The excitement over the recent $1.5 billion lottery jackpot now seems like a distant memory. I probably don’t need to confirm this for you, but sadly, I did not win. Still, in my fantasy scenario, the money would have been spent on paying off my rabbinical school debt, setting aside money for my children’s future, some charitable donations to help offset the cost of Jewish education in the community, and a little left over to enjoy as I travelled the world and pursued my passions. It was a nice dream, though since I never actually bought a lottery ticket, it remained just that, a dream.
The thought of coming into money, especially great windfalls like the lottery, lets us dream about all that we might be able to accomplish if only we had the financial means. However, studies show time and again that winners of large sums of money often find that the initial boost in happiness quickly wears off, and their overall lifetime happiness is in fact lower than it would have been otherwise. We dream big, but find the reality cannot be changed overnight.
This week we read parshat Ki Tissa from within the story of the Exodus. The Israelites are in the desert, they have received the 10 Commandments, and they are now set to continue on their journey, with Moshe and God leading the way. Moshe is on top of the mountain and he is delayed in coming down. The Israelites are worried, scared, and unsure of this God that they have yet to trust, so they gather their gold, make an idol, and turn their attention to something tangible.
The golden calf is often the center topic here, but there’s something else interesting about money, power, and faith that happens earlier. At the beginning of the parshah, Moshe takes a census of the people by asking the Israelites to each give a half shekel. He says “This is what everyone . . . shall pay.” Having the word “this” at the beginning suggests that Moshe was holding something up as an example, but was it actually money? An Eastern European commentary shares that God uses a flame in the shape of a half shekel to demonstrate the offering. The flame is symbolic because money is like fire: it can provide warmth and comfort or it can consume and destroy.
In parshat Ki Tissa, we see the golden calf as a moment of destruction of faith and dissolution of the community of trust established between God and the Israelite nation. It’s a fascinating juxtaposition to the half shekel given in support of the community. Clearly, money has the power to build up and tear down. I might still fantasize about being independently wealthy, but now I’m realizing it’s not so much a question of how the money would change me, but how I would remain me in spite of it.
-Rabbi Eve Posen