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Is Winning The Lottery Bad For Your Soul?

A different version of this article originally appeared in the Texas Jewish Post.

I’ll admit it. I got excited along with the rest of the country when the Mega Millions lottery hit a whopping $1.6 billion jackpot in October of this year.

I bought a ticket and enjoyed an overly long conversation with my wife about what we would do with the money if we won.

We decided that we’d knock down our house and build a better one in its place, with a Texas-proof foundation!; we’d take some amazing family vacations around the world; we’d set up funds for all of our children and future grandchildren, and why not throw in a private chef for good measure — at least until we get a kosher Chinese joint in town!.

We were just as excited, as I’m sure many readers can relate to, considering the new charitable vistas a billion dollars would open up to us. We could finally get our shul that building our community has been eyeing for years and we could pay off the debts of organizations we admired. The possibilities were endless!

I would be hard pressed to argue that it wasn’t worth the t$2 cost of the ticket for all the imaginative fun that little slip of paper created for us during those 24 spirited hours!

On the flip side of the mass lottery hysteria that was gripping the country lay a question that none of us, myself included, really wanted to consider, lest it ruin our collective daydreaming.

Would winning the lottery be a genuinely positive thing for us in the first place?

We’ve read of lottery stories that warm the heart.

The Lohse family from Bondurant, Iowa who have used and continue to use their $129.8 million winnings to improve the lives of the people in their small city.

They’ve made considerable improvements to their local parks, built a new football stadium for the local high school and have even opened a $4.5 million dollar grocery store because the city of 4,000 didn’t have one yet!

Other lottery winners have also largely set aside self-indulgence, instead focusing on setting up considerable trust funds for all of the current and future members of their family.

These winners might not set records for charitable giving, but their winnings have certainly helped create comfortable lives for many of those around them.

But for every lottery success story we hear of, there seems to be a parallel tale of lottery nightmare to match.

Stories of people losing preposterous amounts of winnings in short stretches of time on gambling, drugs, alcohol and vice. People whose lives have subsequently spun out of control, causing them to lose their marriages, children and even their very lives!

How do we know, then, which camp we would fall into if we were to win the lottery?

Would we use the lottery winnings for good, making the world and our family’s lives better in the process, or would such massive newfound wealth corrupt and tempt us until we couldn’t recognize ourselves in the mirror?

Avraham, the first Jewish patriarch, is the earliest recorded historical figure to win a lottery of sorts when God reveals Himself to the 75-year-old and promises him vast earthly wealth if he will leave his father’s house and venture to the Holy Land.

As the Torah recounts:

“And the Lord said to Abram, “Go forth from your land and from your birthplace and from your father’s house, to the land that I will show you. And I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you, and I will aggrandize your name, and [you shall] be a blessing” (Genesis 12:1-2).

The commentator Rashi writes that “I will bless you” is a reference to a divine gift of wealth.

The Sages of the Mishnah teach that Avraham was tested with ten distinct trials during his lifetime, all of which he subsequently passed (Pirkei Avot 5:3). Leaving his home and going to the Holy Land is counted as one of those ten tests.

I can imagine how hard it must be to uproot your family from your hometown, leaving much of your family behind and moving to a new, foreign and mysterious place, “the land that I will show you.”

But who are we kidding? Is there anyone amongst us who wouldn’t take the leave-your-homeland-challenge for divinely assured vast wealth? Sign me up!

According to Rabbi Yochanan Zweig, dean of the Talmudic University in Miami, Avraham’s test was not about the journey at all. The real test, in fact, was to arrive only after he received his promised riches.

What would happen then? Would he use these gifts for himself or would he employ them to better humanity?

Avraham’s test was a foreshadowing of the tests that all future lottery winners would one day face.

In the biblical narrative, “post-lottery” Avraham becomes the everlasting paradigm of chesed (loving-kindness), leaning on his resources to feed and care for hungry desert travelers who fatefully passed by his place of dwelling.

The Midrash notes that Avraham didn’t stop there: He also took the opportunity to nourish the travelers’ souls with teachings of the oneness of the Almighty and of the misguided nature of idolatry. Avraham, far from being corrupted by his earthly possessions, employed them in his life’s mission — to love and educate humanity.

And here lies Avraham’s secret to passing spiritual tests: Extensive advance preparation.

For although the text of the Bible reveals almost nothing of Avraham’s life and nature prior to this first test, the oral tradition informs us of Avraham’s spiritually rich early years discovering the one true God, and of his later years — still prior to this first test — willingly persecuted for this belief. Avraham was prepared well in advance of God’s test, fortified with a deep sense of mission and purpose.

When material wealth was added to that equation, Avraham knew how to use it accordingly.

So, is it good to win the lottery? It all depends on your preparation.

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