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Beit Midrash Series Parashat Hashavua

The Separation Between Money and Torah

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The hiring of the sorcerer, Bilam, to, as it turns out, bless Bnei Yisrael raises the issue of taking money to do mitzvot and supply religious services. On one hand, such a practice certainly cheapens the value of the mitzva and turns something spiritual into something to which one can ‘attach a price tag.’ On the other hand, rabbis and their families also have to visit the grocery, and it is helpful to have some money in hand when doing so. This also brings us to the question of living stipends for students in yeshivot and kollelim. We will try to extract insight and guidance from our parasha and a parallel passage in Tanach.
Bilam led Balak to believe that he was not willing to acquiesce to Balak’s request because Balak had not offered him enough honor and money, and this is a sign that he had great worldly aspirations. On the other hand, Bilam’s explicit words on the matter provide an inspiring message: "If Balak will give me a house-full of gold and silver, I will not be able to transgress the word of Hashem" (Bamidbar 22:18).
After three failed attempts to curse Bnei Yisrael, Balak told Bilam: "Now, run away to your place. I told you that I would honor you, but Hashem has prevented you from receiving honor" (Bamidbar 24:11). Bilam reminded Balak that he had said that no amount of money would enable him to go against the word of Hashem.
Balak’s statement reminds us of a similar statement made by another wicked person, Amatzia, the priest of the forbidden worship in Beit El, where the prophet, Amos, went to warn of the destruction of the Kingdom of Israel. Amatzia told him: "Run away to the Land of Yehuda and eat bread there and there prophesy" (Amos 7:12). What he was telling Amos was to go prophesy in a place where he would be able to make money doing so, not in Beit El where his words were not appreciated, to say the least. Amos’ answer is curious: "I am neither a prophet nor the son of a prophet, rather I am a herdsman and one who examines sycamores, but Hashem took me away from the herds and said to me: ‘Prophesy to my nation, Israel’" (ibid. 14-15). Amos’ answer was more profound than Bilam’s: he was saying that money has nothing to do with his spiritual work, as his livelihood was work in the field.
On this backdrop let us suggest the following guidelines for the rabbinic world. One who serves in a rabbinic position should suffice with his set salary and not request and perhaps even turn down money for additional mitzvot that he gets involved in. Someone who studies Torah and is willing to sacrifice his comforts in order to grow in Torah should accept upon himself that while learning he should set aside significant time for activity on behalf of the community. Likewise he should accept the responsibility that after his studies, he will dedicate years to giving back to the Am Yisrael from that which he was able to attain during his studies. When possible, the highest level is to do what Amos did and not make a livelihood from his Torah studies at all.
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