Do not be overawed when others grow rich,
when the splendor of their houses increases;
for they will take nothing with them when they die,
their splendor will not descend with them. — Psalm 49:16–17
Psalm 49 provides us with a much-needed injection of perspective on everyday life. Namely, that the pursuit of wealth is not the same as the pursuit of happiness, and that ultimately, our wealth is totally meaningless. The psalmist teaches, “Do not be overawed when others grow rich, when the splendor of their houses increases; for they will take nothing with them when they die, their splendor will not descend with them.”
In other words, you can’t take it with you.
An interesting tale is recorded in the Talmud about Alexander the Great when he arrived at the gates of heaven. The story goes that the great conqueror was denied admission into heaven. When Alexander failed to gain entry, he asked for at least a souvenir. He was given a strange gift — an eyeball. Perplexed by this gift, Alexander tried to assess its worth by placing it on a scale. On one pan, Alexander placed the human eye. On the other, he placed precious metals, such as gold and silver.
The pan with the precious metals began to rise and Alexander noticed that no matter how much gold and silver he placed on the pan, the human eye always retained the greater weight. Baffled, Alexander asked the Jewish sages around him for an explanation. They told him that the eye represented human desire – it’s what we see and what we want. Human nature is such that no matter how much we have, we always want more. No matter how much gold and silver we place on the pan, our desire is always greater than what we have.
Next, the sages took some dirt, which represented human mortality, and sprinkled it on top of the eye. The pan with the eye then rose to the top, outweighed by and unconcerned with the precious metals on the other pan. In the face of mortality, our desire for wealth lessens and then completely disappears as we realize the futility of our wealth.
The truth is none of our wealth will follow us beyond the grave. But here’s what we do get to take along: all our good deeds, all our faith, and all our charity. Recently I saw a heartwarming story about a man who really understood this principle. It was his 59th birthday and so he stood at a popular intersection with a cardboard sign that read: “I have a job. I have a home. Would YOU like $5?” That man gave away $800 worth of $5 bills – and gained an eternity.
As one philanthropist once said, “All I really have is what I have given away.” How might this perspective change the way we live today?
With prayers for shalom, peace,
Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein
Founder and President