Lottery tickets are both the worst and best investments a person could possibly make. It is also the only investment where the best outcome is that you lose.
On the one hand, giving away $2 for a Powerball ticket that has only a 1 in 175,223,510 chance of striking it big is incredibly absurd. You have a better chance of making money by investing it with Bernie Madoff’s “When I Get Out of Jail I Will Make You Rich” fund. You have a higher likelihood of being attacked by a shark, and being struck by lightning, and then getting killed by a vending machine, than you have of winning the lottery. There is not a single money manager worth his salt that will tell you that part of your retirement blend should be a weekly purchase of the lottery ticket. The lottery, a $70 Billion a year industry in the US, larger than the music and movie industries combined, is clearly a bad investment.
But a Powerball ticket is also the best investment you could make. If you buy the lottery ticket on Sunday, and the drawing is the following Saturday, you have a whole week to dream about what you are going to do with the money you’re going to win. As you get dressed every morning, or drive home from a long day at the office, you can indulge in the exciting fantasy of what $187 Million will do for you.
You can think about the enormous charitable donations you will make, you can dream of the houses you will buy for all your struggling family members, you can visualize the sleek modern kitchen in your new house. You can make secret deals with G-d that you will give half of the winnings to charity, and then walk around with the feeling that even G-d is on your side (how could you know that your neighbor promised G-d ninety percent?). There is no other investment I know of which can give you so much hope and fantasy for a whole week for a mere two dollars!
The lottery is also the only investment where the best possible outcome for every player is that they lose. This is because ironically lottery winners are often the most unlucky people in the world. Most winners of huge jackpots have descended into an abyss of bad choices and excess. The National Endowment for Financial Education estimates that 70 percent of people who land sudden windfalls lose that money within several years, and are then left broke with large spending habits they can no longer afford. Many lottery winners, not knowing how to maintain the euphoria of the sudden wealth experience, fall victims to alcohol or drug abuse. Here are some examples:
Jack Whittaker, a successful West Virginia contractor, won $314 Million on December 25th, 2002, which at that time was the most ever won by a single winner. The world devoured the pictures of a big guy in a cowboy hat, his beaming wife, and granddaughter in her high school varsity jacket, hoisting up a check with more zeroes than you could count. Five years later, Jack Whittaker was divorced from his wife of over thirty years, his daughter was dead of an overdose, his granddaughter who smiled sweetly as she picked up the check was dead of an overdose. He’d been convicted of multiple DUI’s. He was being sued by literally dozens of people, and he was flat out broke… Jack Whittakers approach to winning the lottery? “I wish I’d torn up the ticket.”
William “Bud” Post won $16.2 million in the Pennsylvania lottery in 1988 but now lives on his Social Security. “I wish it never happened. It was totally a nightmare,” says Post. A former wife successfully sued him for a share of his winnings. It wasn’t his only lawsuit. A brother was arrested for hiring a hit man to kill him, hoping to inherit a share of the winnings.
Within a year, he was $1 million in debt. Post admitted he was both careless and foolish, trying to please his family. He eventually declared bankruptcy. Now he lives quietly on $450 a month and food stamps. “I’m tired, I’m over 65 years old, and I just had a serious operation for a heart aneurysm. Lotteries don’t mean anything to me,” says Post.
“Winning the lottery isn’t always what it’s cracked up to be,” says Evelyn Adams, who won the New Jersey lottery not just once, but twice (1985, 1986), to the tune of $5.4 million. Today the money is all gone and Adams lives in a trailer. “I won the American dream but I lost it, too. It was a very hard fall. It’s called rock bottom.”
Last August, the largest single winning ticket in US history was picked in a Powerball drawing. On May 18th, Mavis Wancyzk won $758.7 million dollars. The winning ticket was bought at Pride Market in Chichobee, Mass. Mavis had been buying lottery tickets for years, and bought five tickets for that drawing, two with computer generated numbers, and three with family birthday numbers that she always used for decades when buying lottery tickets. The winning ticket was one of the birthday tickets. She immediately called her workplace where she worked for thirty two years and told them that she was not coming back. As they were leaving the Massachusetts Lottery offices she was mobbed by the press who will be on her every move for the next few months. I don’t know what will become of the Mavis, in the pictures she looks like a really nice woman, but I can’t help but feel a twinge of pain for them, the challenges facing them are formidable. It will be almost impossible for her to ever live a normal life again.
We often dream of wealth, pray for wealth, work ourselves to the bone to acquire wealth, when that wealth may actually be the worst thing for us. The Path of the Just, the seminal work of Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, tells us in the very first chapter, “that all matters of this world whether for the good or the not-good are challenges to a person. Poverty on one side, and wealth on the other. As King Solomon said, (Proverbs, 30:9), “lest I become sated and deny, and I say, “Who is the Lord?” And lest I become impoverished and steal…”
Every time we don’t win the lottery, it is not because G-d wasn’t on our side, it’s because G-d was on our side; He knew that it would not be beneficial to us. He knew that it would have either hurt us or prevented us from achieving the greatness that is in store for us. To G-d, the amount we give to charity makes no difference, it is the sacrifice we make for charity that makes the difference. When hard-working people, who are working strenuously to provide for their families, write out a modest check to charity, that might be more meaningful to G-d than 50% of their winnings if they win the lottery. The Orchos Tzaddikim, a classic mussar text written anonymously in 15th Century Germany tells us that a little charity from a poor person is just as important to G-d than a lot from a rich person. Perhaps we do not win the lottery because G-d knows that we will become better people by giving $100 a month in our current state than a million a month as a Powerball winner. Perhaps He knows that our family would be torn apart by a lottery winning?
This is not only true in areas of money. If our child is struggling in school, if we are beset with health challenges, if we are having trouble finding a mate, or difficulty finding a well paying job, it does not mean that G-d is not on our side. Au contraire, it is because G-d is on our side that we are experiencing these challenges. He is customizing them every minute to extract our greatness. Perhaps He wants us to learn to value our prayers more, perhaps He wants to build our capacity for faith. He might be prodding us learn empathy so that when we break out of our difficulties we will be able to understand other people’s struggles better.
We can never know what G-d’s intentions for us are, which is why the best investment we can ever make is investing all of our efforts to appreciate our current state, and finding way to maximize every minute we have. As we get dressed in the morning or drive home from a long day at the office, we can think of two things we are thankful to G-d for, and we can think of two things we want to do that day to brighten someone else’s day. It’s even cheaper than a $2 Powerball fantasy, it never lets you down after the lottery drawing, and one out of every one people who try it have a richer life.
Parsha Dvar Torah
In this week’s Parsha we read of the rebellion of Korach, a man driven by his blind desire for honor. We read of the terrible fate that befell him and his cohorts for bringing divisiveness to the Jewish people. Let us focus on the ketores, the incense that twice plays a vital role in our parsha.
When Korach brings 250 leaders with him, all claiming that Moshe and Aaron should step down, Moshe tells them that ketores will test them. The next day every man should bring a fire pan filled with ketores, and Aaron the High Priest will do the same. G-d will show whom He favors by sending down a fire from heaven to light the ketores of the chosen one, while everyone else will die. Sure enough, the next day the test is performed, a heavenly fire comes down and ignites Aaron’s ketores, and at the same time a fire burns the other 250 rebels to death.
Later in the Parsha, the Jewish people gather around Moshe and Aaron, accusing them of killing people from G-d’s Holy Nation. (They don’t seem to get it, do they? Moshe and Aaron clearly seem to have the winning team, but you always have people rooting for the “underdog”) A plague breaks out amongst the people, and they begin dropping like flies. Moshe tells Aaron to hurry out with the ketores as a plague has started. Aaron brings out a firepan filled with burning ketores and by this act he stops the plague.
What exactly is the nature of this ketores? Is it a killer, as it killed 250 men, or is it a savior, as it stepped into the middle of a plague and halted the dying? Why is it that the same item is used both ways in the same Parsha?
One answer is that the ketores represents the idea that no thing in this world is essentially either good or bad. Good or bad are only defined by our reaction to those things. Wealth is neither good nor bad. Above we read about people whose wealth has ruined them and their families. The Talmud tells us that Korach was the richest man in his generation, yet his wealth led him to jealousy and dissension.We have also seen people who have used their wealth properly, bringing greatness to them and their families. So what is wealth, good or bad? In that same vein, is the internet good or bad? Is free speech good or bad? Is being smart good or bad?
Even something as seemingly deleterious as cancer can’t be classified as good or bad. I worked with people suffering from cancer for years. I have seen people who have changed their entire lives for the better after living through cancer. I have seen others who unfortunately passed away, but who, during the time of their illness, reached greatness unimaginable to most people of their age or of any age, for that matter. Of course, there are also those who succumb not only to the illness, but also to despair, anger, rage and disillusionment. The message of the ketores is this duality, that every object in the world contains the possibility of bringing salvation or desolation. Our actions, and our actions alone, merit the titles Good and Bad.
But why is the ketores specifically singled out to teach us this lesson? The ketores was made of many different spices. One of them was known as chelbona, and the Sages tell us that it had an exceedingly foul odor. Yet, when mixed with the other spices, it actually benefited the overall fragrance of the ketores. The chelbona is neither good nor bad; it depends on what you do with it. The very makeup of ketores contained a proof of this concept, and hence it was used to show us this powerful message.
This week’s entire Parsha focuses primarily on one story, the story of Korach. Being from the tribe of Levi, Korach had an elevated status compared to most other Jews, but he wanted more power and honor. There are several opinions in the commentaries as to what exactly he wanted. Some say that he was a firstborn, and was angry that the Temple service had been taken from the firstborns and given to the Kohanim. Others say that he wanted to be the Kohen Gadol, or the leader of the Kehas clan, a job given to his younger cousin. Regardless of what exactly he was after, we know exactly how he went about getting it, and it is a perfect study in undermining authority.
Step #1 Gather a large group of followers (a.k.a. rabble), with as many famous people as possible (Yes, this is why you constantly find actors and musicians speaking out on areas of politics where their knowledge is nebulous). Step #2 Feed them well. Step #3 Make mockery of anything the other side holds sacred. Step #4 Publicly challenge your opponent.
Let’s see how Korach did this. Step #1 He gathers 250 leaders from his neighboring tribe, Reuben, among them some noted trouble-makers named Dasan and Aviram, who already had an entire file at central booking for their previous run-ins with authority. Step #2 He feeds them a delicious meal where the wine flows like right-wing rhetoric from the mouth of Rush Limbaugh. Step #3 He starts mocking some of the laws of the Torah which Moshe had taught, thus implying that the entire Torah could have been made up by Moshe. Lastly, step #4, Korach challenges Moshe publicly, claiming, “We are all a holy nation, so who do you think you are to exalt yourselves (Moshe and his brother Aaron) over us?
Moshe falls on his face before them in humility, and begs them to change their mind. Upon being rebuffed, he says “O.K., lets take this one outside. Tomorrow morning everyone should bring a fire pan with incense. G-d will miraculously bring down fire in just one pan, and everyone else will die. But remember, sons of Levi, you have so much already, why are you demanding more? Be happy with your lot.” (Here is an incredible lesson. All 250+ people knew that only one person was going to emerge standing, yet they all showed up in the morning, each sure that he would be the single winner. When arrogance and jealousy get the better of you, it is clear that you lose the ability to think clearly!)
That afternoon, Moshe, the paradigm of humility, attempts to end the rebellion peacefully by going personally to the tents of Dasan and Aviram to beg them to retract their evil mutiny. They reply with an emphatic “Even if someone were to gouge our eyes out, we would not make peace!” The next morning Moshe delivers the following ultimatum; “If these men die normal deaths, you will know that G-d didn’t send me, but if the earth opens its mouth and swallows these people alive, then you shall know that I did everything I did by the word of G-d!”
Moshe tells everyone to step back from the camp of Korach, in order to save themselves from sharing in his punishment. Sure enough, the earth opens wide and swallows up not only Korach, Dasan, Aviram, and their familes, but also everything they owned in this world, down to the last bobby pin. The 250 men did not fall into the earth – the same fire they were hoping was going to prove their supremacy over Moshe and Aaron comes down and enters their nostrils, and kills them instantaneously. This shows us the horrific results of machlokes, or divisiveness. It not only destroys the original antagonist, but also his family, and anyone around him. The fire pans of the 250 rebels were taken and beaten into sheets which were then placed on the altar in the Temple to remind everyone never to try to usurp the leadership positions that G-d dictates.
In response to this event, the people complained to Moshe and Aaron, saying “You killed the nation of G-d” (obviously, they hadn’t learnt the two key lessons of the story of Korach: that one is better off not rebelling against Moshe and Aaron (it does terrible things to your life expectancy), and that G-d is the one running the show here, not Moshe and Aaron.) A plague erupts in the camp, executing the people who were slandering Moshe and Aaron. Moshe tells Aaron that he should quickly bring a fire pan of incense and walk amongst the people to stop the plague. (Moshe learnt this trick from the Angel of Death when he went up to heaven to receive the Torah.) Aaron does so, and the plague stops.
G-d tells Moshe to conduct one final test to demonstrate to everyone that Aaron is the one picked by G-d to be the Kohen Gadol. Aaron and the leaders of the twelve tribes all bring their staffs. The staffs are deposited in the Temple, and everyone waits to see whose staff would blossom. Sure as turkeys hate Thanksgiving, Aaron’s staff is the one in full bloom the next morning. Now the people are shaken up, and express their fears (not complaints) to Moshe, that anyone who gets too close to the Temple will die! Moshe allays their fears by explaining that it is the Kohen’s job to ensure that people don’t go beyond their proper places. As the leaders of the Jews, their duty is to bring people as close to G-d as they can, but also to remind them that one must be careful with that which is holy. Judaism is a system of living, which expects one to understand the importantce of structure and boundaries.
The final portion of the Parsha discusses the various gifts given by the Jewish people to the Kohanim and Levi’im in return for their dedication to the Jewish people. The tribe of Levi received no portion in the Holy Land (save a few cities), in order that they devote themselves to promoting spirituality. In return, we are commanded to help support them. The Torah here lays down the idea that it is incumbent upon a society to support those charged with facilitating its spiritual growth. The same way we understand that we must pay taxes to support those who keep our streets clean and safe, we must also support those who keep our spirit alive and healthy.
That’s all, Folks!
Quote of the Week: All happiness depends on courage and work. ~ Blazak
Random Fact of the Week: Sorry Scotland, Persians invented the bagpipes.
Funny Line of the Week: I wished the buck stopped here, as I sure could use one.
Have a Marvelous Shabbos,
R’ Leiby Burnham