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Re'eh: August 11, 2018

Rabbi Randall Konigsburg

Shabbat Shalom
The superhero Spiderman begins the saga of his superpowers with a proverb that is well known to all Spiderman fans, “With great power comes great responsibility”. It is the lesson that underlies all of the adventures of the superhero. He can’t just walk away when people are in trouble. He must help, that is the price of the superpowers with which he has been blessed.
The proverb does not come from Parshat Reeh, but the concept is contained in our Torah reading. “Because you're crossing the Jordan to come to take possession of the land that Hashem, your God, is giving you; and you should take possession of it and live in it." I know that it seems as if it is another of those complicated redundant sentences that the Torah is famous for, but Judaism maintains that every word in the Torah has significance.
 Sophie Bigot-Goldblum, currently a student at the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem, writes this week: “We see throughout Devarim/Deuteronomy, and Parashat Re'eh in particular, that power is never absolute - it is coupled with, and limited by, responsibility. God says in 15:6 that Israel will become wealthy, and that wealth will give them power: "When Hashem your God, will have blessed you as He spoke to you; then you'll lend to many nations, but you won't borrow; and you'll dominate many nations; but they won't dominate you." But lest this power cause Israel to grow arrogant and corrupt, verse 6 is immediately followed by a commandment of compassion in verses 7-8: "When there will be an indigent one among you from one of your brothers within one of your gates in the land that Hashem, your God, has given you, you should not fortify your heart and should not shut your hand from your brother who is indigent. But you should open your hand to him and shall lend him enough for his shortage."
Ms. Bigot-Goldblum goes on to comment that the entire section on Shemita, the return of land that was sold to pay off debts every seven years, is a reminder that we do not own the land, but we are only tenants of the land and everything belongs to God. In the end, we don’t own anything, we only borrow what we have from God, so we have a responsibility to care for our possessions and then use them as God would want us to use them. We have a responsibility to use what we have wisely.
It always fascinates me that movies and television shows often make the evil villains of their dramas very rich people who are misusing the power that their money affords them. We see rich people throwing decadent parties, hiring a stable of tough guys to make sure they get their way and who use their money to buy influence with corrupt officials who only are looking to make some money themselves. We often say that “Money is the root of all evil” and when it is abused, we can see why people might say that.
And yet, in Judaism, money is not evil. People can be good or evil, but money is just a tool that can be used for either good or bad, depending on who is using it. There is a story told about Bill Gates, who is one of the richest men in the world. He has amassed so much money he did not know what to do with it all. It was more than he could spend on himself. His partner, Steven Ballmer, a well-known philanthropist, challenged Bill Gates to begin to give some of his money away to worthy causes. Bill Gates began to follow his advice and make some very generous donations. Later, Bill Gates got married, and his wife, Melinda Gates also understood the responsibility his great wealth afforded them. Together, they created a foundation that today gives away more money than the budget of some small countries. They understood that great wealth conferred upon them great responsibilities.
I don’t have to go to the movies to find people who have acted irresponsibly with the money they have. I don’t know if anyone here remembers Michael Milken or Ivan Boesky. They made millions in the stock market buying and selling what were then known as Junk Bonds. Both were arrested and charged with many counts of security fraud, insider trading and other financial crimes. They served time in prison and were permanently barred from ever participating in the financial markets.  The question at the time of their arrest was “Why?”. Why would people who were already so wealthy want to cheat to get even more money. The short answer is “greed”. No matter how much they had, it was never enough,
Similarly, Martha Stewart, the woman who made millions with her line of housewares, went to prison for insider trading. She sold stock in a company after she got information that it was about to lose value. She saved $75,000 with her insider tip, an amount that to her was just pocket change, but it cost her years in jail and great damage to her reputation. She could afford to lose the money, but she could not bring herself to let it go. It is as if she did not own her money, her money owned her.
This all came to mind as I watched the trial of Paul Manafort. I find myself less interested in the political side of his dealings, but with the attitude that he and his deputy Rick Gates had about money. It does not matter how they earned their money, but that they earned millions working for wealthy Russian businessmen, who were trying to make even more money manipulating the Government of Ukraine. They burned through, in just a few years, amounts of money that we could live out our entire retirement on, buying items for obscene amounts of cash. They avoided paying taxes on their money and never let anyone know what they were doing to earn the money. They became so addicted to the cash that they stole money from each other and acted like the well would never run dry. And when it did, they defrauded banks and other financial institutions to keep the cash coming in, even though they knew that they had no way to repay the loans. My father used to call this logic, “having enough money to live the lifestyle to which I would like to get accostomed.” It was a lifestyle that they could not afford but they lived it until they were arrested.
In our country, money is power, and with great power comes great responsibility. We don’t own the money we earn, nor do we own what that money can buy. It all belongs to God, and we can lose it all more quickly that we can imagine. There is a story about a man who was given a choice to become very rich now and have to give it back after ten years, or to get the money ten years before he died. He wisely consults his wife who tells him to take the money now. The first thing she does is to buy a notebook. She begins to use some of the money to support the poor and homeless in her town. She begins to give money away to help those who find themselves with emergency needs. The couple become known for their charity and kindness. Every contribution is recorded in the notebook. After ten years, an angel comes and asks for the money back. The man goes and asks his wife again for her advice since the money is now gone. She hands her husband the notebook where she has recorded all their contributions to those in need. “Tell the angel that if he can find a better custodian for the money than we have been, we will be sure to give it all back.” The man hands the records to the angel who does not need to even look at it. “You have a very wise wife,” the angel says, “indeed there could be no better custodians for this money than you have been. The money is yours forever.” No kinder couple could be found in their town until the day they died. It was their reward for their stewardship of the money that was entrusted to them
It never interests me how much money a person has or how much they have earned. What we should concentrate on is what they use their money for. Do they spend it on ostrich skin jackets? That does not impress me. Do they spend their money to help those in need, to help support good causes and to make life better for those in the community? That is the kind of wealth that makes a difference to the world and always gets my attention.  
All too often today, we find rich people who are only concerned with how they will become richer. They look for more tax breaks, loopholes and other advantages that will turn their money into more money. I don’t begrudge any person any legal means to increase their wealth. Capitalism is designed to reward those who are successful in business and life. But capitalism is an economic system, not a religion. It is at its best when the rich act with great responsibility. Happiness does not come from having a lot of money, it comes from doing good with it.
The point is not that I want everyone to be happy by making a contribution to the synagogue, although that will make both you and me happy; the point is that the Torah is correct, we don’t own our possessions, we only own what we give away. If we take our money and use it for what God wants us to use it for, then we will indeed be blessed in ways that go far beyond acquiring more possessions. Our wealth, no matter if it is large or small, is not about what we own, but about what we do with what we have, to make our community, our country and our world better.
May God help us to use our money wisely- so that all people can reap the blessings of our country – and so that we can know the true joy of helping others, as we say …. Amen and Shabbat Shalom


Sermon given by Rabbi Randall Konigsburg at Beth Sholom B’nai Israel on Saturday, August 11, 2018.

Fri, May 24 2019 19 Iyyar 5779