אַתָּה תֶחֱזֶה מִכָּל הָעָם אַנְשֵׁי חַיִל יִרְאֵי אֱ־לֹהִים אַנְשֵׁי אֱמֶת שֹׂנְאֵי בָצַע You should seek out from among all the people men who fear God, men of truth, who hate [monetary] gain. Exodus 18:21
It is known from the holy books that the lust for money is like idol worship (May the Merciful One save us!), and is like no other lust. All other lusts are in the limbs of the body, arising from time to time, so it is easy to repent from them by purifying the body; but the lust for money is not so, for it is everpresent, being bound up in the innermost heart and the core of the mind. It is very difficult to uproot, for one’s life depends on it, and even service of God requires some money. So you must become your own judge when it comes to money.
As the sages say, “The Torah was concerned for Israel’s money,” and Likutim Yekarim explains, “because of the holy sparks that are in it” (1). So the insightful person must go into his deepest self and uproot any such lust… If he does so, the lust has no hold on his heart. This is what the sages referred to when they said, “Poverty is becoming to Israel as a strap of scarlet on a white horse” (2). This means that even if they have great riches they should be poor in their hearts, that is, they should take no delight in their wealth but be able to give it up. So, just as a horse takes no delight in his ornaments, so the servant of God takes no delight in his wealth. As I heard in the name of the holy master Rebbe Zusya of Hanipol, if the child of the king has a large allowance, what is it to him? And are we not all children of the king? Even if you have great wealth (‘osher), [being God’s children] should be our true and eternal joy (osher) (3).
This then is the meaning in our verse of “men who…hate gain” (betz’a), which can be rearranged to read “pain” (‘etzev) (4), which confuses the mind and increases worry. In truth, all worries are nothing before the one worry worth having, which is how to give account for oneself before the King of Kings of Kings, the Holy One of Blessing.
1) The original idea is that the Torah does not demand things of us that would require too much monetary loss. The re-reading is based on a mystical concept that the material world is filled with “sparks” of divinity that must be returned to unity with G!d; this is done through using the material world to serve G!d, for example, using money for charitable purposes. So the original teaching, which was given as a safeguard, is read in a more radical way, demanding total sacrifice in some cases. 2) Hagigah 9b. Here is the full discussion: “Isaiah says (48:10), ‘Behold, I refine you, but not with [fire as one smelts] silver; I have chosen for you the crucible of poverty.’ This verse teaches that the Blessed Holy One reviewed all the good circumstances to give Israel, and he found only poverty. Shmuel, and some say it was Rav Yosef, commented, Poverty is becoming to the Jewish people like a red strap to a white horse.'” Iyun Yaakov explains this by saying that the scarlet color emphasizes the whiteness of the horse as poverty brings out the “whiteness” of the Jewish people, meaning that it purifies them from sin, as in the verse (Isaiah 1:18), “Though your sins be like scarlet, they will become white as snow.” Maharsha, like our teaching, explains that a white horse is already beautiful and gains nothing by wearing a red strap; likewise, Israel’s true beauty is their adherence to G!d’s Torah, regardless of material wealth, or the lack thereof. 3) The reference to being children of the king is from Bava Metzia 103b. ‘Osher, “wealth,” is ayin-shin-reish; osher, “joy,” is alef-shin-reish. 4) Beit-tzadi-ayin and ayin-tzadi-veit, respectively.
There are traditionally three levels of service to God: the servant who serves for the sake of reward, the servant who serves not for the sake of reward, and the child, to whom the concept of payment does not even apply. One of the purposes of the religious life, especially in Hasidism, is to move from the first to the second to the last. When it comes to money, someone on the first level might see his wealth as a reward for his service; at the second level, the wealth becomes a tool that is entrusted to him by God for His own service; on the third level, the whole world is his inheritance as God’s child, but he returns it all to God, wanting nothing but his Father’s (or Mother’s) presence. Reb Zusya moves quickly through the levels in this teaching, having himself progressed long ago to the highest level of service, so that whatever came to him, for better or worse, was a gift from God, to be returned to Him through giving to others. He was one of several rebbes who were known to be unable to sleep if any money was left in his house at the end of the day. A story is told of some hasidim who asked the Baal Shem Tov how to accept suffering in love. He sent them to a little village in search of a man name Zusya. They found him, covered in sores and sitting on the floor of his dirt hut, and asked him their question. He laughed and replied, “You must have the wrong person. I have never suffered a day in my life!” This man, when he got his hands on a little money, wasted no time in giving it away, and asked for nothing more. Someone once said, “If you’re not giving till it hurts, you’re not really giving.” I think Reb Zusya would say, “If it hurts to give, you don’t really know what giving is.”