Parashat Ekev

The Divine Ownership Of Wealth

We can translate the concept of the divine ownership of wealth into recognition of the collective effort involved in the generation of wealth.

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This translation can be gleaned from the statements of several notable Jews:

In a 1998 profile, the late Joseph Worth, who invented the airplane engine that propelled Charles Lindbergh's Spirit of St. Louis across the Atlantic, stated that "There are no real inventions. I don't even like the word. There are only developments." Similarly, Albert Einstein, the paradigmatic "genius" of the 20th century, was nevertheless firm in his insistence that "in science . . . the work of the individual is so bound up with that of his [sic] scientific predecessors and contemporaries that it appears almost as an impersonal product of his generation."

In a 1992 essay, political scientist Gar Alperovitz enumerated the long chain of "developments" involved in the creation of wealth: When "a bright young . . . inventor produces an innovation that makes him a millionaire . . . his 'invention' . . . is literally unthinkable without the previous generations," including "the evolution of overall skill levels, repeated generations of schooling," the "centuries of science" and "the development of technologies and inventions among hundreds of thousands of scientists and engineers and millions of skilled working people." The young inventor, Alperovitz concluded, "picks the best fruit of a tree which stands on a huge mountain of human contribution."

Ben Cohen of Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream added a business perspective to this discussion in a 1992 essay: "I always felt that we were holding the business in trust for the community. After all, the community allows you to exist. . . They provide the infrastructure; they provide all the resources that you use; they provide everything except the idea."

Inspired by these statements, we translate the humbling religious recognition of the "divine ownership of wealth" into an equally humbling recognition of the collective effort involved in the generation of wealth. Within our wealth-worshipping culture the assertion of this reality is deeply radical, for it declares individual wealth to be neither a right, nor a privilege, nor a measure of individual human worth--but a form of stewardship, freighted with responsibilities.

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Lawrence Bush

Lawrence Bush is author of several books of Jewish fiction and non-fiction, including the forthcoming Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist.

Jeffrey Dekro

Jeffrey Dekro is the senior vice president at the Jewish Funds for Justice.