Abraham Lincoln famously said that any man can handle adversity; but if you wish to truly test a man’s character, give him power. Power and money are fungible, as both represent easy access to options.
It’s not unlikely that you know people whose zero-sum, all-or-nothing attitude became plain as day once they ”got ahead” after trying to hide it for a while; people who would forsake family, friends, respect, and integrity for a few more dollars reveal themselves when the opportunity arises.
People think that money and power corrupt, but more likely than the idea that it changes us, is the idea that it reveals our authentic selves by expressing our priorities.
Avraham and his family were blessed with tremendous wealth 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 in 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)
How do the Torah’s heroes handle the test of great wealth?
Upon Avraham’s return to Israel, the Torah makes it clear that his 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.
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 explains that people who can agree on principles can figure out a way to work together. Lot’s fortune had changed him, and Avraham’s had not. Avraham wanted to return to his roots, whereas Lot just wanted to accumulate more – there was no way for them to work together anymore. 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 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.
The Torah’s ideal is that good fortune will enhance good character, instead of unmasking mediocre priorities.