Abraham Lincoln famously said that anyone could handle adversity, but to test a man’s character truly, give him power.
Power is the ability to do something or act in a particular way or the capacity to influence others’ behavior or the course of events.
Today, more than ever, power and money are almost inextricably linked, as wealthy people are typically powerful. Wealthy people have the resources and the means to make things happen. In some cases, they can buy all the lawyers, politicians, and institutions they need to protect them from meaningful consequences. We certainly know that having a lot of money gives someone an aura of success, as well as a platform, because of the tremendous respect people have for their money.
We probably know Machiavellian characters who would forsake family, friends, respect, and integrity for a few more dollars. They tend to reveal themselves when the opportunity to make more money arises, people whose zero-sum, all-or-nothing attitude becomes plain as day if they can get ahead. As the Mesilas Yesharim writes, exploiting people in business is sadly all too common.
Yet the Torah doesn’t tell us outright that money is bad. In fact, many of the heroes in our stories are blessed the fabulous wealth and success, like Avraham when they left Egypt:
וַיַּעַל אַבְרָם מִמִּצְרַיִם הוּא וְאִשְׁתּוֹ וְכָל-אֲשֶׁר-לוֹ, וְלוֹט עִמּוֹ–הַנֶּגְבָּה. וְאַבְרָם, כָּבֵד מְאֹד, בַּמִּקְנֶה, בַּכֶּסֶף וּבַזָּהָב. וַיֵּלֶךְ, לְמַסָּעָיו, מִנֶּגֶב, וְעַד-בֵּית-אֵל–עַד-הַמָּקוֹם, אֲשֶׁר-הָיָה שָׁם אָהֳלֹה בַּתְּחִלָּה, בֵּין בֵּית-אֵל, וּבֵין הָעָי. אֶל-מְקוֹם, הַמִּזְבֵּחַ, אֲשֶׁר-עָשָׂה שָׁם, בָּרִאשֹׁנָה; וַיִּקְרָא שָׁם אַבְרָם, בְּשֵׁם ה – Avram went up from Egypt; him, and his wife, and all that he had, and Lot with him, into the South. And Avram was very rich in cattle, in silver, and gold. And he went on his journeys from the South to Beth-el, to the place where his tent had originally been, between Beth-el and Ai, and to the site of the altar, which he had made earlier; and Avram called there in the name of Hashem. (13:1-4)
Given the obvious dangers and pitfalls that wealth poses, how do our heroes model the proper way to wield influence and wealth?
The Torah gives us some clues on how to conduct ourselves, and we see it play out in Lot’s contentious departure from Avraham.
Upon Avraham’s return to Israel, the Torah makes it clear that wealth hasn’t changed him; he returns to his old home, and his renowned altar on the mountainside – עַד-הַמָּקוֹם, אֲשֶׁר-הָיָה שָׁם אָהֳלֹה בַּתְּחִלָּה / אֶל-מְקוֹם, הַמִּזְבֵּחַ, אֲשֶׁר-עָשָׂה שָׁם, בָּרִאשֹׁנָה.
In stark contrast, Lot’s attitude to wealth alienates him from the family, which causes the dispute:
וְלֹא-נָשָׂא אֹתָם הָאָרֶץ, לָשֶׁבֶת יַחְדָּו: כִּי-הָיָה רְכוּשָׁם רָב, וְלֹא יָכְלוּ לָשֶׁבֶת יַחְדָּו. וַיְהִי-רִיב, בֵּין רֹעֵי מִקְנֵה-אַבְרָם, וּבֵין, רֹעֵי מִקְנֵה-לוֹט; – The land was not able to bear them dwelling together; because their assets were so great. There was strife between the herdmen of Abram’s cattle and the herdmen of Lot’s cattle… (13:6,7)
The Torah implies from the beginning that money is what stands between Avraham and Lot – וַיַּעַל אַבְרָם מִמִּצְרַיִם הוּא וְאִשְׁתּוֹ וְכָל-אֲשֶׁר-לוֹ, וְלוֹט עִמּוֹ. In this imagery, what stands between Avraham and Lot is literally their wealth – כָל-אֲשֶׁר-לוֹ.
R’ Shamshon Raphael Hirsch notes that they drifted apart not because of a shortage of land but because of such an abundance that they couldn’t figure out how to jointly manage it – כִּי-הָיָה רְכוּשָׁם רָב וְלֹא יָכְלוּ לָשֶׁבֶת יַחְדָּו.
The Malbim observes that people who can agree on basic fundamental principles can figure out a way forward. Avraham wanted to return to his roots, whereas Lot wanted to accumulate more – there was no way for them to work together anymore. Lot’s fortune had changed him, and Avraham’s had not. The assets had become a burden – כָּבֵד מְאֹד, בַּמִּקְנֶה, בַּכֶּסֶף וּבַזָּהָב.
The tension between the family leads them to separate, and Avraham magnanimously offers his young nephew the first choice of where he will go, and Lot chooses Sodom and the fertile Jordan Valley. The Torah lets us know what it thinks of Lot; he has literally and figuratively descended into the evil environment of Sodom, whose destruction is imminent – in contrast to Avraham, thanking Hashem with sacrificial offerings high in the hills and mountains of Israel.
R’ Jonathan Sacks teaches that tribulations unite us, but our real test comes in times of plenty and security.
In any relationship, whether business, personal, or romantic, it just won’t work if each partner is only out for themselves. Keeping score will create a mutual incompatibility and is a sure way to lose. The only way everyone wins is when partners look out for each other and let small things pass.
Relationships are always a binary choice of working towards the vision or division. The Torah teaches us that families and relationships disintegrate when individuals lose sight of the bigger picture of common goals and let money get in between them.
People think that money and power corrupt, but more probable than the notion that it changes us is the idea that it reveals our authentic selves by expressing our priorities. When we don’t need to keep up a facade to get what we want from others, our truest self can express itself, which is how the Torah’s heroes wielded influence and power. The Torah’s ideal is that good fortune will pair with good character, rather than unmasking mediocre values.
Money and power aren’t inherently bad; they don’t change you. But they do reveal who you are.