At a Shabbat table a few years ago the topic of winning the lottery came up. Among the guests was a husband and his mother-in-law. The husband commented, “I wouldn’t want to win the lotto. Having money causes problems.” His mother-in-law replied without missing a beat, “true, but not having money also causes problems.” That back-and-forth stuck in my mind and has replayed itself many times; partially because of how neatly it fit the stereotypical in-laws dynamic, and partially because of how correct they both were.
In Ethics Of The Fathers (2:7) the sage Hillel teaches us, “one who increases his wealth increases his worries.” Rav Ovadia of Bartenura asserts that the explanation of this teaching is that wealth in excess brings along with it worry and stress. Rabbeinu Yonah develops this idea by pointing out that many people seek wealth as a means to achieve tranquility and equanimity. In truth however, excessive wealth brings the opposite. The more we have the less calm and happiness we have in our lives. Interestingly, Rabbeinu Yonah ends his commentary with the words, “Just ask anyone who has achieved it!” Reading this 800 year old commentary I couldn't help thinking that the more things change, the more they stay the same.
But What Is Excessive Wealth?
That is the million dollar question. The Siddur includes prayers for wealth, and in our daily Amidah we pray for abundant sustenance. And we pray in the birkas hamazon that we should never need a gift or even a loan. Having an abundance of sustenance is certainly a blessing and it is a goal that we should pray for. However, the mishna is teaching us that there is a sweet spot: having enough wealth that we don’t need to worry, but not so much that it is a distraction and cause for worry. Identifying that sweet spot is exceedingly difficult. By nature, the more we have the more we want and the more we believe we need. This nature makes it exceedingly difficult to give an objective answer to the question.
I heard an idea a while back that was eye opening. Pick a random friend or neighbor. How much wealth do you think they need? Spend a moment thinking of the answer and then apply that number to yourself.
Life, Liberty And The Pursuit of Happiness
We all want to be serene, fulfilled, and happy. The great sage Hillel is teaching us that our instinctive tendency is to think that material wealth will bring us there. Hillel is reminding us to look at our own experiences (either in our own lives or in the lives of those around us) and note that excessive wealth is not the path to get there.