What does it mean to be burdened by affluence

Lech Lecha
Genesis 12:1-17:27
Isaiah 40:27-41:16

The Torah describes Abraham’s acquired wealth in a peculiar fashion. Genesis 13:2 declares, “And Abraham was ‘burdened’ with flocks, silver and gold.” Burdened? Many of us would be delighted to be weighed down with such an encumbrance. Why use the word “burden” in connection with riches?

Just a few verses earlier, “burden” is properly used to describe the affliction of famine. “Because the famine was a ‘burden’ on the land.” (Genesis 12:10) There, the word “burden” seems appropriate enough since the lack of food is certainly a hardship. On the other hand, shouldn’t material blessing have made life easier and more pleasant for Abraham?

To the righteous Abraham, wealth was as much a burden as a blessing. He understood the famous talmudic maxim in Kedushim 39:b, which says that in this world we do not receive reward for our observance of mitzvot. He also understood what might appear to be a contradiction to this concept in the Sh’ma prayer that we recite daily: “And it will come to pass that if you continually observe my commandments … then I will provide rain for your land in its proper time, the early and the late rains that you may gather in your grain, your wine, and your oil.”

The obvious question: If we do not receive reward in this world, why does the Torah expressly declare that if we observe the commandments we will be the recipients of rain, crops and other material goods?

The answer is that material possessions are not the end reward. They are simply tools to enable us to continue to observe mitzvot. The grain, wine and oil are meant not to reward us but to give those who observe mitzvot the strength and the means to continue.

When a lawyer is hired and given an office and legal pads or an accountant a calculator or a teacher chalk and eraser, these are not considered their salary or recompense but the instruments necessary for them to do their jobs. So too are we offered by G-d the wherewithal to continue to do our job of performing mitzvot. Our true and complete reward remains intact for the World to Come.

When Abraham realized that he had been blessed with an inordinate amount of material goods, he also realized that this could not be ascribed to a heavenly reward for good deeds. This he knew would not be forthcoming in this world. So what was its purpose?

Since his wealth was not given to him as a means for self-indulgence, Abraham could only conclude that they were to expedite an even greater level of mitzvah accomplishment. He viewed himself as a funnel through which G-d’s blessings were to be disbursed and distributed to the needy, abandoned and infirm. His wealth then was a burden because with it came the enormous responsibility of equitable distribution and allocation. Though Abraham most certainly appreciated the good that could be accomplished through wealth, he also felt strongly the responsibility that accompanies it.

This concept of the burden of wealth perhaps explains the teaching in the Ethics of Fathers 2:8, which says: “One who increases his possessions increases his worries.” In truth this is obvious. Along with real estate, cars, jewelry and business come insurance, mortgages, maintenance fees and a host of worries. But does this suggest that we should limit our holdings to avoid worry?

I believe our sages were telling us something else — that he who increases his possessions should increase his worries in the manner of Abraham by worrying on a spiritual and religious level.

One can only imagine the enormous worry and responsibility of our Jewish community leaders as they make decisions on allocations to the various needy agency recipients. The burden must be enormous, especially since it is not even their money but that of donors who trust the leaders’ ability to allocate fairly and wisely. May G-d give them the necessary strength and wisdom to continue to fulfill their obligations.

Shabbat shalom.

Rabbi Pinchas Lipner is dean of the Hebrew Academy in San Francisco.