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This week’s parsha illustrates the problem that the Jewish people have with unlimited prosperity. With their pockets bursting with the wealth of Egypt and eating free food day in and day out, and with their wealth burning a hole in their pockets, they looked for expression to their newfound prosperity. And so the story of the Golden Calf follows.

There are many explanations offered by the commentators to the Torah as to why the Jewish people reverted to idol worship so soon after the grandeur of the revelation at Mount Sinai. However, the inability to deal with great and sudden wealth is certainly one of the factors involved. The rabbis ruefully commented: “You have flooded them with so much wealth and goodness that they cannot accept and deal with it.”
This is especially true when prosperity is a sudden phenomenon, when wealth follows immediately after almost abject poverty and slavery. The transition is too sudden and too extreme. And, more often than not, it occasions illogical and often self-destructive behavior, which is a good description of the Golden Calf syndrome.
It is obvious that if the Jews would not have had large amounts of gold handy and available there could not have been a Golden Calf at all. One of the economic byproducts of great wealth is the search for an outlet to spend it.  The enormous current market for luxury items, most of them truly unnecessary for good living, is testimony to this human urge. And so the Golden Calf becomes the god that absorbs wealth, talent and industry.
The rabbis of the Talmud commented that Jews do much better spiritually speaking in much more modest financial circumstances than with great wealth. For most of the past two millennia during the long dark times of the Exile, dealing with wealth was not a Jewish problem. There always were individual Jews who somehow achieved great wealth and power but the overwhelming majority of Jews were poor if not even destitute.
Over the past half century, both in the United States and Israel, the Jewish community has become quite prosperous. There are a great many really wealthy Jews. The challenge becomes how to channel this wealth into the Mishkan and not into the Golden Calf. This is a national issue. On a personal level there has to be a concerted effort to prevent family dysfunction, which is often the result of sudden and unexpected wealth.
Wealth and humility do not often combine in one personality. The ability to handle one’s wealth and material possessions wisely, with balance, is a major challenge, and it should be recognized as such. The Torah and the Talnud do not preach poverty as an ideal way of life or as a value on its own. The Torah always preaches balance in almost all ways of living. This balance is the key to avoid the Golden Calf syndrome. We pray to be blessed with financial prosperity but we should also pray to be blessed with the wisdom and balance to handle it properly.
Shabbat shalom

Rabbi Berel Wein  

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