“There is no poverty in a place of wealth.”
Our parsha provides us with extensive and detailed descriptions of the structure of the Mishkan (Tabernacle) and its vessels. The general impression is that the Mishkan was full of pomp and circumstance. It was all great spaces and expensive materials, everything needed to be precisely constructed and aesthetically pleasing. No expense is spared and there is no sense that “the Torah is sparing with Israel’s money” (chasa haTorah al mamonam shel Yisrael). There is also no trace of concern for all the work the people would have to invest to finance this impressive structure.
In general it seems that the value of perfection far outweighed any of these other concerns; it was of the utmost importance that the Mishkan would be a space that would engender feelings of grandeur and awe, As Chazal explain so eloquently: “There is no poverty in a place of wealth.” It is inappropriate to be frugal about expenses in a place that is meant to represent affluence. There are certain things in this world that are designed to symbolize a lack of constraint; they are undertaken from a point of good fortune and this wealth defines them. One does not fly off on an exotic vacation without money to pay for activities while there. One doesn’t buy an expensive painting and then put it in a cheap frame or hang it in a dark, forgotten corner. The combination of wealth and poverty is incongruous- it doesn’t work. These are binary situations, and compromise is inappropriate.
There are a number of halachot that are derived from the principle that “there is no poverty in a place of wealth.” The clothes of the priests are not laundered for this reason. (T.B,. Zevachim 88b) Chazal thought that the priests’ clothing should always be new and not look threadbare or scrubbed clean. Similarly, we are told that the lamb for the daily offering drank water from a gold cup, “to display wealth and capability, for there is no poverty in a place of wealth.” (Mishnah Tamid 3, 4; Rambam Commentary on the Mishnah; T.B. Tamid 29a contains a dispute as to whether this is a literal description or hyperbole.)
Within the laws of Shabbat we find that a person who builds anything, even a small amount (kolshehu), on Shabbat has transgressed. The gemara discusses if and where such a small amount of building existed in the Mishkan. The first explanation that is offered is that the dyes were prepared on a small stove on a pile of stones, but this is rejected because “there is no poverty in a place of wealth” and so it is unthinkable that the people preparing the dyes would use such rudimentary and poor tools to prepare the dyes, just as it’s unreasonable to think that they would work with such small amounts. (T.B. Shabbat 102b) This principle also explains why so many sacrifices are brought from sheep and rams as opposed to birds. (Bamidbar Rabba, Nasso 14) In general there are many other laws that relate to the Temple, the building and its vessels, that are explained using this principle or are derived from its application. (For example see T.B. Ketubot 106b; Tammid 31b) As Rashi explains, in the Temple nothing was done frugally. (Shabbat 102b)
This principle is specifically raised in conjunction with the laws of the Temple because there is a connection between spiritual abundance and physical abundance. Spiritual heights cannot exist in a place devoid of aesthetic grace. Just as it was the salons that nurtured the broad horizons of the Enlightenment, a suitable physical space is necessary to achieve any sort of transcendence. Any small physical deficiency displays a lack of appreciation for what it means to be the dwelling place of the Divine Presence.
Yet this principle does not only refer to financial savings, it also refers to other types of shortcuts. The reason that an angel does not fulfill two missions at once is that there is no poverty in a place of wealth. (Panach Raza, Bereishit Parshat Vayera) One who attempts to kill two birds with one stone is petty and small-minded. This may also be the reason why mitzvot are not supposed to be performed in groups (ein osim mitzvot chavilot chavilot). The spiritual reality of mitzvot is that they create an opportunity for us to ascend to new heights. Piling on additional mitzvot changes the mitzvah into an end unto itself, negating the spiritual heights that accompany it. Such small-mindedness and dwelling on technicalities undermines the potential the mitzvah has to take on greater meaning and significance. This may be what Rav Tzadok of Lublin meant when he explained: “For poverty does not belong in a place of wealth, this is not referring to poverty on a physical level.” (Takanat Hashavin pg. 49) Wealth is not merely a fact; first and foremost it is a character trait, a way of life.
However, many of the commentaries have pointed out that there are places where the opposing principle, “the Torah is sparing with Israel’s money,” prevails; we even find this is a consideration in the Temple from time to time. (Rav Fleckles posed a lengthy question that explored this contradiction which was answered by his teacher Rabbi Yechezkel Landau, the author of the Noda B’Yehudah. Part of the question was printed in Olat Chodesh, and the teshuva was printed in its entirety in Responsa Teshuva MeAhava I, 2-4) For example, this is the reason olive oil that is not pure can be used for oil libations. Similarly, the gemara discusses how the sages calculated how much oil was needed to fill each of the cups of the Menorah so that it would stay lit all night. One possibility that is raised is that they started measuring with a small amount and then increased it a bit each night until they figured out exactly what measure was needed. The second option was that they used more oil than necessary at first and gradually decreased it each night until they learned the minimum amount they needed to make sure it stayed lit. The dispute over what they did is based on the question of which principle should prevail in this case- “there is no poverty in a place of wealth” or “the Torah is sparing with Israel’s money.” (T.B. Menachot 89a)
From these sources it is clear that financial concerns were taken into account in the Temple, which blatantly contradicts our earlier assertion that regarding the Temple “there is no poverty in a place of wealth.” Rav Epstein, the author of the Torah Temima, tries to solve the conflict by differentiating between cases of communal finances and cases of individual expense. (Torah Temima, Shmot chapter 27, footnote 26) This answers part of our question, it explains the law concerning the oil libations, but it does not seem to fit the discussion of the oil for the menorah. The author of the Tiferet Yisrael suggests another technical answer where he differentiates between major financial losses (hefsed merubeh) and minor financial losses (hefsed mu’at). (Shkalim 8, 5, Boaz 3) But while this explanation is nice in theory it doesn’t work when the reasoning is applied to the actual halachic situations.
It seems that the answer to this contradiction and the reason why one consideration should prevail over another can be found in the definition of “wealth.” For example, we can take the concept of the “nouveau riche” which illustrates how ostentatious displays of wealth and wasteful spending are just as distasteful as glimpses of poverty between cracks in the gold finish. It is precisely the type of person who fully comprehends what the spiritual meaning of wealth is and lives life accordingly that understands the subtle differences. Such people understand that at times wasteful spending betrays a lack of appreciation of the essence of wealth and fortune. Perhaps this is what Maharam Chaviv meant in his book Zichron Terua when he said explained that the dispute between these two principles must be “relegated to the judgment of the sages to differentiate between one thing and another.”
Although we do not have a Temple today, this is still an important principle for us to internalize. We too need to adopt a delicate and nuanced approach to spiritual wealth and intellectual gains, and avoid ostentatious displays of our good fortune.