Along with Shabbat and holidays, kashrut, human relationships and education, our finances are a very large dimension of our lives as Jews, and yet all too often we are confused about how to advance our lives as the Torah would like us to. As children we receive gifts, save and spend money, give tzedakah and hope for financial prosperity when we grow up, but upon growing up we do not automatically know what we are supposed to be doing to climb the ladder of success.
Yet our Torah resolutely presents the achievement of wealth and worldly success as compatible, and even concurrent, with the realization of the true wealth of a life of Torah and mitzvot. We need to get our financial affairs right to lead a successful life of service to God. But the desired balance in our monetary pursuits is far from the Western materialistic view of endless consumption and accumulation. The Jewish concept of wealth is founded on modesty and restraint, as we learn in Pirkei Avot – “Who is wealthy? He who is satisfied with his lot.”
And yet the Jewish patriarchs and matriarchs were more than just comfortable – they were fabulously wealthy. The Torah describes our righteous forefather Avraham as loaded, literally: “And Avram was very heavy with livestock, silver and gold.” As always, our Sages elaborate, seeing clues to Avraham’s great wealth in other passages. Avraham’s nephew Lot benefited from staying with his uncle, becoming wealthy like him. No one who had any commerce with Avraham was not blessed from it. The midrash even notes that the international reserve currency of that era was minted on the basis of Avraham’s wealth.
Avraham’s son Yitzchak was also singularly wealthy. Most people would be very happy with a 10% yearly return on their portfolios. To double their wealth would be a dream come true. To triple it would be unheard of. Yet the return on Yitzchak’s agricultural labor shows that Hashem’s blessing is outside the natural order – a hundredfold profit. As with Avraham, our Sages connect God’s blessing with the beneficiary’s righteousness. Yitzchak counted the yield on his crop in order to accurately tithe his produce.
Yitzchak’s son Ya’akov was initially very poor. His father-in-law Lavan serially cheated him out of his wages. Yet Hashem took note of this and made him very, very rich from that work.
These were our forefathers, and this is our inheritance to claim. Jews and wealth – which is nothing other than the blessing Hashem wishes to bestow on His people – can go together. Hashem also desires to bring blessing on the nations of the world – but through the Jewish people. As He told Avraham: “I will bless those who bless you and curse those who curse you, and through you will all the families of the earth be blessed.”
And indeed we saw a shining example of just that in our first exile, in the first generation after the Patriarchs. Ya’akov’s son Yosef, whom Pharaoh appointed viceroy over Egypt, was Hashem’s agent to bring prosperity to what was then the world’s superpower, saving the country from economic collapse. Yosef gathered all the gold and silver of Egypt and Canaan, and indeed, as our Sages note, of the whole world.
Despite the blessing Yosef and the Jewish people brought to Egypt, the Egyptian people betrayed him and enslaved us. The harshness and degradation of Egyptian bondage was so severe that we remember it daily, and particularly on Pesach, where we recount how Hashem brought ten plagues on Egypt and brought us to the Land of Israel. The economic aspect of this deliverance was that the Egyptian economy was wrecked, whereas the Jewish people “emptied out Egypt,” leaving with great wealth, compensation for their servitude in fulfilment of God’s promise to Avraham that “they will go forth with great possessions.”
No less a personage than Mosheh Rabbeinu, the greatest prophet who ever lived, also possessed fabulous wealth. While the other Jews collected the spoils of Egypt, Mosheh occupied himself with locating Yosef’s remains, preferring to fulfill the promise to carry his bones out of Egypt rather than to amass riches like his compatriots. But Hashem did not overlook His faithful servant and endowed him with the shards of sapphire left over from the tablets that he carved. Indeed, all of the prophets of Israel were wealthy, which is to say that holiness and being learned in Torah are not incompatible with great wealth.
These are but a few of the countless examples found in our holy sources that together paint a picture of Jewish wealth as the norm, if not even the ideal. Anyone who has learned Seder Nashim (the third of six orders of Mishnah), which more than the others depicts family life, cannot escape the image of the Jewish household as busy with farms, wine and olive presses, property and productive assets and funds for all sorts of lifecycle contingencies.
There of course were many Jews in the Bible whose wealth, if they possessed it, went unremarked. But when we can say that the patriarchs, matriarchs and Mosheh Rabbeinu, plus the entire generation that left Egypt, were all rich, it seems fair to invoke the dictum ma’asei avot siman labanim (“the deeds of the forefathers are a sign for the children”). Jews are supposed to be wealthy, and to make others wealthy, and our shortcomings with regard to this ideal are the result of our many sins, the length of the present exile and the consequent weakening of our connection to our tradition.
The Torah states: “For there will never cease to be needy within the land.” However, just a few verses earlier, we learned the opposite: “But there will be no needy among you.” Rashi explains: when you perform God’s will there will be needy among others and not among you, but when you do not perform God’s will there will be needy among you. Wealth is the ideal, and poverty is connected with our moral failings.
 Avot 3:1.
 Bereishit 13:2.
 Bereishit Rabbah 39:11.
 Bereishit 26:12.
 Bereishit Rabbah 64:6.
 Bereishit 30:43.
 Bereishit 12:3.
 Bereishit 47:14.
 Pesachim 119a from Bereishit 41:57.
 Shemot 12:36.
 Bereishit 15:14.
 Nedarim 38a.
 Devarim 15:11.
 Devarim 15:4, and Rashi’s comment there.