‘Your Money or Your Life?’
Shma Yisrael Hashem Elokeinu Hashem Echad. Hear O Israel, Hashem is our G-d, Hashem is One.
The verse continues, “And you shall love Hashem your G-d with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your might.”
Rashi, the great Biblical commentator, interprets this last word (in Hebrew, Meodecho) to mean “with all your resources,” i.e. your money. This, of course begs the question, if we have already been commanded to love Hashem with all our heart and soul (i.e. to be prepared to give our very life for G-d) then why the rather mundane command about money? Surely, if we are prepared to give our lives for G-d, then sharing our money is a small thing to ask?
Rashi explains that in reality there are some individuals who value their money more than their lives. Such people need to be told specifically to love G-d with all their money.
Jack Benny, the well-known American entertainer from long ago, used to joke self- deprecatingly about his frugality. Once, he told of walking down a New York street late at night when he suddenly felt cold, hard metal pointing into his back and a gruff voice barked, “Your money or your life!” When he didn’t immediately respond, the gun at his back pressed deeper into his flesh and the voice from behind became more menacing, “I said Your money or your life!“ Benny replied, “I’m thinking, I’m thinking.”
There are actually quite a few real life situations today which prove that this is no joke. Take the many private security personnel working in Iraq or Afghanistan at this very moment. Nobody drafted them. They are simply there to make a quick buck. What about the threat to their lives? What of their colleagues who have already been murdered? It would appear that some people really do love money more than life. How about the farmer in Zimbabwe? His life is being threatened by thugs and the police aren’t providing any protection but, in his mind, his farm is his life so he’s still there. It’s not easy to walk away from your life’s work – even if your life may be in danger.
So the Torah insists that we must love Hashem with all our heart, soul, life and resources – whatever it is that we value and cherish most, we should be prepared to dedicate in love to G-d.
I have spoken of this concept at Pidyon Haben Ceremonies (Redemption of the First Born), where one finds a very strange dialogue between the father of the baby boy and the Kohen. By Torah law, every first born belongs to G-d, or to his designated representative, the Kohen. The Kohen therefore asks the father of the newborn child, “What do you prefer, your first born son or the five silver shekels you are obligated to give me for his redemption?”
Now what kind of absurd question is that? Is this The Money or the Box? Which normal father is going to give away his son when he can keep him for the small price of five silver coins? I wouldn’t exactly call it the $64,000 question! Nobody is waiting in breathless suspense for the father’s answer.
But, in fact, it is a very serious question. The priestly minister of G-d asks of the father of this child – in your newborn son’s future life, what will be of primary significance? Will it be the child or the shekel? Will you place high importance on finance or on family time? Will you raise this child with an emphasis on materialism or on more meaningful things? This is really a very good question after all – one, which parents need to consider soberly before responding to.
How many workaholics do we know who are so busy making a living that in the process they forget to live. Remember, no one was ever heard lamenting on their deathbed, “Oy, if only I’d spent more time at the office.”
So the Shma reminds us that whatever our core values may be, they should be directed to Hashem and His service.
Even for those who aren’t overly thrifty, money is an issue. The reality is that Judaism costs. It’s not cheap to be Jewish, certainly not to live Jewishly. Whether the price of Synagogue membership, the additional expenses of making Pesach, buying a Sukkah, Tefillin, Mezuzahs or kosher food, all these things require a commitment from us financially. When we make that commitment with love and don’t complain about the high cost of being Jewish, then we are observing the mitzvah of loving Hashem with all our might, money and resources.
But don’t worry. Hashem loves you too.