The Test of Riches
It is written, “And the L-RD said to Abraham, ‘Leave your country … to the land that I will show you. And I will make you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great. And you will be a blessing” (Gen 12:1-2). Rashi explains that travel causes a decrease in three things: In children, in wealth, and in honor, which is why Abraham needed the three blessings that G-d promised him (descendants, riches, and renown).
If G-d blessed him with renown, riches, and above all with offspring (which he had so hoped for up to that day), what did Abraham’s test consist of then? Who wouldn’t accept to leave his country, his native land, and his father’s house and go to a foreign land if G-d assured him of such things?
The answer lies in the fact that a person who is rich and famous has very little free time, as the Sages say, “increasing possessions increases worry” (Perkei Avoth 2:7). His spirit is not free to occupy itself with spiritual matters and personal growth. And if such is the case for people in general, how much more so for someone like Abraham, who had begun to serve G-d with all his heart, with all his soul, and with all his strength since his youth: “At the age of three, Abraham knew his Creator” (Bereshith Rabba 30:8). He also observed the entire Torah (Yoma 28b), he studied the Law of G-d without stop, and observed it in its entirety. Therefore for him, to leave his country was a great test, for if he were to become very rich and famous, and if people were to come to ask him for help, advice, and bother him at all hours, it follows that he wouldn’t have time to occupy himself with the Torah and serving G-d. This in itself is a great test, which is why G-d told him, in effect, “Over there, everyone will come to ask for your advice and seek your blessing.” What’s more, Abraham cared about satisfying people’s spiritual needs as well their material ones. He brought people to the knowledge of G-d (Bereshith Rabba 39:21), and instituted a shelter at Beer Sheva open to all: “The tent of Abraham had doors on all four sides so that whatever direction people came from, they didn’t have to look for the entrance” (Bereshith Rabba 48:9). His servant of many years, Eliezer, was in charge of managing his possessions (Gen 24:2). Abraham entrusted him with the task of dealing with financial affairs, as well as to distribute portions to the poor, as Onkelos translated: “he managed the household” (Gen 15:2). The Sages interpret the word damessek (“of Damascus”) as if it were written doleh ou mashkeh (“Eliezer drew and spread the Torah of his master to others”). What was the Torah of his master? To bring close to the knowledge of G-d those who are far, to distribute money to the poor, and to see to the requirements of the needy. Eliezer was put in charge of all these tasks, and Abraham, instead of being dominated by his riches, dominated them.
That being said, Abraham didn’t have any children, and the “son” of his house – the one who managed his possessions – was his servant Eliezer of Damascus. G-d told Abraham, “This one shall not inherit from you, but one that will come out of your bowels – he shall inherit from you” (Gen 15:4). The Sforno writes, “Your son will successfully manage your possessions in your lifetime” (ibid.). It is not your servant Eliezer that will inherit from you, for he doesn’t know how to manage your goods, but the one that will be born of you, he will know how to manage your goods and your wealth. This is difficult to understand. G-d blessed Abraham with a son who would know how to manage his possessions, instead of a son who will be pious, holy, and will inherit all his virtues! Could Abraham be satisfied with a son that would limit himself to administering his possessions without following him in the path of a spiritual and sanctified life? If this is the case, what did the promise to Abraham consist of?
In light of what we said earlier, we can now begin to understand. Abraham knew very well how to manage his own possessions; he dominated his riches and didn’t subjugate himself to them. He distributed his possessions to the poor and spent his riches on doing good around him, and it’s in that way that he resisted the test of riches, a test initiated so that riches would neither turn him away, nor prevent him from serving G-d. This is why he merited the divine promise that the son born to him would use his riches in the same way as he did, and would overcome the test of money. He would have a son who would know how to manage his possessions and dominate and use wealth to do good, which was not the case with his servant Eliezer. Even though he was a faithful servant, if he were to have inherited that fortune, he wouldn’t have known how to manage it because he didn’t possess the sublime character traits of Abraham Avinu.
In the same way that Abraham overcame the test of riches and didn’t let himself get sidetracked, in our own time the saintly Rabbi Israel of Rozhin, and other virtuous and pious men, overcame the test of riches and didn’t let themselves get diverted from G-d, from His ways, and from His service. For us, this serves as a valuable moral teaching, for wealth is a far more difficult test to endure than poverty. One must not fall into these traps, but to the contrary, with money we must at all times, and at every hour, carry out the commandments and perform good deeds. We should not resemble those of whom it is said, “But My people have exchanged their Glory for worthless idols” (Jer 2:11). The Sages compare this to “the son that erred when he received much gold and money from his father” (Berachot 32a). One must devote one’s wealth to doing good, helping one’s fellow, and obeying the commandments; we must completely follow the example set by Abraham Avinu.
I once heard a fine explanation from the Chief Rabbi of Austria, Rabbi Riezberg. He said that of all the tests that Abraham underwent, the test of leaving his country was the most convincing and difficult of all, for the others were temporary, but this one was permanent. It meant always progressing “from strength to strength” in the Torah, which means to be always occupied in serving G-d.
We would humbly like to add a few more words concerning this subject. Rashi comments on the verse that states, “If you walk in [i.e., if you perform] My statues” (Lev 26:3) by saying the following: “It is not enough to perform the commandments. One must also study the Torah.” In that verse we see that the Torah is termed “statutes”, not “commandments”. In effect, the study of Torah is accompanied by difficult trials. The evil inclination wishes to prevent such study, and it uses all types of arguments to disturb the one who studies it, in the hope to make him abandon it. This is why G-d orders us to “walk in My statutes.” It is to teach us that the study of Torah is a law that one must not transgress, even if we don’t understand the reason for this decree; all the arguments put forward by the evil inclination to prevent such study are nothing but a trick. The study of Torah is a law that has its own reason, to be sure. It is a divine decree that must bring us to the observance of all the commandments, and in so doing defeat the evil inclination.
This allows us to explain why the study of Torah is categorized under the term “statues” and why the Torah uses the expression “walk”. According to the Ohr HaChayim in his various commentaries on the verse, “If you walk in My statues”, he concisely brings out the following: “Do all that you have to do – eat, drink, speak – in order to occupy yourself with Torah.” He also says, “My laws [.*8&(] are the rations of sustenance that I dispense [the Hebrew word 8&( can mean both “law” and “ration”], and if you want to receive your share of food, you should likewise observe My commandments.”
It is written, “If you walk in My ways” and in the same verse, “if you obey My commandments” meaning, as much as in that which concerns man’s relationship to G-d, as in that which concerns man’s relationship to his fellow. A man will easily manage to overcome the test of riches if he practices what is written in the verse, “Each man would help his fellow, and to his brother he would say ‘Be strong!’”(Isa 41:6). Such a victory over that test allows one to reach the greatest heights of perfection, even to the point of being counted amongst those “close to G-d”. It is the sacred duty of every man to strengthen himself in the study of Torah, with toil and sweat, all while observing the commandments and performing good deeds. This is without doubt the sense of the following Mishnah: “It is good to combine the study of Torah [religious laws that regulate the relationship between man and G-d] with an occupation [the social laws that manage relationships among men], for the effort required by both of them keeps sin out of mind” (Perkei Avoth 2:2). Man possesses only the commandments that he practices, and thus he can be happy in this world and the next.