“One of this status deserves to be honored in accordance with his riches.”
What is interesting about today’s Daf Yomi is the reverence for wealth. We know some of the Rabbis were not secure economically. The notes in the Koren edition of the Talmud tells us that Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi was very well-off and encouraged respect for wealth so that he would not be perceived to derive personal benefit from his study of the Torah. This is not the image of the poor Torah scholar that I had envisioned all along as I made my way through the first three Tractates.
A man called Bonyas appears in today’s reading who owned a lavish courtyard. He is of the wealthy class that can afford furnishing his courtyard with expensive patio furniture where one can sit and have tea under the acacia trees. Bonyas’ property was so immense that he allowed various people who were homeless to take up residence there. Perhaps they lost their homes during a pandemic or never had a secure place to live to start with. Of course, this being Tractate Eruvin, the consequences of his wealth are viewed through the prism of an eruv. We are told that he kept many of his personal possessions in the living quarters inhabited by the people who lived on his property. Perhaps these tenants were living in fully furnished quarters, and as a result, we are told that they were “deemed members of his household” for purposes of establishing an eruv.
One day the son of Bonyas visited Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi. He was very well dressed, perhaps like the sons and daughters of the world’s wealthiest families who are posting their jet-setting lifestyles on social media throughout the pandemic. It was obvious to the Rabbi that the son of Bonyas was from a wealthy family. The Rabbi tells his attendants to “make way”for this son of wealth because “his status deserves to be honored in accordance with his riches.”
We are told that even Rabbi Akvia, who was born in poverty, would honor the wealth of a man like Bonyas, who had “a thousand ships out at sea and, corresponding to them a thousand towns on land.” As a result, we are told that “he should be granted pride of place due to his exorbitant wealth.” This veneration for such wealth emanates from the assumption that it allows one to take care of the needs of the poor and suffering. Bonyas is an example of a wealthy person who provides a home for those who are economically insecure.
I do not believe that this passage unabashedly celebrates wealth, but rather the good that it can bring when one’s resources are deployed to help others. Early in his career, when Bill Gates was among the wealthiest in the United States and sitting on a lot of cash, he came under criticism for not giving back to society. He subsequently launched the Bill and Melinda Gates $50 billion Foundation in 2000, which is among the largest in the world.
Gates has been forecasting for years that a pandemic could create havoc on the world. His foundation supports a health research center that put forward a global health plan that was mostly ignored. He has been among one of the most vocal critics of the US administration’s response to the virus. The Seattle Times has called him the “COVID-19 Oracle.” He is an example, despite some recent criticism of conflict of interest, of how someone with immense resources can make a difference in the world.
I was recently speaking with someone who is good friends with a well-known epidemiologist who said that the world has traditionally looked to US scientists and the CDC for direction on how to respond to public health issues. We have the top epidemiologists in the world, and we should have put forward a plan in the early days of the pandemic based on science. And yet, we have somehow failed not just our people but the world in our response to the pandemic. For we learned that the world is interconnected, and this virus will only come under control with a global response. And yet, we have not even had a national response, and instead, it has been a patchwork one crafted by US state governors.
I write this blog on election day. It’s finally here. I am praying with every ounce of my being that the US will elect peacefully a new administration that will put forward an aggressive national response. We have the largest number of infections in the world and the numbers are going up as the cold weather is descending upon us. We are better than this. We can do better.