Teaching Children about Money

Image: Girl holding pitcher in front of lemonade stand (Hurst Photo) All Rights Reserved.

  • What did your parents say to you about money, growing up?
  • What did you learn about money from watching your parents?
  • What do you wish you had learned from your parents about money?

Money is one of the most awkward topics to discuss with our children. It goes right to the heart of our values and often, to any shame we are carrying from our own life experiences. A study by T. Rowe Price in 2017 revealed that 69% of parents feel reluctance in talking about money with their children.

And yet the Torah is adamant that we talk to our children about our possessions, including money:

Hear, O Israel, Adonai is our God, Adonai is One. You shall love Adonai your God with all your heart and all your soul and with all your possessions. And these words that I command to you today shall be in your heart: you shall teach them diligently to your children, and you shall speak of them when you sit at home, and when you walk along the way, and when you lie down and when you rise up.”

Deuteronomy 6:4-7

There it is, right in the Shema prayer: “You shall love… God… with all your possessions. And these words that I command to you today… you shall teach them diligently to your children.”

Here are some suggestions for talking with children about money:

  1. Take some time to think about your own values and feelings about money, and those of the other parent. Ask yourself, “What do I really believe, and how does it show in my behavior?” We cannot be truthful with our children if we aren’t truthful with ourselves first.
  2. Also, listen to your own speech about money: whom you admire, whom if anyone you envy, whom you talk about in disparaging terms. Keep in mind that your children are taking all this in: are these the messages you want to teach them?
  3. Talk about needs vs. wants. This works better when it is not in the middle of a conversation about something your child desperately wants. Let them hear you think out loud about your own money decisions.
  4. Answer questions about money with questions to find out what exactly your child is asking. If a child asks, “Are we rich?” ask, “Why do you ask?” Get at the actual question, which might be anything from “Do we have enough money to live?” to “Someone at school said some mean anti-Semitic things to me about rich Jews.”
  5. When a child expresses worry, take them seriously. Find out what is worrying them about money, hear them out, and reassure them as truthfully as you can.
  6. As children grow up, let them participate in some family decision-making about money. The tzedakah budget is a great place to begin.
  7. Children need practice in handling their own money, either from an allowance or money that they earn themselves.
  8. Above all, be honest. Children need to be able to trust you, and if you aren’t telling the truth (if your words don’t match your behavior) they will notice and will not know when to believe you.

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Business Ethics, On One Foot

Image: Girl holding pitcher in front of lemonade stand (Hurst Photo) All Rights Reserved.

I’m teaching a class on Jewish Ethics of Money at Temple Sinai in Oakland this month and next. The next classes will meet Nov. 3 and 10.

This week we talked about the ancient rabbis’ notion of the Worst People on Earth: Anshei Sodom, the Men of Sodom. I covered that set of midrashim in a another post, A Modern Day Sodom?

Then we moved on to talking about business and consumption, and the Jewish ethics attendant to each. I got to share one of my favorite quotes:

Everyone who does business honestly, such that people feel good about them, is considered as though they have fulfilled the entire Torah.

– M’chilta D’Rabbi Yishmael 15.26

That is a lot of merit to attach to “doing business honestly, so that people feel good about them.” It may seem on first glance like a low bar: “if people feel like Levi is a businessperson who can be trusted, then it is as if they have fulfilled the whole Torah.”

Think about it, though: it’s a very high bar. Our hypothetical good businessperson did business in such a way that they have a reputation for utter honesty and trustworthiness. There are no unresolved disputes, no ongoing feuds, no dissatisfied customers.

It also suggests, as do other quotes from the rabbis, as if they regard the area of business to be particularly fraught with obstacles to living a good life. Someone who navigates that successfully, leaving nothing but good feelings behind them, has indeed accomplished something. They have paid their bills and their workers on time. They have sold a good product, or provided good services. When there is a complaint, they work it out with their client until everyone is satisfied.

Maya Angelou once said, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” Seems to me that’s what the rabbis are driving at with “such that people feel good about them.”

Do you do business with anyone like that – anyone who leaves you feeling like it’s a pleasure to go in their shop or their office, because you know you will be decently treated? Tell us about them in the Comments, please!

Jewish Tradition on Money & Ethics: Foundational Beliefs

Image: An accounting ledger page, with numbers (Pixabay)

There are some basic concepts that form the foundation of the teachings of Jewish tradition on money.

First: We hold any possessions we have, including wealth, as stewards for God. We may say, “I earned what is in my bank account” and indeed, we may have worked hard for it. Or we may not have worked at all – perhaps we inherited it. Either way, we are responsible to the Holy One for what we do with our resources, great or small, because it is all part of the larger Creation.

Remember that it is the LORD your God who gives you the power to get wealth, in fulfillment of the covenant that He made on oath with your fathers, as is still the case.

Deuteronomy 8:18

Second: Poverty is bad. It is bad in and of itself. It does not serve any good purpose.

There is nothing in the world more horrible than poverty. It is the most terrible of all suffering. Our teachers have said that if every difficulty were on one side and poverty were on the other, poverty would outweigh them all.

Exodus Rabbah 31: 12, 14

Third: Wealth is neutral. It is not bad in and of itself, nor is it good. It must be acquired and used justly.

…And give to us a long life, a life of peace, a life of goodness, a life of blessing, a life of sustenance, a life of strengthening the body, a life that has in it a fear of heaven and a fear of sin, a life that does not have in it shame and disgrace, a life of wealth and honor, a life marked by our love of Torah and a fear of heaven, a life in which the wishes of our heart will be filled for good. Amen.

– Prayer for Rosh Chodesh, Ashkenazi siddur, my translation

They have sold for silver Those whose cause was just, And the needy for a pair of sandals.

Amos 2:6

Jewish tradition envisions a world in which everyone has enough to live, and those who have more than enough are just in their acquisition and use of wealth.

As it is written: “You shall eat, and be satisfied, and bless the Eternal your God for the good land that God has given you.”

Deuteronomy 8:10 (Also in the Birkat Hamazon)

Maimonides’ Advice for Social Media

Who knew? Reading this pasuk from Hilchot Deah, I got the feeling that Maimonides was not only a great philosopher but a prophet, because it’s great advice for social media:

The sages of yore said: “He who yields to anger is as if he worshiped idolatry”. 1See Nedarim, 22b. G. They also said: “Whosoever yields to anger, if he be a wise man his wisdom leaves him, and if he be a prophet his prophecy leaves him.”2 Pesahim, 66b. C. Verily the life of irritable persons is no life.3 Pesahim, 113a. C. They have, therefore, commanded to be afar from anger, so that one will train himself not to mind even the things which do cause irritation, for such is the good way. The conduct of the just is to take insults but not give insults, hear themselves flouted but make no reply, do their duty as a work of love, and bear affliction cheerfully.

Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Deot, 2:3

Social media crawls with individuals who are angry and with others who get their kicks from making other people angry. The temptation is to get angry, as well, but that accomplishes nothing. The problem with that is that the angrier we are, the less in control of ourselves, and wisdom goes down the drain.

This does not mean that we have to be doormats. However, the “block” feature on most social media is a powerful remedy for those who are seeking to make us angry for fun. It is tempting to stick around and trade clever insults, but as the old saying goes, if you mud wrestle with a pig, all that happens is that you get dirty and the pig enjoys it.

Do not rebuke a scoffer, for he will hate you; Reprove a wise man, and he will love you.

Proverbs 9:8

Let us save our words for people who will at least give them a chance. Screaming into the wind is a waste of everyone’s time.

Jewish Ethics: Links to Books

Image: An Amazon distribution center work floor. Photo from 7 Examples of How Amazon Treats Their 90,000+ Warehouse Employees Like Cattle by Jacob Weindling on PasteMagazine.com.

I often recommend books on this blog, and I am certainly an avid consumer of books. I’m working my way towards some better choices, and I thought I’d share the process with you.

Every consumer has a different menu of choices for consumption. The choices available to an able-bodied suburban consumer who owns a car are different from the choices available to a consumer living in an area with limited options for transportation and severe time or energy constraints. I want to emphasize that I am NOT making a judgment on choices forced by poverty, disability, or other menu-shrinking constraints. Rather, the same method follows: evaluate your choices and pick the best for you, whatever it is.

Jewish tradition bids us to take care not to injure others, directly or indirectly. When we do business with a company, we validate their choices about labor practices, sourcing their products, impact on the environment, etc. Their choices become our choices. Therefore it is worthwhile to think through our priorities for consumption.

Years ago, I boycotted Amazon.com because I saw it as a killer of locally owned bookstores. Gradually, as the bookstores succumbed anyway, and as my disabilities expanded, I altered my behavior and began using Amazon’s extremely convenient services, including book sales. The ability to have things delivered to my home as well as the convenience of the Kindle for reading in bed drove my decisions.

I winced whenever I read about Amazon’s labor practices, poor working conditions, and other questionable policies. Still I did not see better options for me, so I kept on buying from Amazon. Even here on the blog, I linked the names of books I recommended to their Amazon pages.

However, I made an error in my ethical calculations. I framed the choice to do business with Amazon as a binary choice: buy nothing from them vs. buy automatically from them. That is an easy mistake to make, since our brains tend to frame questions in the binary. There is also a sneaky convenience in saying, “I have to buy X from them, I might as well buy Y as well.” In fact, there are more options than those two.

Instead of “all” or “nothing,” I now re-frame the Amazon decision: I will buy from that company if and only if it is the least-harmful option available to me for genuinely necessary consumption. That’s going to take some extra time and effort, but I see it as a more ethical choice.

The part of that decision that will be visible here on the blog is that I’m going to start linking book titles to other choices than Amazon. In the most recent such post, Book List: Jewish Spirituality, I’ve begun my new practice. When an author has a web page with a link for buying the book, I’ll link to that, because no matter what it links to (usually Amazon) the author will get more money for their work. When there is no such page available, I’m going to link to an independent bookseller, and I’ll mix those up among several I know. On the recent list, I linked to Powell’s Books, an independent bookseller in Portland, Oregon with a good website and excellent service. Readers can navigate to the bookseller of their choice or to a local library.

Finally, as with all such questions, I’m open to the hope that Jeff Bezos (owner of Amazon) will see his way towards treating his employees with decency. Consumer pressure makes companies improve bad policies all the time: ask Nike, for instance, which has had an ongoing conversation with consumers and activists since the 1990’s.

Some principles to ponder:

Money is power, even in small quantities. We influence companies when we choose to do business with them, or not to do business, or to do business as little as possible.

Most menus have more than two items. I thought of Amazon as a yes/no decision, when in fact it was a yes/no/sometimes choice. If the only way a person can afford something they need is to buy it Walmart, Jewish tradition teaches that it is not my business to judge them, because I will be much too busy working out my own ethical problems.

Buying “Used” is an option, too. If we are concerned about the planet and sustainability, sometimes buying used goods is the most ethically sound option. I recommend this option with enthusiasm, although it has a downside: the author gets no pay for a used book sale. Again, the choices are ours and none of them are 100% “pure.”

A Modern-Day Sodom?

Image: The Sonoran Desert in Arizona (by icondigital / Pixabay)

The Washington Post recently printed a first-person account by a geographer named Scott Warren. He has been charged with a felony for giving water and food to refugees in the Sonoran desert. For saving lives, Warren faces up to 20 years in prison.

The policy of routing refugees through the deadliest parts of the desert goes back to the Clinton Administration, by the way. The Trump Administration has added the enforcement of rules against offering any assistance, even water, to those trekking through that desert.

Scott Warren’s story reminded me immediately of a midrash taught by our sages. They told a story they told about their notion of the people most displeasing to God, so displeasing that they merited being burned alive along with their entire region. It is the story of the people of Sodom.

The first mention of the story is in Genesis 13:

Lot looked about him and saw how well watered was the whole plain of the Jordan, all of it—this was before the LORD had destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah—all the way to Zoar, like the garden of the LORD, like the land of Egypt.
So Lot chose for himself the whole plain of the Jordan, and Lot journeyed eastward. Thus they parted from each other;
Abram remained in the land of Canaan, while Lot settled in the cities of the Plain, pitching his tents near Sodom.
Now the inhabitants of Sodom were very wicked sinners against the LORD.

Genesis 13:10-13

Next we get the well-known story in Genesis 18-19, in which sends two “men” (angels) to investigate an “outcry” from Sodom. It begins:

Then the LORD said, “The outcry from Sodom and Gomorrah is so great, and their sin so grave! I will go down to see whether they have acted altogether according to the outcry that has reached Me; if not, I will take note.” The men went on from there to Sodom, while Abraham remained standing before the LORD.

Genesis 18: 20-22

Abraham then famously bargained for the lives of Sodom, getting God to agree to spare the city if 10 good people could be found there.

The angels who “went on” to Sodom were greeted by Lot, who was anxious to get them out of the public square and to conceal them in his house. He does that because Sodom is hateful to strangers, and he knows something terrible will happen to them if they are not quickly out of sight. Sure enough, a crowd forms at Lot’s door, clamoring to rape the men. Lot refuses to release them to the crowd. Later, God rains fire down on the city, and it is completely destroyed because 10 good men could not be found. (Genesis 19)

The sages told more stories about Sodom, fleshing out the tale in the Torah. What had the people done to merit death by fire? Here are some of the stories:

R. Levi said: [God said]: ‘Even if I wished to keep silent, justice for a certain maiden (ribah) does not permit Me to keep silent.’
For it once happened that two girls went down to draw water from a well.
One [young woman] said to the other, ‘Why are you so pale?’
‘My family has no more food left and we are ready to die,’ she replied.
What did she [the first young woman] do? She filled her pitcher with flour and they exchanged [their pitchers], each taking the other’s.
When they [the Sodomites] discovered this, they took and burnt her.
Said the Holy One, blessed be He: ‘Even if I desired to be silent, justice for that young girl does not permit Me to keep silent.

Genesis Rabbah 49:6

and another, about the cruelty to poor men:

If a poor man happened to come there, every resident gave him a dinar (coin,) upon which he wrote his name, but no bread was given him. When he died, each [resident] came and took back his [dinar]. 

Sanhedrin 109b

There is another story about a young woman who tried to give help to a hungry man:

A certain maiden gave some bread to a poor man, [hiding it] in a pitcher. When the matter becoming known, they daubed her with honey and placed her on the parapet of the wall, and the bees came and consumed her. Thus it is written, And the Lord said, The cry ( זעקת ) of Sodom and Gomorrah, because it is great: whereon Rab Judah commented in Rab’s name: On account of the maiden [ribah]

Sanhedrin 109b

And a later midrash tells us about a variety of cruel practices:

Rabbi Zeira said: “The people of Sdom were the wealthiest people in the world since they were from the fattest and best of the land and all of their early needs could be derived from it, as it says: “its dust contains gold dust” (Job 28:6) When a person wanted to go out and get for himself vegetables, he would say to his servant, take for me an issar worth of greens. He would go and take for him greens and find in its place gold, as it says: “its dust contains gold dust.” And silver would come out of it, as it is written: “There is a mine for silver.” (Job 28:1) Precious stones and jewels would come out of it: “Its rocks are a source of sapphire.” (verse 6); bread would be brought forth from it: “earth out of which food grows” (verse 5); and they did not trust in the shadow of their Creator but rather in their wealth; for their wealth pushed aside their fear of Heaven: “men who trust in their riches” (Psalms 49:7)

Rabbi Joshua ben Korha said: They were not sufficiently concerned with the honor of their Creator to provide food for guests and strangers but rather they would cut of the branches of fruit trees above the fruit so as not to provide benefit to birds of the heavens: “No bird of prey knows the path of it.” (Job 28:7)

Rabbi Netanel said: They set up as their judges false judges who ruled with regard to any guest or stranger who entered Sodom, that they should defraud them in their crooked judgment and set them out naked, as it is written: “And the stranger they cheated without justice.” (Ezekiel 22:29) And satisfied with the harvest of the land – they lived in security and peace and quiet without fear of war from their surroundings satiated with all good things and not strengthening the hand of either the poor or the impoverished with food: “Behold this was the son of Sodom your sister.” (Ezekiel 16:49)

– Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer 25

For these crimes, God blasted the city Sodom, leaving nothing but a salty mineral desert and a deadly sea beside it. To this day, if you visit the Dead Sea, you will see nothing alive there.

I fear for our souls.

Who is That Person in the Mirror?

Image: Person aims a camera at a fragmented mirror. (pxhere, Public Domain)

Look in the mirror.  Look at the face that looks back at you.  What do you see?

Do you see a person

— who needs sleep?

— who needs to see a doctor?

— who drinks too much?

— who eats unhealthfully?

— who is too tired to know what she needs?

— who is depressed?

— who needs regular exercise and doesn’t get it?

— who hasn’t laughed in HOW long?

— who is secretly struggling with something he hopes no one else will notice?

— who needs help and won’t ask for it?

— who has been offered help but refuses to accept it?

— who is lonely?

— who is frightened about something?

— who hasn’t had a day off  in HOW long?

Modern secular culture encourages us not to take care of ourselves. We see advertisements for unhealthy foods, for “fun” gambling, for TV shows that are on late at night. We get caught up in the push for certain kinds of success. With our families scattered all over the country or the world, care for children or elders often falls on one or two family members, who get no help or relief. We avoid admitting to depression, mental illness, disabilities, because of the stigma they carry. We avoid asking for help because that would involve admitting that we need it.

These are sins against ourselves. When we fail to get enough sleep, good food, and enough exercise, we forget that our bodies are limited, that we are setting ourselves up for illness. When we fail to ask for or accept help, not only do we hurt ourselves, but we keep others from having the opportunity to do a mitzvah.

Ask: What could I change in my life so that I could get enough sleep? Help taking care of my aged parents or my child? Help doing whatever it is I need to do to take care of myself?

Then make a plan.  Do it.

If the answer to that question is, “Nothing,” or “I don’t know” then make an appointment to talk with someone who can help you find options: a rabbi, a therapist, a counselor, a friend.  Admit how hard it’s all gotten to someone who can hold that for you. Ask them to help you find some ways to lighten the burden.  Those ways exist, whether you can see them or not.

Make the call.  Do it.

Someone is waiting for you, and for me, in the mirror.