Business & Wisdom

Rabbi Israel Chait

Transcribed by a student


Maimonides comments:

Torah is not found in haughty people or in those who travel to distant lands. And the rabbis tie this to a verse in a metaphoric sense: “It is not in heaven, that one should say, ‘Who might ascend to the heavens for us and take it for us and we will hear it.’ Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who among us can cross to the other side of the sea and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?’ No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it.” (Deut. 30:12-14) So the rabbis said, “Torah isn’t found in haughty people (heavens), nor in those who travel the sea for business.”

Maimonides teaches that there is an element of haughtiness in business that is an obstacle to becoming wise. What is the common denominator?

When referring to one becoming wise, we refer not to one who amassed facts, but to one whose nature is that he loves wisdom. Who is attached to wisdom? There are two possible attitudes of the psyche. Man’s energies are great and seek satisfaction. One personality finds satisfaction in the self. He is convinced he is a great person. This is referred to as “the heavens”—arrogance. The other personality is in search of something: “Once I acquire that object, I will be happy.” This is the “across the sea” personality. Either, one has found his satisfaction in the self, or his happiness is to be found in the next conquest. In both personalities, there is no Torah. In the haughty personality, there is no Torah, as his energies are satisfied. In the other personality there is no Torah, as his energies await the next conquest. Who then is an individual who possesses Torah? What type of nature does he have? It is the personality that does not have the satisfaction of the arrogant individual, nor does he find satisfaction in that next conquest “over there.” The one who possesses Torah seeks satisfaction in the here and now.

The thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart to observe it. 

When a person recognizes this truth, he is then open to Torah. This is the state of mind necessary for becoming wise. This is Maimonides’ view and the first explanation in Rashi. Once one learns Torah and enjoys the experience of Torah study, his energies are consumed in the here and now. The person of Torah lives in the present. The philosophers said, “Life is strange: the future is not here, the past is gone, so one’s whole life is lived in the split second of the present.” The person of Torah lives in the present: he is not the person of the future or of the past.

It is important to be mindful when learning Pirkei Avos, and personalities are depicted, not to think of that person as one with a “fixed” personality. We each partake of all personality types. Pirkei Avos isolates these personality types to best focus us on positive and negative values and traits. A normal person has parts of him that are “across the river” and “in the heavens,” and perfection requires us to unravel these parts of our nature in order to improve ourselves. One must not label himself or others, otherwise he forfeits the process of perfection.

Rashi offers a second explanation:

If one wishes to become wise, he must engage in all areas of societal improvements, whether it’s business or other areas of wisdom, so that he understands all areas.

According to Rashi, becoming wise does not refer to abstract intellectual thought, because from business dealings, this will not occur. This happens only when studying the sciences. Rashi refers to a certain kind of perfection. To achieve this perfection requires one to understand the panorama of all human activities, since all activities stem from man’s soul. To understand psychology, no area of human involvement can be ignored; one must examine all human expressions. This is Rashi’s meaning of “understanding all areas.” Through this knowledge, one can perfect himself.

Why can’t man simply read books on this? That would be suitable for intellectual perfection. However, to perfect one’s complete nature, one must not simply learn cold facts, but he must deal with his nature and his emotions and relate to them as they interact with various phenomena. [Witnessing one’s own feelings and reactions as he engages all areas of human activity, one can monitor his emotions and gain greater knowledge of how the human experience affects man, and apply that knowledge to his life. This cannot be gained by reading books.]

When Sigmund Freud wrote to Albert Einstein about his discovery, Einstein went to observe certain neurotics to see how such people operate. He was not satisfied to simply read about it; text cannot convey the knowledge that reality offers. This explains why King Solomon did not study human nature with intellectual analysis alone, but he engaged in activities to experience the phenomenon in reality. A philosopher can tell you about the proper lifestyle, but he cannot help one stop living the improper lifestyle. He can tell you it is foolish, but that will not help you if you are attached to certain emotions. King Solomon used himself to experiment with the many emotions and human pursuits to uncover how and why one is drawn to certain areas. The midrash says only King Solomon was on the level to be an objective observer of his own emotions. King Solomon was unique in that he functioned like two people: he subjected himself to the various pursuits and then stepped back and objectively analyzed their effects on himself like an impartial outsider. Rashi did not say one should merely observe business, but one must engage in it. However, this is only one aspect of societal improvement. One must expose himself to government and to other areas too.

Most people live a reactive lifestyle; their actions are responses to arising situations. And as all people need to earn a living, their activities are typically limited to business and no other societal activities. Therefore, “Not all who engage much time in business become wise” means that people are not focused on other areas of society. Thereby, they lack the understanding of man’s other expressions and pursuits. This leaves one with little knowledge of man.

Therefore, it is not the reactive personality that becomes wise, but the proactive personality who guides himself outside the directive to work. He explores all areas of society and life from an internal quest to understand mankind, himself, and to apply that knowledge to perfect himself.

Torah says, “And Moshe grew older and he went out to his brothers and observed their affliction” (Exod. 2:11). Chazal argue whether Moshe was 40 years old or 80 years old. Did he not know about the Jews’ servitude until that age?

Moshe Rabbeinu was an unusual person. Most people are attracted to politics because of emotional reasons; Moshe was not. He spent his life in wisdom. Before pursuing politics, one must know what justice is. Moshe was not naturally attracted to politics, but to wisdom. Once he mastered wisdom, he felt he was in a position to enter politics. Now he understood justice and was thereby equipped to determine if the Jews were subjected to true justice or not, and if not, how he could change it. Once a person attains knowledge of perfection, he can then determine how a country should be governed.

Today, the separation of church and state is an absurdity. Since a government governs human beings, and as human beings by nature have ethical questions, the two issues cannot possibly be separated. One choice the government can make is to abstain. However, as no one can determine when life begins, if the government permits abortion, this could be committing murder. What the government could do is allow people to act only when they do not affect another person. Also, if suicide is not permitted, the government is making an ethical decision, and this does not reflect the separation of church and state. The separation of church and state is impossible to resolve logically. That is why Judaism’s laws incorporate all areas, including ethics.

I mention Moshe Rabbeinu because Rashi holds that one must obtain knowledge before he explores all areas of society, just as Moshe did. Without knowledge, one cannot understand society in all of its forms. Thus, one must study from books and teachers first and then immerse oneself in experiences to gain further insight. Abstract thought must precede experience so that one has the tools with which to gain from those experiences.