Relating to Wisdom, Strength, and Wealth: Part One



The Purim story that we read earlier in the week opens with a description of a mighty and wealthy king who is surrounded by wise advisors, including Haman, also known as Memuchan.  The king has access to wisdom, might, and wealth; however, the story demonstrates how these three gifts can be dedicated to evil. As we shall begin to discuss, the reason for the misuse of these three gifts is because they are being used by those who feel that “taking” rather than “giving” is the main purpose of human existence. The Purim story has a happy ending when Mordechai and Esther demonstrate that wisdom, strength, and wealth can be used to defeat evil. The triumph of Mordechai and Esther, who are dedicated to giving, brings a hopeful message to all human beings who recognize that they are created in the image of the Giving One.


Dear Friends,


Rav Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler was a noted 20th century sage of Mussar – Torah teachings related to ethics and personality refinement. In this letter, we shall discuss some insights of Rav Dessler regarding our attitude to wisdom, strength, and wealth. Rav Dessler begins his essay on this theme with the following proclamation of Hashem – the Compassionate One:




“Thus said Hashem: Let not the wise one boast of his wisdom, and let not the strong one boast of his strength; let not the rich one boast of his wealth” (Jeremiah 9:22).


…But in our world the mass media of communication are filled with the boasting of the wise, the mighty, and the rich. Our ears are filled morning, noon, and night with news of the inventions of their wisdom, the victories of their power, and the achievements of their wealth. Human ingenuity has wrought a cultural and scientific revolution in our time. It has raised the human being – so we are told – to a previously unimagined pinnacle, opened in front of him undreamt-of horizons, and infinitely enlarged the scope of his world.  Humankind has bestowed the laurels of victory on its military heroes, on those who conquered many lands and radically changed the map of the world. Skyscrapers, giant industrial complexes, mines and ports loudly advertise the world’s unprecedented wealth. The amazing achievements of science have turned it into the idolatry of our age. Human progress on all fronts looks down with contempt – if it knows them at all – on the sages of Torah hidden away within the four ells of halacha and mussar. If it had an opinion, it would no doubt express it in the words of the scoffer mentioned in the Talmud: “What have the Rabbis done for us?” (Sanhedrin 99b)

But if we examine the situation, we shall see that their propaganda is worthless: empty words which may impress and attract the less intelligent, but which can soon be seen through by the critical observer, as we shall discover.


There is one principle we may not forget: just as there is “wealth which may lead to the owner’s downfall” (Ecclesiastes 5:12), so there is knowledge which only brings disaster on its possessors. What use are teeming cities or skyscraper  blocks, if the quality of life is depressed? The wealth rises up and mocks its possessors. If the human being is not master of the wealth but the wealth the master of the human being, what good is it to him? What advantage is there in scientific knowledge if human beings cannot control it; if it breaks all bonds, joins with the evil in the human being, and produces results the opposite of those intended? After a time, the “wise one” himself no longer recognizes his wisdom. Science which is controlled by the evil in the human being soon turns into a curse. The scientist eventually is forced to recognize this.” (This is not true wisdom, adds Rav Dessler; thus, Hashem proclaims, “Let not the wise one boast of his wisdom.” This Divine proclamation is cited in the Talmud - Erchin 10b, and Rashi, in his commentary on the Talmud, says that the reason this person should not boast is “because his wisdom is destructive.”)


True Wisdom and the Quality of Life:


 “Wisdom” means benefit to the human being and the world; progress in developing the good in the human character; spiritual progress from level to level towards the infinitely distant goals of human perfection. This is the wisdom of which Koheles (Solomon) said, “Wisdom gives life to its possessors” (Ecclesiastes 7:12). This happens only when the human being treats wisdom as a gift from God and realizes that it is part of the Divine plan and consequently uses it to further the goals laid down by Divine wisdom. The moment he abandons this path and tries to use wisdom as a tool for gaining his own base ends, as soon as he forgets its Divine origin – he destroys it with his own hands; it turns bad and corrupts life.


Our saintly Rabbis, with their purity of heart and great insight, knew this very well. They recognized the clear truth in all matters and they stated it for our benefit. Their understanding is the precise opposite of the understanding of the world:

They said, “Who is wise? The one who learns from every human being” (Pirkei Avos 4:1). It is the characteristic of humility which characterizes the truly wise. Not he who imagines himself to be the be-all and end-all of wisdom, not he who looks down with contempt from his eminence on the simple folk below, but he who sees it and appreciates the true humanity of every human being and is capable of entering into communication with them and learning from them – he is the truly wise.


“Who is mighty? It is the one who subdues his personal inclination” (ibid). Not he who establishes a great power, or subjugates millions to his rule, but he who struggles daily with himself and conquers each day a new world of spiritual progress; he who conquers his own nature – he is truly mighty.


And the opinion of our Rabbis about the nature of wealth is diametrically opposed to that generally held by the “rich” of the world. “Who is rich? One who rejoices in his portion” (ibid). The wealthy person is the satisfied person. A person who desires more than he has is not rich; even if he has millions in the bank, he may be the poorest of the poor. As long as the desire for “taking” has not been eradicated from his heart and replaced with the joy of “giving” and gratitude for the God-given gift of life, that poverty will remain. The person who rejoices in his lot is rich, for he desires nothing beyond what he has and delights in the opportunities for service that this gives him.


(In an earlier essay titled The Pursuit of Happiness, Rav Dessler elaborates on the above insight regarding the person who rejoices with what he has, and he writes:)


Who is this person? Let us take a closer look at him. We said that he has banished desires and ambitions from his heart. Does this mean that he is a weak-kneed person, without energy, without “drive”? Is this what we call life? Is he like an “old” man, with no goals, no desires, with all his vital energy spent?  Could this be what we mean by a happy life?

No! Certainly not! Nothing could be further from the truth. What we mean is this:

There is no happiness in the world in material things; there is only happiness in spiritual concerns. The one who enjoys a rich spiritual life is happy. There is no other kind of happiness in existence.

…Of course, there is no happiness without goals, drive, ambition; indeed, these things are life itself. But it all depends on what the goals are. To what ends the drive and ambition are directed. Happiness is when the goals are attainable, when they depend on no one else for their fulfillment, when they are independent of those self-frustrating urges called jealousy and status-seeking.

When can that be?  Only when the ambition flows from love of Torah, love of wisdom, love of mussar – the desire for true ethical living.

This kind of ambition can be realized by ourselves alone. The more energy and the more drive that we put into attaining these goals, the happier we shall be. We shall be the happy ones in this world.




With the help of the Giving One, we shall continue to explore this theme in the next letter.



Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen (See below)


The above insights from Rav Dessler are found in an English edition of his mussar teachings, “Strive for Truth” (Part One), translated by Rav Aryeh Carmell, one of Rav Dessler’s foremost disciples. The original Hebrew edition, Michtav Eliyahu, was prepared by Rav Carmell after Rav Dessler passed away. “Strive for Truth” is published by Feldheim: .

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