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Finding Unexpected Purpose, Peace, and Fulfillment at Work: Ethical Wealth

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To succeed in business, do you have to bend the rules, engage in dishonest activities, and play dirty?

There are many well-known and funny oxymorons—phrases that are internally self-contradictory—such as the following:

  • Civil war
  • Forward retreat
  • Fresh frozen
  • Jumbo shrimp
  • Light heavyweight
  • Negative growth

How about an honest businessperson? Or a wealthy spiritual person? To many, these are clearly contradictory. This is because we might have been told that to succeed in business, we have to bend the rules, engage in dishonest activities, and play dirty. We may also believe that religion and spirituality disdain monetary wealth, or that a person dedicated to spiritual pursuits cannot succeed in the brutal business arena. Such a person, we may think, will get stuck on the rungs of the ladder to success at the first inevitable call to dishonesty. We may hear such a person say, “My commitment to honesty shut me out of the executive suite,” or “I could have made a lot of money, but I wasn’t willing to sell my soul!”

There certainly are many who immediately link business and money to dishonesty, greed, and sin. Is this just the way it is, though? Is there a way to experience success in business, to be comfortable, even wealthy, and to live a life committed to honesty and to the “golden rule” of treating others with respect and love? There are two wonderful Yiddish sayings that address these questions in the typical Yiddish manner—head on, with irony and humor.

One:

  • It’s not that having money is so good: It’s that not having money is so bad.

The other:

  • I have been rich, and I have been poor—and I can tell you it is better to be rich and happy than poor and miserable.

And then, of course, there is Tevya, the poor dairyman in Fiddler on the Roof, who complains to the heavens:

  • I know there is no shame in being poor, but it’s no great honor either.

These are funny because they are so obvious. Of course it’s good to have money, to be comfortable, or, at least, to not be poor. But these sayings also allude to a deeper truth. Although the path to business success for some may be littered with cheating, lying, gossiping, and plain old corruption, we all must know that those who achieve success through this route are not, in the long run, honorable or happy; not truly “honorable” or “happy” in the deepest sense of the words—as someone who lives with a meaningful purpose, in meaningful connection to others, and to the finest that is within. That is because no matter how deeply one buries one’s conscience, the voice of morality, which is intrinsically embedded in all of us, will be heard.

There is an illuminating argument written in the Talmud—the Jewish record of ethical and legal discussions—that emphasizes this point. In this debate, the Rabbis wonder, “What is the first question that one is asked when standing in front of the heavenly court?” In other words, what’s the most important question that determines how well you lived your life? Behind the scenes, the Rabbis argue; one says that the first question must be, “Did you pray every day?” Another asserts that it is, “Did you study?” And another, “Did you give money to charity?” Finally, one suggests, “Did you conduct your business affairs honestly?” Immediately all agree that this is the correct first question. The Rabbis recognize that, although the other activities are absolutely essential, business success is such a powerful goal that one can be easily tempted to do “whatever it takes” to succeed. The person who can resist these temptations and conduct business in an honest fashion, though, has truly lived according to the highest standard. This person will naturally, and effectively, study, pray, and give money and time to charity. Conversely, if one is dishonest in business, then prayer is insincere, study is ineffective, and charity is tainted.

How, then, can one become rich, happy, and achieve business success, while staying on the route of a higher path—an ethical, moral path? There are many religious and spiritual laws and guidelines surrounding business. In the Bible we are called to give a portion of our earnings to those who are less fortunate; we are told to pay workers promptly; to be diligent in ensuring that we charge the right amount to buyers; to help those out of work to find employment; to share information that is valuable to others; to candidly reveal any defects in our products and services; to remove obstacles from the path of other’s success; to be honest and fair. According to the Bible, those who act accordingly will prosper. There might be a misconception that religions spurn wealth, but in general this is not true. Religious traditions spurn ingratitude, hording, and cheating, with the recognition that gratitude, generosity, and honesty always lead to the good for all.

In Hebrew, the word for work is avodah, which also, surprisingly, means prayer. This teaches us that there is a direct connection between the physical world of work and the nonphysical world of the spirit. Both are seen as instruments of personal and social change which, when operated in harmony, reinforce each other. Just as we pray for the blessings of spiritual sustenance, we work for the blessings of physical sustenance. The connection of these words creates an understanding that work must be approached with the same reverence that we give to prayer (and, conversely, that prayer requires work, commitment, dedication, and regular practice). In this model, success at work is a blessing that eases our lives and supports and enriches those around us. This model states that, just as the world, if treated with respect, is filled with endless abundance, when work is approached with reverence there is more than enough for all. Spiritual business is based on the premise that, contrary to the common paradigm, one person’s gain need not be another’s loss; that success and abundance for one does not create scarcity for others.

A story is told of Safra, a poor, pious shopkeeper, who was trying to sell his donkey. One morning, as Safra was praying, a man in desperate need of a donkey approached him and offered him a price for the donkey. Because Safra was in the middle of his prayers, he could not answer. When the man saw that Safra did not respond, he assumed that his price was too low and doubled it. Again Safra did not answer, so the man tripled his price. Finally, Safra finished his prayer and said to the man,

“Your first offer was the amount that I had hoped for, and I will not use the fact that I was praying as an opportunity to get more than my asking price. I accept your first offer.”

Safra received the price he needed, and the man was not exploited. A successful, ethical transaction. I like to imagine that the story continues. In my imagining, the buyer, who is clearly wealthy, recognizes in Safra a man who deals fairly. He continues to shop with Safra in the future and even directs his business associates to shop there. Soon, Safra’s shop is teeming with business, the man who bought the donkey prospers, and the two men develop a friendship of trust and respect.

Safra’s example sets a standard that is difficult to achieve. How many of us would have the determination to so readily turn down such an unexpected, though unearned, windfall? But this is exactly the opportunity for spiritual growth that business presents to us because when business is approached with the same spirit as prayer—with positive intention, honesty, and humility—a deeper and lasting success will naturally emerge.

  • I owe much of the insight on this subject to The Kabbalah of Money, by Nilton Bonder.
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