Money and the value-ladder in a career driven world
The Parasha in the daily life - Parashat Vayigash - Rabbi Eliezer Shenvald – 5780
In our Parasha, the Torah describes Egypt's economic and existential crisis because of the famine:
וַיְלַקֵּ֣ט יוֹסֵ֗ף אֶת־כָּל־הַכֶּ֙סֶף֙ הַנִּמְצָ֤א בְאֶֽרֶץ־מִצְרַ֙יִם֙ וּבְאֶ֣רֶץ כְּנַ֔עַן בַּשֶּׁ֖בֶר אֲשֶׁר־הֵ֣ם שֹׁבְרִ֑ים …וַיִּתֹּ֣ם הַכֶּ֗סֶף מֵאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרַיִם֮ וּמֵאֶ֣רֶץ כְּנַעַן֒ וַיָּבֹאוּ֩ כָל־מִצְרַ֨יִם אֶל־יוֹסֵ֤ף לֵאמֹר֙ הָֽבָה־לָּ֣נוּ לֶ֔חֶם וְלָ֥מָּה נָמ֖וּת נֶגְדֶּ֑ךָ כִּ֥י אָפֵ֖ס כָּֽסֶף׃ וַיֹּ֤אמֶר יוֹסֵף֙ הָב֣וּ מִקְנֵיכֶ֔ם וְאֶתְּנָ֥ה לָכֶ֖ם בְּמִקְנֵיכֶ֑ם אִם־אָפֵ֖ס כָּֽסֶף… וַיִּ֨קֶן יוֹסֵ֜ף אֶת־כָּל־אַדְמַ֤ת מִצְרַ֙יִם֙ לְפַרְעֹ֔ה כִּֽי־מָכְר֤וּ מִצְרַ֙יִם֙ אִ֣ישׁ שָׂדֵ֔הוּ כִּֽי־חָזַ֥ק עֲלֵהֶ֖ם הָרָעָ֑ב …
“Yosef gathered in all the money that was to be found in the land of Egypt and in the land of Canaan, as payment for the rations that were being procured, and Yosef brought the money into Pharaoh’s palace. And when the money gave out in the land of Egypt and in the land of Canaan, all the Egyptians came to Yosef and said: Give us bread, lest we die before your very eyes; for the money is gone! And Yosef said: Bring your livestock, and I will sell to you against your livestock, if the money is gone. So they brought their livestock to Yosef, and Yosef gave them bread in exchange for the horses, for the stocks of sheep and cattle, and the asses; thus he provided them with bread that year in exchange for all their livestock… So, Yosef gained possession of all the farm land of Egypt for Pharaoh, every Egyptian having sold his field because the famine was too much for them… (Bereshit 47:14-20)
Yosef, who sold to the Egyptians their living necessities (Hamashbir), leads their economy during a crisis. He announces an 'austerity regime' - and government-controlled food supply, by equitable allowance. The Egyptians give him all their money and possessions so that they can save themselves from starvation: "Famine is difficult! After all, they lost all their money and sold their livestock. They sold their bodies and their land… " (The Great Midrash ibid).
This situation reflects a contrast: in everyday life - people risk their lives for money, while in crisis and danger - hand over money to save their lives. The level of risk that people take to make a living and earn a salary is also taken into account in the halacha laws:
ואליו הוא נושא את נפשו מפני מה עלה זה בכבש ונתלה באילן ומסר את עצמו למיתה לא על שכרו
The expression “for he sets his soul upon it” explains why one must be so precise when paying a laborer his wages: For what reason did this laborer ascend on a tall ramp or suspend himself from a tree and risk death to himself? Was it not for his wages? How, then, can his employer delay his payment? (Bava_Metzia 112a)
And in Rashi: the words “for he sets his soul upon it” For what reason did this laborer ascend on a tall ramp or suspend himself from a tree to harvest olives and collect dates and risk death to himself? He might fall and die".
It is about a life-threatening risk and not an absolute danger to life: " There is no intention to say that there are neither dangerous places, which in itself it’s a major prohibition for a livelihood, nor "those occupied with their wrong-doings” (we do not deal with wicked people who endanger themselves), just distant concern” (Mishpat Cohen, p.143). Although we risk our lives for money, it is a proportionate risk that arises from the needs of human existence and the ways of the world: "And do know that there is danger everywhere, that this is the world’s way and it is necessary. Four classes of people must offer thanksgiving: Two of them are: -They who go down to the sea, and those who journey in the desert-. For there is a danger in those places, but certainly such things that are part of how the world works there is no danger there. (Shu’t Shem Aryeh)
The routine can create a distorted picture of priorities. The 'considered' overcomes the 'important'. People may devote themselves to accumulating property and making money even at the cost of risking their life. However, in times of crisis and danger the real priority scale becomes clearer. There are companies for which money is not a means, but an end in itself. The Torah sees it as a means:
כשישא ויתן או יעשה מלאכה ליטול שכר לא יהיה בלבו לקבוץ ממון בלבד אלא יעשה דברים האלו כדי שימצא דברים שהגוף צריך להם מאכילה ושתיה וישיבת בית ונשיאת אשה
“When he will buy, or sell, or do work for wages, he should not have in his heart the accumulation of money only but he should perform these duties as a means to acquire the necessities of the body, as food, drink, dwelling-place and marriage…” (Rambam Mishneh Torah Human Dispositions 3).
Attitude to money and the career world is one of the major issues of Torah in the daily life. The achievement and career frenzied era in which we live, challenges the world’s moral and religious values. There is a contrast between the world of religious values that sees money as a means rather than a goal, and puts at the top of the value ladder, values and not material and economic success, and a society that glorifies economic success and money. There, money is seen as an exclusive economic engine that drives progress, and as a human motivation to exert, create and develop the world. It has a desire to get rich easily, admires wealth and uses it to measure 'success in life'.
The incorporation and partnership of the religious person in the social and economic space exposes him to a career-driven world that challenges his value-ladder. Obviously, the issue at depth is the guarantee of keeping his values alive.