Friday, August 14, 2009

I am my money

[For those who came looking for my post from last night: Sorry, but I took it down. The post was too simplistic for the idea I wanted to convey. Perhaps I will re-visit the topic at some point.]

The gemara [Gittin 57a] tells of an anonymous matron from the house of Boethus [see Marta bat Baytus here] who lived during the Roman siege of Yerushalayim. She sent her servant to the market for fine flour, but it was sold out before he arrived. He was not a terribly independent thinker, and he returned home for guidance on purchasing flour of a poorer quality. The matron sent him back for the cheaper flour, but, once again, it was sold out by the time he arrived. Again, he returned home for guidance.

This scene went through four iterations, the servant going for four different types of flour and, each time, returning empty-handed. [Maharsha suggests a link to the four types of flour-offerings brought in the beit hamikdash.]

Finally, the matron goes out to the streets herself, experiences something that is a shock to her pampered system (see the gemara there), and dies. During her pre-death shock, she throws her gold and silver into the streets, declaring, “What use is this to me?”

That story has always bothered me:

• First, was this servant truly so dull-witted that he didn’t realize he should purchase the best remaining flour, rather than go home to consult?

• And second, while the emotional aspect of the matron throwing her money into the street is clear, is there a deeper message? The gemara there connects it to Yechezkel's prediction [Yechezkel 7] that the Jews would throw their gold and silver into the streets; perhaps there is a deeper message involved?

Two stories of my own:

• I was recently cheated of some funds. I got over the loss quickly, but I remained troubled by what this told me about the person's personality.

• A while back, someone offered me money as a gift, for something I had done. I declined to take it for myself, and this person was upset.

These events, and similar ones, set me thinking about what money means to us, beyond the ability to purchase our (perceived) needs.

It seems to me that money is often our interface with the world; whether in coins or bills or barter, it is the “currency” of our relationships:

• What we do with money displays our values;
• The way we share or use our money shapes our relationships;
• Our financial decisions are key ways we exercise control over our world;
• Our spending shapes our commitments to others;
• And so on.

There is much more to say here, many sources could be invoked, etc., but it’s a blog post, not a derashah. [No derashah to write this week! What an odd feeling.] Bottom line: Our use of money, like our facial expression or our speech, is a key interface between us and the world, a statement of our identity.

This may be Yechezkel's message of people casting money into the streets; more than a statement that money is worthless during a famine, it’s a statement that their entire persons are gone, their identity is gone.

And perhaps that’s why the matron’s servant couldn’t act on his own: He feared misrepresenting his boss in public, lest her man be seen purchasing sub-quality produce.

Of course, since this week is Parshat Reeh, the message does tie into tzedakah as presented in Devarim 15:7-11. If our spending is an expression of our identity, then surely tzedakah is a way for us to express that finest element of our personalities…

Okay, fill in your own derashah and closer here; I told you, this is a blog post, not a derashah.


  1. Assuming that the servant was right not to buy substandard flour, why didn't the matron catch on to the on situation and tell the servant to either get the best stuff available or whatever he could get his hands on first?

  2. To your taken down post, as one further down the road and a TUMnik (whatever that means) I always quote Robert Browning's rabbi ben ezra - Come grow old with me, the best is yet to be.

    Joel Rich

  3. To build on your derasha- where we spend our marginal resources (be they time or money) is what defines our true priorities.
    Joel Rich

  4. Just a thought--money spent in the marketplace, out in the open where people can see, may be more about how we'd like to be seen and thought of then about who we are or even what we actually have as far as money goes. It's about public image.

    Some people need/want that public validation as a "somebody" that purchasing expensive goods can give them. Their public image is tied up in things. People venerate them based on what they have purchased, on what may be flouted in public, rather than on what they do privately. The world makes assumptions about private deeds based on public display. Put them in a position where they can't buy the "image makers," the items that proclaim them to be "wealthy" (true or not) and they "die," both figuratively and literally.

    Neither my husband nor myself are particularly caught up in the labeling frenzy or outward showiness. This resulted in a rather funny situation years back. During the last economic downturn a group was going collecting for an emergency tzedaka campaign for some people in the neighborhood who needed help. We said fine and my husband wrote out a check. When the committee saw the amount on the check they actually wanted to give it back to us, saying that they didn't want to cause us financial stress just because it was tzedaka being collected for. My husband couldn't quite understand why they thought this, but I got it quite clearly. There's no "white flour" Lexus in our driveway, and no Gucci swinging from my arm. What there is, frankly, is money in the bank and an open committment to giving tzedaka. Neither of us need the physical trappings to feel self worth. And honestly, we are among the exceptions in far too much of the frum world.

    No white flour in the marketplace? Hey, whole meal brown flour is healthier for you anyway.

  5. This is an interesting parable. I believe you are correct that the servant did not buy the lesser flour out of fear that he may inadvertently shed the wrong light on his mistress.
    The greater lesson in money is how do we handle abundance and scarcity. Do we cling to our money always looking for more living in scarcity or do we share our money and use it for good knowing that we live in abundance and that we will always have more even when more is not very much in cultural terms. Very good post, thank-you for sharing your thoughts.

  6. Marc-
    Good question; perhaps she was as concerned with her image as the servant thought?

    1) I hope Browning is right.
    2) כיסו כעסו כוסו?

    Along the same lines: The gemara mentions that a pauper is as though he was dead. This may be one layer of meaning to that line.

    Thought-provoking comment; thanks!

  7. כיסו כעסו כוסו?
    I've always been a bit ambivalent about that gemara - I think there is some truth to it (and כיסו goes along with what I said), yet what defines someone- abrief moment of anger, or how they "pretend " to be 99% of the time (you are what you pretend to be?)

    Joel Rich

  8. you took down a post? well so did I, but for different reasons.

  9. Joel - Rav Dessler wrote that we are not our extremes, in either direction. I don't know.

    muse - What was yours?