Ask The Rabbi

For the week ending 7 December 2013 / 4 Tevet 5774

Silver Lining

by Rabbi Yirmiyahu Ullman -
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From: Allen

Dear Rabbi,

I know someone who in the past had an average income, but was very generous in many ways. Over the last 5-10 years, the person has become pretty wealthy, but he’s not nearly as generous as he used to be. I don’t understand this. If the Torah teaches to give charity, the more he has the more he should give, and here he’s giving less, and in a much less friendly and warm way. Can you help me understand this?


Dear Allen,

“Money makes the world go around”, but often it turns people around as well. We might judge your friend favorably and suggest perhaps now he’s giving larger sums to large organizations, or perhaps there’s some other explanation as to why you feel it less on a personal level.

But since you also perceive he’s giving in a much less friendly and warm way, given the possibility that you’re right, what might be an explanation for this? Here I’ll depart from judging your friend, but rather address the more general phenomenon.

Unfortunately, it is true that people who become wealthy often lose the personal, giving traits that they had when they were less well-off.

There are several reasons for this.

The person is now able to indulge himself. Once he gets used to indulging himself, he’s less concerned about the needs of others. He’s also able to get by without other people and can entertain himself in many ways on his own. The result is a social disconnect, which doesn’t necessarily mean he becomes a hermit. On the contrary, he might become more high profile, but simultaneously anti-social.

Also, the needs of protecting his wealth make him constantly wary of others, and highly competitive. Whereas before he generally saw himself in the same boat as everybody else, which fosters a feeling mutual aid and responsibility, now he views anyone who might cause him to part with his money as an enemy who might sink his ship.

Finally, his financial success becomes his measure of self-worth. He becomes fixated with this because, through it, he defines himself. Rather than getting satisfaction from sharing with others, his sense of contentment is centered around filling his own coffers.

There was once such a person who received the blessing of a great rabbi for wealth in order to be able to give even more charity. When the blessing was fulfilled, rather than sharing more, he gave even less. The rabbi heard of this and went to visit the man, who accepted him respectfully but coolly.

After admiring the lavish furnishings, the rabbi turned his attention to a large and exquisitely framed mirror. He asked the man what he saw, to which he replied that he saw himself and his wonderful home. The rabbi then asked him to pull aside the drapes obscuring his windows and describe what he saw. “There are many people in the street. There’s the needy butcher who’s marrying off his daughter. There’s the elderly widow whose health is failing. There are some children, poorly clad, shivering in the cold.”

The rabbi then remarked, “It’s odd that both the mirror and the window are made of glass, yet in the one you see only yourself and your comfortable surroundings, while in the other you see others and their suffering. What’s makes the mirror so different?”

Condescendingly addressing the rabbi’s seeming lack of familiarity with luxury, the man replied, “Dear rabbi, the glass of the mirror is lined with a layer of silver that prevents you from seeing through it, so that all you see is yourself!” To which the rabbi replied, “Oh! Now I understand why everyone’s saying you’ve changed so much. Your life used to be a window without curtains. Now it’s a silver-laced mirror…”

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