As recorded here, in 5718 (1958), the Rebbe paid a visit to the Kopishnitzer Rebbe, Reb Avrohom Yehoshua Heschel, of blessed memory (pictured above), to console him after the passing of his brother.
During this meeting, the conversation turned to the topic of wealth versus poverty. The Kopishnitzer Rebbe said that in order to influence Torah scholars to settle in the holy city of Tzfas, funding is needed, and in order to enable this, Jews should be blessed with material prosperity.
To this the Rebbe responded that Jews should prosper regardless, for prosperity enables one to fulfill the Talmudic statement that a beautiful home—which is meant literally—expands a person’s consciousness (Berachos 57b).
The Kopishnitzer Rebbe seemed uncomfortable with this idea, and there ensued a very “refined” debate on the topic of the desirability of wealth. The Kopishnitzer mentioned a verse—“Give me neither poverty nor wealth” (Mishlei 30:8)—that appears to imply that wealth should not be desired, to which the Rebbe responded that that verse negates poverty just as strongly; in fact, it negates poverty first.
The Kopishnitzer Rebbe then remarked that the Kotzker Rebbe, who was known as “The Saraph” (one of the categories of angels, i.e., he was very holy) was known to have lived in great poverty. The Rebbe responded that for angels such a way of living is appropriate, but Jews who live in a material world need prosperity, and even wealth!
The Kopishnitzer Rebbe said: “Wealth is a test, and I am afraid of the test of wealth.”
The Rebbe responded: “Poverty is also a test; on the contrary, the test of poverty, which causes exertion, suffering, and so on, is much worse and more difficult—so much so that our sages have listed poverty as one of the three things that “deprive a man of his senses and of a knowledge of his Creator” (Eruvin 41b)! Thus, the test of wealth is better!”
After further explanation, the Rebbe concluded: “Hashem will surely help people to succeed in passing the test of wealth, for [it is written concerning the final redemption that Hashem] ‘[devises means that] he that is banished be not cast away from Him’ (II Shmuel 14:14). This refers to every single Jew, even the wealthy ones [that Hashem will help them overcome the test of wealth]!”
The Kopishnitzer Rebbe then told several stories. Among them he related that Reb Dovid Moshe of Tchortkov used to walk with his head tilted downward, and once at the Purim meal, the jester remarked: “The Master of the World is not a robber, so why are you so afraid of him?”
To this the Rebbe responded with a smile: “I feel compelled to say, borrowing the expression of that jester: ‘Why are you afraid to ask the Master of the World for wealth?’”
The Kopishnitzer Rebbe responded: “I am already an old Jew, why do I need wealth?! It is better that I request that Moshiach come.”
The Rebbe countered: “What is the contradiction—ask [Hashem] for both things!” The Rebbe concluded: “In any case, I would like you to agree that Jews should have wealth.”
The Kopishnitzer Rebbe responded: “I agree wholeheartedly.”
What exactly was going on in this exchange? My understanding of it, and the reader is invited to comment and disagree with me, is that the discussion was not at all about whether wealth has its disadvantages, or whether poverty has its advantages; after all, they are both referred to as tests by Hashem, and the Jewish people have been given the test of poverty in some times and of wealth at other times. There can be no denying that in certain periods in Jewish history, those who suffered from poverty fared better than those faced with the test of wealth. Both “sides” agreed on this basic concept.
Rather, the discussion was about what is appropriate in the current post-war milieu, in which the Jewish people can potentially enjoy much prosperity not available to them in former times. The Rebbe argued ardently that now the test of wealth is preferable, while the Kopishnitzer Rebbe was hesitant.
At the end of the exchange, the Rebbe clearly wanted the Kopishnitzer Rebbe to agree with him. This was surely not merely for the sake of a philosophical discussion. Rather, the Rebbe felt that their words were being carefully noted by the Heavenly Court, and that if the conclusion of their discussion would not come out firmly in favor of the Jewish people receiving wealth, this might detract from the material blessings that the Heavenly Court would allot to the Jewish people. The Rebbe expressed similar sentiments on many occasions concerning the power of speech, especially of words expressed by great Torah scholars, who are described as “kings” (Gittin 62a).
Now that we’ve established that nowadays the test of wealth is preferable to that of poverty, let us utter a prayer to Hashem that the entire Jewish people be blessed with wealth!
With Hashem’s help, in future posts we will discuss what the test of wealth entails, and how to overcome it.