Let’s talk about money for a moment. You probably think you understand money. You may be right, you may be wrong; but let’s start with a little test to see how much you know about money. 

1.  Suppose you had $100 in a savings account and the interest rate was 2 percent per year. After five years, how much do you think you would have in the account if you left the money to grow? A) more than $102; B) exactly $102; C) less than $102; D) do not know; refuse to answer.

2.  Imagine that the interest rate on your savings account is 1 percent per year and inflation is 2 percent per year. After one year, would you be able to buy A) more than, B) exactly the same as, or C) less than today with the money in this account?; D) do not know; refuse to answer.

3.  Do you think that the following statement is true or false? “Buying a single company stock usually provides a safer return than a stock mutual fund.” A) true; B) false; C) do not know; refuse to answer.

The correct answers are 1-A; 2-C; and 3-B. Now, that little test may have been surprisingly easy for you, but 70% of Americans did not answer all three questions correctly. They are not alone, neither did 79% of Swedes, 75% of Italians, 73% of Japanese, and 69% of French. Russians fared the worst at this simple test, with 96% getting at least one question wrong. Germans did the best, but still, 47% got at least one question wrong. 

These findings, found in an article in the Journal of Economic Literature, and reported on in The Atlantic, demonstrate an incredible lack of basic financial literacy around the world. This problem is compounded by the fact that today, people are more in control of their finances than ever! Using the technology found in most homes in the US, a person can control their entire retirement accounts (401Ks, IRAs, etc.), all the equity in their homes, many lines of credit, their children’s education accounts, and a host of other financial instruments. People can trade stocks, bonds, and commodities in their pajamas (and many people do!), all while barely understanding the most basic principles of economics!

With this new data in mind, the rapidly crashing market makes a lot of sense. Sure, during the height of the pandemic a lot of wealthy people were buying Peloton bikes for $1500, but that doesn’t justify people buying the stock when it gives the company a valuation of $50 Billion! It has since lost 90% of its value and still may be overvalued. The same thing goes for Zoom, which although quite popular at the time, was at one point valued at more that $132 Billion, despite the fact that it was slowly losing market share to Google Meets, and Microsoft Teams. It is currently down to a $26 Billion valuation (down over 80%) and it too is likely overvalued. 

People love to buy into the hype, and while people were at home, not spending money and getting fat stimulus checks, it seemed like the reasonable things. But most people (and even most “financial experts” who were shilling for these tech stocks) don’t really understand market fundamentals, and people were throwing thousands of dollars into stocks without even knowing what a P/E ratio is. The biggest demonstration of this is that when companies like Amazon would split their shares, people would buy billions more of their stock just because “it was more affordable” even though there was absolutely no fundamental justification for it in terms of earnings or guidance, only the ignorance of the masses. 

Compounding the problem is the fact that most Americans (70%), when asked to rate their financial literacy on a scale of 1 (very low understanding) to 7, gave themselves a 4 or higher. In a country where only 30% can answer three of the most basic economic questions correctly, the vast majority think they have an above average understanding financial literacy. 

This is not a problem that can’t be fixed. The same study found that giving people who have low levels of formal education some basic financial knowledge lifts their economic status 82% above their initial wealth. Even giving college grads some financial education gave them a 54% boost. But no one is seeking out that education because we’ve got it figured out, we’re all a bunch of walking Jerome Powells!

The truth is that this phenomenon doesn’t only play itself in the area of finance, but also in many other areas of life. Many of us feel like we’re Jewishly very literate, but the truth is that there is so much to know, and often we are missing core areas of competency. Maybe our knowledge of Halacha is lacking certain foundational concepts, maybe the way we keep Shabbat, or make blessings on food, is missing some important components, and we just don’t know it, because we’re sure we know it!

Another really important area it plays itself out, is in the area of science. While we have amassed so much scientific data, and especially in the last few years, we still know so little. No scientist in the world can explain to you where all the energy for the Big Bang came from (and that would be all the energy in the world today, based on the Law of Conservation of Energy!). No scientist can definitively tell you how life originated on this planet. And most scientist will have a very hard time explaining to you all the places where the absolute rules of science don’t work (e.g. movement faster than the speed of light during “inflation”).

The reality is that when it comes to the mysteries of our world, all scientists can’t properly answer the most basic questions. Due to their lack of knowledge, scientist will often make massive errors and teach them as fact. In the late 50’s, Scientific American polled the leading scientist in America, asking them when the universe began. The vast majority said laughingly that the universe was always here, it didn’t have a beginning. This was science! Not some ridiculous Bible story! But then in 1964, they changed their tune, and adopted the idea of a beginning, suddenly they believed the world was created (kinda like the Bible story!)

Anthropologists laughed at the Biblical story of Sodom and Gomorrah. After all, the story was supposed to happen near the Dead Sea, and that area is totally inhospitable to human life, and could not have sustained the five cities said to have been there. But then, in the 1960’s archaeologists performed some excavations in the area, and lo and behold, they discovered exactly five cities in that region! Not only that, but the cities all appeared to have been incredibly fertile at one point, and all were wiped out in a catastrophic conflagration at the same time!

For centuries, scientist laughed at the Talmudic description of the number of stars and their configuration. The Talmud tells us of a tradition that there are approximately 10 to the 18th power stars in the universe. Additionally, the Talmud describes how they are laid out, groups of billions of stars grouped in successively bigger groups of 30. But there are only about 9,000 stars visible to the naked eye, and the Talmud was written down over 1,000 years before the telescope was invented. 

Amazingly, as we continue to build more and more sophisticated telescopes, we have discovered that indeed the heavens have gazillions of stars, exactly as the Talmud had said. Not only that, but when fractal mathematics was added to the astronomical studies, it was indeed discovered that the galaxies (billions of stars) are bunched in groups of 30 (called clusters), which are clustered in groups of 30 (called superclusters), which are clustered in groups of 30, just as the Talmud described over 1,500 years ago!

Despite the fact that scientist are constantly making findings that upend their previous assumptions, the one idea to which so many of them cling is the idea that there is no G-d. (The highest concentration of atheists is among scientists.) It might behoove them to consider that a Book that got it right so many times, might actually have something of value to add, but many of them are a bunch of Ben Bernankes! They are so confident in what they know, that they feel they don’t need to look elsewhere for education, and certainly not in a book purported to have been written by G-d himself.

Unfortunately, even in the Torah world, when people hear ideas from scientists, or read scientific literature from an improper source, they can come to questions of Emunah, faith. The scientists talk with such confidence, and are quite brazen with their atheistic assertions. But the reality is that despite all that they know, they still know so little, and are constantly finding new discoveries that upend everything they confidently declared for years! A little knowledge with a lot of confidence is a very dangerous thing…

Disclaimer: There are many scientists who actually have come to a greater belief in G-d through their understanding of science. These are G-d fearing, holy men, and I don’t mean to lump all scientists into the same category! It is just unfortunate that they are a small minority!

 So what are we learning from our current financial markets? That we know but a little. That we need to approach our world with humility, and a desire to learn. That most of us are missing the answers to some of the most basic questions, and that by educating ourselves even in the areas that we think we are proficient goes a long way, and makes both our personal and financial lives more productive, stable, and profitable.

May we take this idea with us, and do the same for our Torah education. A little bit of humility with a strong desire to learn more is a very powerful thing…

Parsha Dvar Torah

G-d spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai, saying: Speak to the Children of Israel and say to them: When you come into the land that I give you, the land shall observe a Sabbath rest for G-d.”  (Vayirkra 25:1-2)

Every seven years, the Jewish people are commanded to observe a Sabbatical year (Shemittah), during which all agricultural activity in the Land of Israel comes to a halt.  Many commentators ask why the Torah introduces this commandment by pointing out that G-d told it to Moses “on Mount Sinai?” All the commandments were taught at Mount Sinai. What special connection exists between the Sabbatical year and Mount Sinai?

Rabbi Chaim Joseph David Azulai, better known as the Chida, explains that Shemittah  served to remind people that any wealth or success they attain in this world comes from a Divine Source.  A farmer who toils on his land can easily see the fruits of his labor and think, “My strength and the might of my hand  have accumulated this wealth for me” (Deuteronomy 8:17).

Requiring the Jewish people to cease their labors for a year compels them to rely on G-d’s benevolence, which brings home the larger point that, regardless of their hard work, it is actually G-d who provides for them. Indeed, G-d promises that if the Jewish people keep this commandment, He will bless them with extraordinary crops that will keep them satiated throughout the Shemittah year and beyond. 

Once a person recognizes that success and failure are in the hands of G-d, he will begin to realize that just as G-d provided for his needs for an entire year without his work, so too, G-d can provide him with his needs at all times – even if he works a bit less and spends more time devoting himself to more spiritual pursuits.  Thus, when observed properly, Shemittah  can be a catalyst for the farmer to increase his Torah study. This is the connection between Shemittah and Mount Sinai. Through Shemittah, one develops a deeper connection to all of the commandments that were taught at Mount Sinai.

Today in Israel, increasing numbers of farmers are observing the Shemittah laws. As this trend grows, so do the number of stories describing Shemittah-related agricultural miracles. I personally verified the following story with Rabbi Shmuel Bloom, former vice president of Agudath Israel:                          
A young farmer decided to keep Shemittah for the first time. He was assisted by an organization that agreed to provide him with information, guidance and subsidies, on the condition that he spend the year studying Torah in Jerusalem. While Rabbi Bloom was in the offices of that organization, the farmer called the office, ecstatic with joy. An entire valley filled with banana plantations had been devastated by a prolonged frost. Only one plantation remained in pristine condition – his! He was the only farmer in that area who kept Shemittah.  (Rabbi Bloom traveled to northern Israel to personally verify what happened.)

Of course, the vast majority of the Jewish people are not farmers, but what plays out on a national scale every seven years is available to us as individuals and families every week.  In any economy, making a living is a challenge; all the more so when times are tough. We feel as though we are the “masters of our own economy” and can get so caught up working to make sure that economy is doing well, that all else falls by the wayside.

That is why Shabbos has such rejuvenating power. Rather than simply a “day of rest,” Shabbos is a “mini-Shemittah” in the middle of our busy lives. It is a time when we can hand over the controls to Someone with infinite power to take care of all of our needs. Experiencing that sense of calm – and sharing it with others – is certain to bring many extraordinary blessings in its wake.

Parsha Summary

This week’s parsha, Behar, begins with the laws of shmita. The mitzvah of shmita commands us to leave the land fallow every seventh year. One may not work the land at all, and anything that grows on its own in the field is left to be taken by anyone who needs it. (If you had to be poor for a year, this would be a good one to pick.) After seven shmita cycles, the 50th year was a Jubilee year, and the land lay fallow once again. In addition, many fields and homes reverted back to their original owners. Jewish servants who requested to stay with their masters past the normal limits are now sent home. Thus, when buying a field one had to always take into account how many years remained until the Jubilee because that is the amount of time he would own the field. (As Jews, we sometimes have strings attached to our deals, but at least it was known to everyone, not some fine print clause written in Azerbijanian!)Today, we have lost track of the proper counting and can no longer keep the laws of the Jubilee. 

The next part of the Parsha deals with redeeming the land. The idea is as follows: G-d gave each person a portion of the Holy Land, which they bequeathed to their families. There could be no greater family treasure than the family’s share in G-d’s land! (Timeshare salesmen try to get you to feel this way about their, “week in paradise for your family every year forever!”)  Therefore, if someone sold his land, it was probably out of great necessity, and the Torah gives the person a chance to buy it back if they, or a relative, can come up with the money. Depending on what type of property it was, and where it was situated, the times at which one can redeem it are different. For more details see Leviticus 25:23-34.

The last part of the Parsha deals with Jewish servants. I know that we who live in a post- Emancipation Proclamation world look unfavorably on labor provided by servants or slaves (although who do you think made your shirt?), so I will try to show you that a Jewish servant was the farthest thing from the Atlantic slave trade of the 1500-1700’s. 

The sages say, “He who buys himself a servant, has acquired a master for himself.” A Jewish master was responsible for supporting his servant’s entire family, he couldn’t force him to do demeaning labor, if there was only one pillow or blanket in the house it had to be given to the servant, and when the servant would leave, the master was required to give him a hefty severance package. (All these benefits and no union dues to pay??? Sounds impossible, but with Torah it’s all possible!). A Jewish servant would sell himself if he needed funds and couldn’t find any other job, or if he simply wanted the security of servitude (a job in which his whole family was supported and he couldn’t get fired, downsized, discharged, restructured, laid off, terminated or forced to resign!) 

The Parsha concludes with a reiteration of the mitzvos of keeping Shabbos and not serving idols. This was to remind any Jew who sold himself to a non-Jew, that he still had to keep his Jewish practice and couldn’t start desecrating Shabbos or serving his new master’s idols.

Quote of the Week: Necessity is not an established fact, but an interpretation. – Freidrich Nietzsche 

Random Fact of the Week: Galapagos tortoises may reach a length of over 4 ft and weigh over 500 lb!

Funny Line of the Week: I would like to thank my parents- especially my mother and father. – Greg Norman in his winning speech at the 1984 World Championship

Have a Fantastic Shabbos,

R’ Leiby Burnham

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