How does Judaism view wealth? How does it view someone working very hard in order to amass wealth? Should he rather be spending his time in purely spiritual occupations? Let’s take a very brief look at the fateful meeting between Jacob and Esau, which throws light on this question.
Many years earlier, Jacob had run away from Esau in order to escape his brother’s wrath. Esau felt he had been wrongly deprived of his birthright and his father’s blessings, and wanted to kill Jacob. Jacob had gone to the home of his uncle Laban, far away to the east in Haran. There he had married, brought up a family and prospered. He had amassed large flocks of sheep and herds of cattle. Now he was returning to his homeland, Canaan.
On his way back, he had to face a confrontation with his brother Esau. Would there be peace? Eventually there was, but not at first. Jacob was informed that Esau was advancing towards him with a hostile army.
Jacob made emergency plans. He decided to send a peace offering of several herds of different kinds of livestock and a message of conciliation. What was his message to Esau? “So says your servant Jacob: I have lived temporarily with Laban, and I stayed there till now. I have oxen and asses, sheep, servants and maidservants; and I have sent this gift to you, to find favor in your eyes.”
The Sages ask: why did Jacob stress that his stay with Laban was temporary? They answer that with this Jacob was saying something about the nature of the wealth he had amassed. It is true that he had worked very hard, and had become very rich. For this reason he was sending a large gift to his brother. But he also wanted to say something to him about his attitude to this wealth. The things of this world are very important. But they are temporary.
Jacob was telling his brother: the main purpose in life is not wealth in itself, but the way that one can use every detail of life in service of G‑d. In fact, the phrase “I have lived temporarily” is expressed in the Hebrew text of the Torah by a single word, garti, which has the numerical value of 613. Jacob was saying, “I lived with Laban the idolater, and I was deeply involved in providing for my family, and became very wealthy. But the real purpose was in order to observe the 613 Commandments.”
In Jewish teaching, wealth is not the purpose, it is the means. The means to create the beautiful atmosphere of a Jewish home, with happy children and guests at one’s table. To be able to give: time, attention, love, Jewish education, charity. To be able to share with others in the community and play one’s part for the well-being of all. This was Jacob’s message to his brother Esau—because ultimately, this is the message of the Jew to the world, concerning wealth.