Money That Matters

Don Yitzchak ben Yehuda Abarbanel (1437-1508) was a Jewish statesmen and scholar. He lived during the idyllic age of Spanish Jewry before the exile of 1492 (Spanish Inquisition). By his late twenties, The Abarbanel — a descenant of King David — was recognized as a learned and prominent member of Lisbon's Jewish community, having written books on various facets of Jewish philosophy.
Don Yitzchak ben Yehuda Abarbanel (1437-1508) was a Jewish statesmen and scholar. He lived during the idyllic age of Spanish Jewry before the exile of 1492 (Spanish Inquisition). By his late twenties, The Abarbanel — a descenant of King David — was recognized as a learned and prominent member of Lisbon's Jewish community, having written books on various facets of Jewish philosophy.

“These are the accounts of the Mishkan (tabernacle), the Mishkan of the testimony, as were rendered according to the commandment of Moshe, through the service of the Leviim, by the hand of Itamar, the son of Aharon the Priest.” (Shemot 38:21)

“These are the accounts: In this parashah, all the weights of the donations for the Mishkan were counted -[that] of silver, of gold, and of copper. And all its implements for all its work were [also] counted.” (Rashi)

“The word “these” comes to exclude any other counting of man, for the counting of man is limited, whereas the counting of the Mishkan was for all eternity, for their dwelled the G-d of the world, Hashem.” (The Holy Ohr HaChaim, Rabbi Chaim ben Attar zt”l)

I was reading through this week’s Parashah and stumbled upon the above Ohr Hachaim. I read it over a few times, but couldn’t manage to understand it fully, until a story that I once taught in a Pirkei Avot class back home shed some light on this puzzling commentary:

Many years ago, in Spain, lived the legendary Rabbi Don Yitzchak Abarbanel, known simply as the “Abarbanel”, after his commentary on the Chumash. The Abarbanel was not only one of the close ministers and friends to the King of Spain, but also his trusted Treasurer.

The other ministers were very jealous of this Jew that was so close to the King, and made it known. Yet only one, the Minister of the Exterior, hated him with such a passion to do something about it. Taking his lead, the other ministers went to the King, to try and make him doubt the Abarbanel’s loyalty. They told the King that he should instruct the Abarbanel to make an exact account of all of his possessions and wealth, and report it to the King.

The King summoned the Abarbanel to his chambers and commanded him to submit to him a precise account of all of his possessions. The Abarbanel returned and said that his wealth consisted of 700,000 shekels.

The ministers met again with the king, and showed him what a mockery the Abarbanel had made of him. “Only his orchards and gardens alone are worth almost double this amount!”, said one of the ministers. They brought an expert to come and count for himself, and he concluded that indeed, the Abarbanel’s estate and possessions were worth more than three or four times the amount he told the King. “And the King became very angry, and his anger burned within” (Megillat Esther).

Another incident came about, that angered the King enough to act upon his wrath. There were certain, top-secret documents, that only the King and the Abarbanel knew their contents. The Minister of the Exterior bribed the Abarbanel’s servant to steal the papers for him, which he did gladly. The Minister mentioned to the King some of the details, and the King asked him how he knew of such things. “From Don Yitzchak, your Jew friend”, answered the Minister.

“From Don Yitzchak, your Jew friend”, answered the Minister.

The King was so angry, and decided he must kill the Abarbanel, who he once thought he could trust. Yet, he was faced with a dilemma. The people of Spain, especially the merchants, were extremely fond of Don Yitzchak. He had done them many favors, such as reducing taxes for them. He knew if he would explicitly order his execution, the country would be in an absolute uproar. He remembered that on the outskirts of the city was a brick factory, there was a fiery furnace burning day and night. He would have him killed there, with no one knowing that he was behind it.

The King summoned Don Yitzchak to his chambers once again, and told him he had a secret letter that must be delivered to the owner of the brick factory immediately. The Abarbanel, being a great admirer of the King, readily agreed to deliver the letter, sealed with the special seal of the King of Spain. Little did he know that the contents of the letter stated:

A secret message to the owner of the factory,

Immediately upon receiving this letter, without any questions, take the man who delivered this letter to you and cast him to his death in your furnace.

Signed,

The King of Spain

The Abarbanel got together his chariot, and ordered his “loyal” servant to take him to the factory as soon as possible. They had just left the city’s borders, when the Rabbi noticed a Jewish man flagging down his chariot. He ordered his servant to open the door for the Jew, and let him speak. The man approached the Abarbanel and said, “My Master the Minister. Today is the eighth day after my wife gave birth to a baby boy. The mohel that I asked to come, has fallen ill, and will not be able to circumcise my child. Please, I beg of you, I know you are an expert mohel. Help me fulfill the Biblical commandment requiring me to circumcise my newborn son!”

The Abarbanel listened to his words, and then stopped to think. He was faced with a serious problem. On one hand, he had to fulfill the orders of the King, and deliver the letter immediately to the factory. On the other hand, he had a requirement to obey the King of Kings, G-d, and help this Jew circumcise his son.

After a few moments of silence, Don Yitzchak told his servant, “You go to the factory and deliver this letter immediately. I will proceed by foot to help this Jew. I will wait for you here, to pick me up when you are finished.” That being said, he stepped down and followed the Jew to his home, where the guests and family were already waiting. The Abarbanel prepared the baby, and along with the father, blessed and circumcised the newborn child, welcoming him to his Jewish nation.

Of course, after having such an illustrious figure in their home, the family begged the Rabbi to please stay for the feast, and grace them with his presence. He agreed, and joined the guests in a lavish feast in honor of this special moment. Him being the great Torah sage that he was, the Abarbanel stood and gave over a beautiful sermon to the crowd that was gathered there.

The Abarbanel looked outside and saw that it was close to sundown, and his servant still had not returned. He borrowed a horse and wagon from his hosts, and went off to the factory to see if they knew of his servant’s whereabouts. How surprised and terrified was he to hear that the owner fulfilled the secret command of the King, and cast his servant into the fire to burn.

The owner added and said, “before he died, he screamed out and said that he was deserving of death, for he rebelled against his master and stole secret documents from him for the Minister of the Exterior”.

This was all news to Don Yitzchak, but he realized he was just saved from sure death, by fulfilling G-d’s will and helping out the Jewish man. Immediately, he burst out in song and praise to Hashem, that He saved his life, and fulfilled in him the verse that states “The one who keeps the law, will never know evil. A righteous man will be spared from evil, and I will replace a wicked man in his place.”

The next morning, the Abarbanel came before the King, to relate with him all that happened. The King, not believing his eyes, asked the Rabbi if he had indeed visited the factory as he commanded him. Don Yitzchak told the King all that had happened, and about his servant’s confession before his death. The King realized that he really was a man of G-d for He had saved his life, and immediately ordered the Minister of Exterior to be hung.

Happy his close friend was saved from death, and realizing his innocence, the King asked, “Don Yitzchak, I still have one complaint against you. When I asked you many months ago to give me the sum of your possessions, you gave me a number that both you and I know, is at best a quarter of your wealth!” The Rabbi smiled, and told the King, “Your Majesty, all the worldly possessions I have, are not really mine. At any given moment, the King could seize them from me, and who would be able to tell him otherwise? All my life, I have kept a notebook containing all the money I have given to charity. The reward for that, is eternal, and that is the only money I really own. For not you, or anyone else for that matter, can ever take it away from me.”

Impressed, the King replied, “you are really an honest and upright man. There is no doubt I my mind that this is why you were saved from guaranteed death. Your enemies have fallen before you, and you walk on their threshold”.

This is what the Ohr HaChaim is coming to teach us. All our possessions, all our wealth, anything we think we own – we really do not. Our stocks can fall, and our jobs can be taken from us. The only thing that is really ours for life, for all eternity – is the “account of the Mishkan”. The money, time, and acts of kindness, we have put into helping others and fulfilling G-d’s Divine will. I bless all of us, in these turbulent times that we should all be wealthy – with the true wealth of Torah and mitzvot!

Shabbat Shalom!

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