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Parshat Shekalim: Rav Amiel and Economics

(הֶֽעָשִׁ֣יר לֹֽא־יַרְבֶּ֗ה וְהַדַּל֙ לֹ֣א יַמְעִ֔יט מִֽמַּחֲצִ֖ית הַשָּׁ֑קֶל לָתֵת֙ אֶת־תְּרוּמַ֣ת יְקֹוָ֔ק לְכַפֵּ֖ר עַל־ נַפְשֹׁתֵיכֶֽם (שמות פרק ל,טו

As of late, there has been lively discussion within the Orthodox world about Jewish finances. Concerns about the rise of materialism and the extreme cost of living an Orthodox life have been raised by rabbinic figures and laypeople alike.[1] I feel that these particular issues are representations of broader questions the Torah addresses. I will present one perspective on this topic as presented by Rav Moshe Avigdor Amiel.[2] He discusses the topic of wealth in one of his drashot for parshat shekalim.[3] This makes the sharing of these ideas all the more timely. 

Rav Amiel’s Drasha[4]

Rav Amiel claims the Torah’s view of monetary society can be summed up in the verse found in parshat shekalim “הֶֽעָשִׁ֣יר לֹֽא־יַרְבֶּ֗ה וְהַדַּל֙ לֹ֣א יַמְעִ֔יט” (Exodus 30:15). This verse is translated by most translations as “the rich shall not give more and the poor shall not give less.” This, indeed, is what the verse means in the context of the half-shekel gift given by all of Israel. However, Rav Amiel reads the verse homiletically to mean “the rich should not have too much and the poor too little.” This is to say, society should not allow for the absurdly rich or the absurdly poor. The Torah does not eliminate the idea of class but attempts to limit it.[5]

Rav Amiel presents two extreme views of economic society. First, the radical capitalist view: the strong and capable amass more wealth than they know what to do with, and the poor suffer from hunger and cold. After all, it is decreed before birth who will be rich and who will be poor.[6] On the other extreme, the communist view: everyone is equal and should be equal financially as well, with no difference at all between one another. After all, we all share a father in heaven who created us equally and all in the world belongs to Him. Rav Amiel rejects both of these models and, in the spirit of Rambam, advocates for a middle path between the two.[7]

On the one hand, without personal incentive the world would not develop. If everyone received the same amount of money unconditionally then no one would work to develop the world, and these developments eventually help everyone. Action taken based on personal incentives ends up benefiting society as a whole. Without this incentive the world would remain stagnant and all would suffer. On the other hand, much of the vast wealth gap between the rich and the poor can not be understood simply as decreed from heaven. Rather, much of this gap can be attributed to a broken and unregulated society that allows people to accumulate vast wealth. Rav Amiel goes as far as to claim that often the wealth of one person is the direct cause of the poverty of another. He writes, “all the wealthy of the world must thoroughly check their vast storehouses to see if there are many poor buried there.”[8] Due to this tension, the Torah believes in limiting the gap between the poor and the rich “until it is barely felt at all.”[9]

Rav Amiel explains this is not only a hypothetical ideal of the Torah, but the Torah gives concrete means of achieving this end. Through the various laws of land division, shemita and yovel, the prohibition of charging interest, and the laws of gifts to the poor the Torah limits the ability of the rich to attain exaggerated wealth and creates a strong safety net to avoid extreme poverty.[10]

These laws, however, are only relevant in a Jewish society in the land of Israel. What guidance does the Torah have when Jews are not living under those circumstances?[11] Rav Amiel says the answer can be found in the Mishna in Avot (5,10):

ארבע מדות באדם האומר שלי שלי ושלך שלך זו מדה בינונית ויש אומרים זו מדת סדום שלי שלך ושלך שלי עם הארץ שלי שלך ושלך שלך חסיד שלי שלי ושלך שלי רשע: 

There are four attributes in man: one who says what is mine is mine and yours is yours, this is an intermediate attribute, and some say it is the attribute of Sodom. [One who says] what is mine is yours and what is yours is mine is an ignoramus. [One who says] what is mine is yours and what is yours is yours is pious. [One who says] what is mine is mine and what is yours is mine is wicked. 

Rav Amiel says only one of these attributes is acceptable, that of the chassid, the pious. The Mishna speaks negatively of the other three. Rav Amiel associates the first attribute, what is mine is mine and yours is yours, with capitalism, and the second attribute, what is mine is yours and yours is mine, with communism. The attribute of the wicked is obviously wicked to its core and need not be discussed at length.[12]

Rav Amiel sees the generation of the flood as an extreme example of capitalism that turns to full evil. He sees an improper balance of power; the more powerful taking advantage of the weak; he sees worker abuse and exploitation.[13] He continues and explains the generation of the Tower of Bavel is a swing in the extreme other direction – a totalitarian communist society that can not balance equality against other values, such as family and personal autonomy.[14] The society of Sodom then swings back in the direction of the first attribute, capitalism. Sodom accepted this first attribute as the most important building block of a society. This is what turns the attribute of “what is mine is mine and yours is yours” from an intermediate attribute to the attribute of Sodom: turning it into the fundamental rule of a society that dictates practical action. Sodom has a harsher punishment than the generations of the flood or Tower of Bavel because this is the most hated attribute in the eyes of Hashem.[15]

If a society can not be built upon the intermediate attribute or the attribute of the ignoramus, what can it be built upon? The answer is the attribute of the chassid, what is mine is yours and yours is yours. This means to not have a capitalist “every man for himself” mentality and to not have a communist take by force to redistribute approach. Rather, a person should voluntarily give from their own to others. One should view their own property as belonging to God and thereby everyone. Rav Amiel sees Avraham Avinu as the epitome of this approach: the attribute of the chassid.[16] Both the ideological communist and the chassid want to improve society. The problem with the communist is that his worldview is only informed by the material and he acts from the animalistic aspect of man. On the other hand, the Jewish people, those who strive for the attribute of the chassid, have a spiritualistic worldview and act humanistically. The moral character of the members of society needs to be improved, and through this, so too will society itself improve. The Torah’s economic vision will come about not through coercion but through moral improvement to the point that the correct moral choice becomes obvious, and all will achieve the attribute of the chassid, what is mine is yours and what is yours is yours. When this happens we will reach the day of הֶֽעָשִׁ֣יר לֹֽא־יַרְבֶּ֗ה וְהַדַּל֙ לֹ֣א יַמְעִ֔יט – the reach shall not be too reach nor the poor too poor.[17]

The Issues of Today

None of what Rav Amiel writes can be mapped perfectly onto any economic theory or political ideology. The Torah presents a Torah system; by its very definition it is not any other system. Any claim that the Torah is capitalistic or communistic or socialistic or anything of the sort will be lacking. The Torah is the Torah. Rav Amiel presents a vision of a society built on Torah values. Others may view things slightly (or very) differently. I feel Rav Amiel’s is an important view, one shared by many in the Rabbinic tradition, implicitly or explicitly. It is up to each person to take his ideas into consideration, accept them or reject them, but at least to grapple with them and understand them as a valid part of the Rabbinic mesorah

There are three aspects of Rav Amiel’s drasha that I did not include in the summary above that I would like to discuss now, and specifically how each is relevant to our community today. 

The first issue is that of the worship of wealth. Rav Amiel uses the image of the golden calf and people dancing around and worshiping it as a metaphor. The rich are the golden calf and the poor dance around it bowing to it.[18] Rabbi Dovid Bashevkin recently caused an uproar when calling out this phenomenon of worshiping wealth and the wealthy.[19] This unhealthy obsession causes many to live overly materialistic lifestyles and strive for the wrong goals. Rabbi Bashevkin advocates one way of fighting this phenomenon is “celebrating the middle.” He writes, “Too often we are either valorizing wealthy donors or praising those who sacrifice in poverty, at the expense of the unsung heroes of the middle.”[20] Rav Amiel’s solution is not to “celebrate the middle” but to create a society in which everyone is in the middle. A society where the difference between rich and poor is barely felt. He explains that in placing parshat shekalim, the ideal of הֶֽעָשִׁ֣יר לֹֽא־יַרְבֶּ֗ה וְהַדַּל֙ לֹ֣א יַמְעִ֔יט, before the sin of the golden calf, the Torah puts the treatment before the disease. Through understanding the message of shekalim, namely that the rich should not be too rich nor the poor too poor, we can avoid the worship of wealth and the wealthy. 

In his drasha Rav Amiel brings a midrash about Sodom (Yalkut Shimoni, Torah 83):

רבי יהודה אומר הכריזו בסדום כל מי שהוא מחזיק בפת לחם לעני ואביון ישרף באש פלוטית בתו של לוט היתה נשואה לאחד מגדולי סדום ראתה עני אחד מדוקר ברחוב העיר ועגמה עליה נפשה מה היתה עושה בכל יום כשהיתה יוצאה לשאוב מים היתה נותנת בכד שלה מכל מה שבביתה ומאכלת לאותו עני אמרו מאין חי העני הזה וכשידעו בדבר הוציאוה לישרף

Rabbi Yehuda says: It was decreed in Sodom that any who gives bread to a poor person should be burned to death. Plotit, the daughter of Lot, was married to one of the great men of Sodom and saw a poor person on the street and had mercy on him. Every day when she went to draw water she would give the poor person from all she had in her house in a jug and feed him. The people of Sodom asked, “How is this poor person living?” When they figured out what was happening, she was brought out to be burned to death. 

Rav Amiel explains that in Sodom if someone gave any sort of gift, any sort of charity, they were suspected of being a communist.[21] Unfortunately, this too has penetrated the Orthodox world.[22] When any criticism of wealth or the wealthy is discussed the conversion can quickly devolve into name-calling. “Commie!” “Socialist!” I am not the one to explain the evils of the Soviet Union, and particularly the plight of the Jews under that evil regime. This makes it all the more upsetting that one could so easily use such a loaded term to label anyone they disagree with. Many are quick to label anyone even slightly economically liberal a socialist or communist. This is one of the terrible sins of Sodom![23] As a community we need to be open to discussions of these issues without devolving to name-calling or demonizing. We need to be comfortable critiquing systems and calling for cheshbon hanefesh

We will end with the beginning. Rav Amiel opens his drasha with a discussion of the neviim, the prophets. He says that while each of the prophets has his/her own style they all share a basic substance, a common goal. “לתקן עולם במלכות שדי – to repair the world in the kingdom of God”. Rav Amiel laments that many study the words of the neviim but do not internalize their message. Many study seriously, but their study never enters the world of action. The words remain in the mouth and never enter the heart.[24] Rav Amiel does not present an explicit solution to this problem.[25] We can implicitly assume he believes one solution is for Rabbis to speak out. Rav Amiel saw this problem, stood up in front of his community, and spoke about it. I hope more Rabbis will follow in his footsteps and discuss these issues with their congregations.

I feel uncomfortable writing anything of this sort. I am not a moral authority by any means. I am not a talmid chacham. I’m just a mid-western kid learning in yeshiva. I have not come to make a chiddush but only to share some Torah and make some observations about our community. I hope that these issues continue to be discussed more frequently and more powerfully by our leading Rabbinic lights, especially as we have the opportunity to work on developing the ideal Jewish society in the State of Israel.[26] I long for the day when the verse of הֶֽעָשִׁ֣יר לֹֽא־יַרְבֶּ֗ה וְהַדַּל֙ לֹ֣א יַמְעִ֔יט will be fulfilled. But until then, I hope am yisroel will internalize and strive to its ideals. 

[1] A recent example of a rabbinic figure speaking about this issue is this sicha from Rabbi Jeremy Weider, a Rosh Yeshiva in Yeshivat Rabbeinu Yitzchak Elchanan (YU).

[2]  Rav Amiel was the Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv before the establishment of the State and a tremendous talmid chacham wrote numerous halakhic and hashkafic works. His work stands for itself but one in search of credentials can find them in the letters to him from various gedolei yisroel printed in Hamiddot L’cheker Hahalakha, Mossad Harav Kook, pg. 36-42. 

[3]  The drasha is printed in Drashot El Ami Channukah D’ Parshiot, Ohr Etzion Publishers, pg. 133-146. It is available here in the old print. The page references are to the new printing.

[4] What follows is a loose summary of the drasha focusing on the main points. I tried to not insert my own commentary and stick strictly to the ideas as presented by Rav Amiel. Some points have been left out as they do not fit the flow as presented here. I highly recommend anyone even slightly interested to read the drasha inside. 

[5] Derashot El Ami pg. 138

[6]  Based on Niddah  17b

[7]  Derashot El Ami pg. 136

[8] Ibid. pg. 137

[9] Ibid. pg. 138

[10]  Ibid. pg. 138-139

[11]  Today, that we have returned to a Jewish society in the land of Israel, it is possible that the continuation of the drasha is less significant and our vision of a just society should be more informed by the above mitzvot than the analysis of the categories in Avot that follow. This lies beyond the goals of this article and I will simply continue with the ideas as presented in the drasha.   

[12]  Ibid pg. 140

[13] Ibid. 141

[14] Ibid. 142

[15] Ibid. 142-143

[16]  Ibid. 142

[17]  Ibid. 145-146

[18]  Ibid. 145 and here 

[19]  https://18forty.org/articles/what-wealth-means-to-me/ 

[20]  Ibid. 

[21]  Drashot El Ami pg. 143. Oh, if he had lived to see McCarthyism…

[22]  On this issue, I am writing mostly from personal experience and can make no claim to know how pervasive this issue is, but I tend to be pessimistic. 

[23]  Another insult that might be thrown out is SJW, social justice warrior. It is surprising that this is thought of as an insult. Since when has social justice been a bad thing? Is social justice not an important Torah value? Was Amos not a social justice warrior? “וְיִגַּ֥ל כַּמַּ֖יִם מִשְׁפָּ֑ט וּצְדָקָ֖ה כְּנַ֥חַל אֵיתָֽן – let justice roll down as waters and righteosness as a mighty stream”(Amos 5:24)! Were not all the neviim social justice warriors? Were not chazal? How any ben Torah or Orthodox Jew could view this as an insult is beyond me. Well, maybe not. The rise of internet personalities masquerading as moral authorities most likely contributes to this confusion. This problem could be compounded if one of the aforementioned personalities proudly wears a kippah. And if the aforementioned personality’s books were sold alongside legitimate sefarim at a sefarim sale of the supposed flagship Modern Orthodox institution. And if the aforementioned personality is invited to speak at shuls and other community functions. And if the aforementioned personality is speaking at expensive Pesach programs or in particularly affluent neighborhoods where his message can do the most damage and where the counter message, the message of the neviim, is needed most. But this is not the time to discuss such a hypothetical individual. 

[24]  Derashot El Ami pg. 134-135

[25]  Perhaps the most important way to instill these important ethical values is the proper education of children. This is discussed in the opening chapters of Rav Ahron Soloveichik’s Logic of the Heart, Logic of the Mind. This is beyond the scope of this article but is highly valuable and connected to these topics. In general, Rav Ahron speaks very forcefully about moral issues, see for example the chapter on civil rights in the same volume. 

[26] Once again, as mentioned above in note 11, the Torah’s view of a moral society is clearly different in a Jewish majority land of Israel as opposed to as minorities in a foreign land. I hope that we can look to the Torah’s wisdom in shemitah, yovel, maaser ani, etc. and from there build a better, more just Jewish society. 

About the Author
Eitan Oberlander was born and raised in St. Louis, MO, and is currently a fourth-year hesder student in Yeshivat Har Etzion.
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