkable by any standard. What used to be affordable only by nobility and the wealthy is now within reach of the average American. Owning a car is no longer a symbol of opulence, and just about everybody has a television set in their own home.
There is a popular expression that says, "You can't be too rich or too thin." Unfortunately, we now know that you can be too thin. As photographs of starving children flood our newspapers and television shows, we see that our problem with too many pounds is just another manifestation of our wealth. For many of the world's people, being too thin is a dangerous part of the human condition.
But what about wealth? Is it possible to be too wealthy? After all, think of all the wonderful activities and comforts you could buy with more money -- a beautiful mansion, perhaps an apartment in some other part of the world, beautiful art, travel -- the possibilities seem enticing and endless. Money may not be able to buy happiness, but it might buy the things that buy happiness.
Today's Torah portion speaks to an example of too much wealth in ancient Israel: the king. The Torah says of the king, "He shall not keep many horses or send people back to Egypt to add to his horses. . . . And he shall not have many wives, lest his heart go astray; nor shall he amass silver and gold to excess." Apparently, it is possible to possess too much silver and gold. God's concern is that the king will become the captive of his wealth; that all those possessions will alter his perspective and determine his agenda.
In striking contrast to the rest of the world, ancient Israel was a notoriously democratic society. After leaving Egypt, the Israelite slaves did not establish a new state. Instead, they founded a system of laws which applied equally to every member of the society. No nobility, no monarchy could alter the egalitarian nature of biblical Israel. In the eyes of God, all were equal. In the eyes of society, the only sovereign was God.
After two hundred years of this democracy, the people longed for a king to rule over them, so they could be "like all the nations." That repudiation of Jewish distinctiveness spelt the death-knell for the sacred way of life that had sustained our people.
The law in the Torah accurately summarized what happened with Israel's kings. Obsessed with adding more palaces, more slaves, more wives and more wealth, they led the nation away from the moral rigor and passion for justice which characterizes the Torah. Instead of focusing on wealth, the Torah urges another form of responsibility for the king.
"When he is seated on his royal throne, he shall have a copy of this Teaching written for him on a scroll by the Levitical priests. Let it remain with him and let him read in it all his life, so that he may learn to revere the Lord his God, to observe faithfully every word of this Teaching as well as these laws. Thus, he will not act haughtily toward his fellows, or deviate from the Instruction to the right or to the left."
Rather than focusing on his wealth, the king is commanded to focus on the Torah. By reading it repeatedly, he will retain a perspective about what is of eternal worth, and what is merely a tool toward better living. When the ultimate focus in life is money and the things that money can buy, then the feelings of other people is of little esteem, and the values of our tradition seem largely irrelevant.
Ironically, when wealth is the highest goal, then no amount of money is enough. Insatiable demand can never be satisfied. But if money and comfort are recognized for what they are, useful tools to allow us to focus on other things -- character, compassion, justice and spirit -- then it becomes possible to experience contentment. One can own enough, enjoy sufficient income to be able to attend to the needs of others and one's own morality. More than that is too much. "Who is rich?" the Mishnah asks. "One who is content with his portion." This Shabbat, consider just how rich you are. And how content . . .