A rabbi friend of mine recently took a group of teenagers from his synagogue on a trip to Washington, D.C. The synagogue resides in a wealthy suburban area, where incomes are high, homes are large, schools are good, and sidewalks, streetlights, and pedestrians are nonexistent. On the trip, the students participated in a service project in a poor D.C. neighborhood. They found the project profoundly meaningful. One enthused student even remarked to the rabbi, “That was so great! I wish there were needy people where we live, so we could do this more often!” The teen lives just 17 miles from an urban center with one of the nation's highest poverty rates.
The students inadvertently revealed one of the most profound challenges of wealth, and one of the deepest spiritual dangers it presents. Some wealthy people flee the congestion of urban areas for the space and perceived security of less densely populated locales, erecting barriers to prevent unfavorable or unsafe elements of urban life from following them: banning sidewalks and streetlights, building gates and walls around developments, denying transit expansion, even disallowing an exit on one, but not both, directions of a highway.
While the reasons for raising these walls – both real and figurative – may be understandable, the results can be morally toxic. When cordoned off from needy people and places, we can become indifferent to the desperation of others. This phenomenon helps explain why wealthier people tend to give proportionally less of their incomes to charity than poorer people. According to a recent study by Independent Sector, a nonprofit focused on charitable giving, American households earning more than $75,000 a year give half as much of their income to charity than those earning less than $25,000. Moreover, when wealthier people do give to charity, they tend to disproportionately give to institutions that serve their interests and needs – like universities, private schools, symphonies and museums – rather than to those that serve the less fortunate.
Rich people are not inherently mean, but wealth can make one meaner if he or she is not careful. A University of California study by social psychologist Paul Piff showed that in a controlled environment, lower-income people were more charitable and generous than wealthier people, but when the sympathies of wealthier people were aroused by a video of a needy person, they became as generous as the lower-income subjects. This suggests that the rich and poor have the same fundamental human responses to suffering; the difference is our proximity to need and its visibility to us.
True, other studies, like Berkeley psychologist Jennifer Stellar’s, show that it is more difficult to arouse a rich person’s sympathies than a poor person’s, but the increased difficulty is again primarily related to their proximity to need. Stellar says that the wealthy are slower to respond compassionately “because they haven’t had to deal with as many obstacles,” making them less “adept at recognizing the cues and signals of suffering.”
These studies make a compelling case that while we all have a compassion instinct, that instinct lies dormant unless environmental factors activate it. Indeed, wealthy people who live primarily among other wealthy people are less generous than wealthy people who live in more heterogeneous communities. The more we see suffering, the more likely we are to try to alleviate it.
The Talmud (Bava Batra 7b) puts this insight in stark terms, telling of Elijah the prophet who regularly visits a pious man, but refuses to visit him when the pious man builds a gatehouse. The medieval French commentator Rashi explains that Elijah objected to the gatehouse because it “prevented the poor from crying out, since no one could hear their voices.”
According to our tradition, Elijah eventually announces the advent of the messianic era, and, thus, he represents the possibility of ultimate redemption. Likewise, his absence symbolizes the broken world in which we currently live. The rabbis say that, like Elijah stopping to visit the pious man, when we cordon ourselves off from the poor, redemption disappears.
The Torah emphatically warns of the spiritual dangers of prosperity because of wealth’s propensity to close us off from the needy: “Lest when thou hast eaten and art satisfied, and hast built goodly houses, and dwelt therein; and when thy herds and thy flocks multiply, and thy silver and thy gold is multiplied, and all that thou hast is multiplied; then thy heart be lifted up, and thou forget the LORD thy God, who brought thee forth out of the land of Egypt” (Deuteronomy 8:12-14).
Wealth makes us apt to forget God - biblical code for forgetting that each of us is related to, bound by and responsible for one another – and it has us forget that we were once slaves. Thus, we are called upon to empathize with the needs of the plundered poor and to champion the disadvantaged, for God, above all else, fights for the orphan and the widow, befriending the stranger, providing him with food and clothing (10:18).
The Torah does not tell us that success and prosperity is a sin. Indeed, I believe that God wants us to flourish materially. It is not even telling us that we must live close to the needy to activate our caring instincts. Rather, the Torah warns that if we have more, we must work extra hard not to be hard-hearted, especially if we choose to live where we are likely to forget those who have less. Ours is the most affluent Jewish population in history. But in our time of gross inequality, we must ensure that our great blessings do not close us off to the needs of the less fortunate.
Michael Knopf, a Rabbi Without Borders, is the Assistant Rabbi of Har Zion Temple in Penn Valley, Pennsylvania. You can follow him on Facebook.