Coveting Wealth

Balak, the Moabite king, hired Bilam, the Heathen prophet, to curse the Jewish people. Balak sent messengers to Bilam, promising him great honor and everything he would care to ask for. Bilam replied:

“If Balak will give me his houseful of silver and gold, I cannot transgress the word of G‑d...”

Rashi observes that speaking of a “houseful of silver and gold” exposed Bilam’s greed. In Rashi’s words: “He had a greedy soul and coveted others’ money.”


What’s the Difference?

A question is raised when we contrast Bilam’s mention of gold and silver with that of a great Talmudic Sage, Rabbi Yossi ben Kisma, who made a similar reference to gold and silver. There is no suggestion, however, that Rabbi Yossi coveted gold and silver too.

In Ethics of the Fathers (6:9) we read:

Said Rabbi Yossi the son of Kisma: Once, I was traveling and I encountered a man… Said he to me: "Rabbi, where are you from?" Said I to him: "From a great city of sages and scholars, am I." Said he to me: "Rabbi, would you like to dwell with us in our place? I will give you a million dinars of gold, precious stones and pearls." Said I to him: "If you were to give me all the silver, gold, precious stones and pearls in the world, I would not dwell anywhere but in a place of Torah...”

What was the crucial difference between Bilam’s mention of gold and silver and what the great Sage Rabbi Yossi said? They both mentioned gold and silver and they both spurned the offer of wealth and riches to follow G‑d’s will. Yet Bilam’s mere mention of it was interpreted by our Sages as a sign of his incredible greed, whereas Rabbi Yossi was understood as repudiating riches. Why do our Sages draw such opposite conclusions from almost identical statements?

In an earlier essay (published in the book “Light from the Future” p. 261ff) we cited four different answers. In this essay, we will focus on a fifth approach (based on a brief treatment of this subject in the work Minchas Marcheshes), which has a direct bearing on the way our personality flaws will be corrected in the Messianic Age and how we can prepare for that age now.


Whose Gold Did He Covet?

Bilam referred specifically to the silver and gold of Balak, as the verse states: “If Balak will give me his houseful of silver and gold, I cannot transgress the word of G‑d, my G‑d, to do anything small or great.” Rabbi Yossi, by contrast, said: If you were to give me all the silver, gold, precious stones and pearls in the world, I would not dwell anywhere but in a place of Torah.” Note that he doesn’t respond to his interlocutor by saying, “If you were to give me all your silver, gold, precious stones and pearls…”

The difference between mentioning a specific person’s wealth and wealth generically is significant. A careful examination of Rashi supports this distinction: “He had a greedy soul and coveted others’ money.” Rashi does not say, “He had a greedy soul and coveted money,” but rather “others’ money.” Bilam was not simply hungry to amass great wealth; he sought the wealth of others. In this case he coveted Balak’s wealth precisely because it belonged to Balak.


Jealousy: Innate Human Weakness

This is a reflection of a human weakness that we have from the time of infancy. People with very little can still be happy because they are content with what they have. But as soon as they see someone who has more, they suddenly decide that they have been dealt a raw deal; they were cheated. And in many instances this feeling of having been wronged will lead to hatred and even violence.

In truth, this human failure goes even deeper and was implanted in us from the days of Cain and Abel. These two primeval brothers couldn’t get along because the world was not big enough for the both of them. Jealousy seems to have been embedded in our psyches from the very dawn of humanity. Indeed, our Sages (See Rashi on Beresihis3:15) tell us that the serpent’s motivation in getting Adam to partake of the forbidden fruit was that he should die, allowing the serpent to have Eve to himself!

In other words, the very first act of evil (represented by the serpent), even before Adam and Eve partook of the forbidden fruit, was the serpent’s desire for something that wasn’t his. And it was this destructive vice that was introduced to and instilled in humanity.

A story is told of a man who lost a monetary dispute he had with another and directed his anger at the rabbi who rendered the decision. The Rabbi was puzzled by this man’s reaction. Some time previously the rabbi had ruled that a cow the same man had purchased was not kosher. Despite the far greater financial loss caused by the ruling, the man accepted it without complaint.

The man’s response was: “When I lost the cow as a result of your ruling it was no one else’s gain. But in this case my loss is the other’s gain; that I cannot tolerate.”

It is no wonder that the commandment to not covet another’s property is mentioned last in the Ten Commandments (more accurately: Ten Statements). The impulse to covet is the most difficult to eradicate. While we can see how it is possible for a person to desist from all the other crimes which are based on behavior, it is difficult for us to see how the feelings of jealousy can be suppressed. And as long as these feelings are there it will inevitably lead to the commission of other crimes.


Root Cause of Jealousy

Why do we harbor jealousy? Why are we not content with what we have? Why does another person’s existence and success bother us?

There may be several explanations for this phenomenon. One of them is that the physical world is defined by the desire to conquer. This is what G‑d told Adam to do when he was created (Beresishis 1:28).

This desire for conquest is not exclusively evil and is actually rooted in the soul’s psyche. Conquest can be understood on two diametrically opposite levels. On a crass, materialistic level to conquer means to control everyone and everything. Hence the desire for other’s money is not rooted solely in greed. It is also, and perhaps primarily so, motivated by the need to be in total control of one’s environment.

On a more profound level, this desire to conquer becomes debased when it is diverted from the Divine objective of having us, human beings, control the physical world in order to transform it into a G‑dly world. When we are influenced by the material world and its blandishments, we forget why and how we are to conquer the world. Stripped of the Divine intention, we are left with the naked desire for world domination; or at least to acquire someone else’s fortune, as Bilam coveted Balak’s silver and gold.


The Last Vice

The vice of jealousy will be the last vestige of human degradation to be eliminated, as Rambam states in the very last paragraph of His discussion of the Messianic Age (which is the very last paragraph of his monumental encyclopedic work Mishneh Torahalso known as Yad Hachazakah). “In that era there will be neither famine nor war, no envy or rivalry…” Why is this going to be among the last of the changes to occur in the Messianic Age?

The answer is that only after we conquer the world by transforming it into a habitat for the Divine will we cease to engage in misplaced conquest, the root of all jealousy and rivalry.

This is, essentially, the rationale the Rambam gives (in that foregoing citation) for the absence of jealousy:

“for… the occupation of the entire world will be solely to know G‑d.”

Once the world is inundated with the awareness of the Divine we will have succeeded in actualizing the positive form of conquest. This will automatically negate the misguided distortion of the conquest imperative which has led to jealousy and rivalry throughout the entire expanse of human history.


Getting Rid of Jealousy Now!

While it is true that jealousy will only be erased in the more advanced stages of the Messianic Age, nevertheless there are ways of tempering it even now, in these last moments of exile. When a person is engaged in the higher form of conquest and seeks to spread the awareness of G‑d to the entire world, that individual will have channeled the innate need for conquest in a positive fashion.

The Rebbe has charged our generation with the mission to conquer the world by revealing the positive Divine energy within humanity and the world at large. The Rebbe created the institution of Shluchim-emissaries; a veritable “army” of bearers of peace and light, to bring the light of Torah and Mitzvos to the entire Jewish world, and the Seven Noahide laws of a civilized society to the non-Jewish world. When we join this army we weaken the desire for the base form of conquest, the source of disharmony.

However, as soldiers who are ready to give their life and limb, we must never forget our objective, which is total victory for our Commander-in Chief. When a soldier forgets the objective and thinks about his own self-aggrandizing glory the idealistic form of conquest degenerates into the lower, ignoble and divisive form of conquest. There is nothing more destabilizing to a military campaign than internal division. Indeed, this is the goal of the enemy: to divide and conquer. Abandoning the higher form of conquest gives way to its destructive twin.

Moshiach, like Moses and other great Jewish leaders, possesses not even a tinge of desire for personal glory. It is his influence and inspiration that empowers us to reach the same spiritual level by awakening the spark of Moshiach within each of us.

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