I’m now teaching a six-part seminar at UT SAGE on wisdom sayings from the Jewish tradition. The focus this week is on work – ways in which it can be highly virtuous as well as ways in which it can be harmfully distorted. Love of work is essential, the wisdom teaches, but we must be careful that that love doesn’t seductively morph into something else that is damaging.
Here’s a proverb to consider.
“Do not strain to get rich. Leave off your staring! If you but let your eye fly on it, it is no more, for it will surely make itself wings like eagle’s and fly off to the sky.” Proverbs 23:4-5
Does this proverb forbid or discourage wealth or attainment of riches?
I don’t see that it does. Work can be appropriately fruitful in many ways, including the earning of material reward.
The concern seems instead to be with “straining” and “staring.” First, what is meant by straining to get rich?
It could be what we do when we exhibit an unhealthy devotion of excessive time or effort to the attainment of riches. Our enterprise then becomes less about the intrinsic value, joy, and yield of work, and more about an obsession with the desire for riches.
So, what’s “staring?”
Staring at riches suggests being fixated on them. Such fixation is wrong because just as easily as wealth comes along, it can be lost. Even if excessive wealth remains, its value tends to be more ephemeral than enduring. This is what is meant, I think, by likening the outcome of obsession with riches to something that will “make itself wings like eagle’s and fly off to the sky.”
Instead of staring and straining to get rich, we should understand that that which deeply satisfies is the feeling of a job well done; a contribution of work, often done with others, that enables and ennobles; and accomplishments through service that add to our ongoing wellbeing and that of our community. For it is there that we find true treasure.