Money and toilet paper have a few things in common: It is considered impolite, even uncultured, to speak about them openly in public. Nevertheless, both are necessary parts of life that everyone has to deal with. And if you need some and you don’t have any, you’re in deep trouble.
The Rebbe once visited the Kopishnitzer Rebbe of blessed memory, and in their wide-ranging discussion they came to the issue of poverty and wealth. They entered into a friendly debate about which is preferable, the test of wealth or the test of poverty. The Kopishnitzer was uncomfortable with the Rebbe’s blessing that all Jews should be wealthy, saying that possessing wealth is a tremendous test, and he quoted Proverbs, “Give me neither poverty nor wealth.” The Rebbe pointed out that both wealth and poverty are dismissed in the verse, and that poverty is in fact dismissed first. There was the sense that the righteous sages were not just engaging in an academic debate, but in fact sparring over the fate of their people, that their financial status was hanging in the balance. The Rebbe wanted to channel wealth. The Kopishnitzer was in a sense blocking it with his hesitation, concerned that wealth could lead to corruption. In the end, the Kopishnitzer relented, but the opportune moment was already lost.
Dealing with materialism in a healthy way, whether I have lots of it or not enough of it, is certainly a most formidable challenge. And as the economic realities of the 21st Century set in, as the middle class shrinks and the gap between the rich and the poor widens, the challenge becomes even greater. Even in the best of times, money is a universally polarizing issue, the source of countless arguments, family feuds, corruption, power struggles, class wars and overall unbecoming selfish behavior. There is perhaps nothing more divisive, other than the great gefilte fish debate — whether it is a Jewish delicacy (the official Ashkenazi position), or a form of torture invented by sadistic Polish housewives (the Sephardi position).
The trouble with money is rooted in the fact that it is often used as a reflection of my self-worth, either as perceived by others or my self. In a sense there is a very intimate connection between what I am worth materially and what I am worth as a person, since a tremendous amount of my time and energy are invested into earning money. From a kabbalistic perspective, that life energy is actually transferred to the money itself, which explains, on a spiritual level, why I am hesitant to depart with it. And, as a rule, materialism divides.
But spirituality unites. When I am able to overcome the inherent selfishness, usually in times of great joy or intense sorrow when the egoistic self is shaken, then the barrier created by materialism disappears. Even the greatest miser will spend exorbitantly to celebrate a special occasion and give spend millions on treatments that have even a remote chance of saving the life of a loved one. The joy and the love in these cases break all the usual boundaries between the material and the spiritual.
This view of money also explains why what I choose to do with my money is profoundly significant and powerful, and a test that reveals the status of my spiritual consciousness, my connectedness to the oneness of existence: If I approach it in a selfish way, then it means I am engrossed in materialism; if I avoid it, then I am espousing an escapist approach to material reality that is equally unhealthy; but if I find balance between materialistic needs and spiritual pursuits, and seek to infuse my materialism with meaning while giving my spirituality practical earthly expression, then I am in harmony with my material and spiritual self, and am on the path to living a truly beautiful life.