Oh, To Win the Lottery! The Lure, and the Curse, of Sudden Wealth

A dollar and a dream.

You can’t win if you don’t play.

Today, as I stopped to get my morning newspaper, there was a line stretching into the street. “What’s this?” I chuckled to myself. “Even if he was giving coffee away for free, the coffee isn’t that good!”

The line should not have surprised me. I had seen similar lines at every other corner news shop. The newspapers, advertisements, and news reports blared incessantly about the billion dollar lottery. It seemed that everyone was getting in on the chance to “win”. While I was picking up my newspaper, I overheard one man who I knew to be a modest, hourly worker, purchasing fifteen hundred dollars’ worth of tickets, in cash. Fifteen hundred dollars! Cash! Imagine! Such an investment – one that he undoubtedly could ill afford – likely increased his odds of winning to… to… to still essentially zero.

I have read that the odds of winning the lottery are roughly equivalent to being hit by lightning. Twice. In the same day.

Now there’s something to consider. It is actually more probable that you would be struck by lightning twice in the same day than winning the lottery. And yet, countless millions are using their hard-earned money to play.

After all, you can’t win if you don’t play.

And so all these millions of people pay to play. But to what end? Which raises another thing to consider, what exactly do all these people purchasing lottery tickets and gambling with their money hope to win? No question, the enormity of the prize represents a “life changing” sum. No one who wins could possibly wake up the morning after winning and be the same person he was a day earlier.

The assumption is that that “new” person will be infinitely happier, healthier, more powerful… better. Who wouldn’t put down their dollar to dream of such an outcome? Ironically, studies have shown that winning the lottery very often is anything but a win.

Rather than an unadulterated good thing, wealth – and certainly sudden wealth – is at best a mixed bag and very often a very destructive force in people’s lives. It is an understanding of the complicated nature of “winning” that prompted one man from my office to state that “under no circumstance” would he be purchasing a ticket for the lottery. Why? Because he does not want to face the possibility of winning. “I don’t want to face that test…” he said.

Would that everyone understood that winning is a test, a test that very few people actually pass.

For every person who contemplates winning the lottery and how doing so could allow them to change lives all around them – by starting a philanthropy, by engaging in strategic chesed, by introspection about the role of wealth in one’s well-being – there are millions for whom winning means unbridled materialism, hedonism, drug and alcohol abuse, strained and failing relations with friends (former!) and family.

There is no lack of evidence that winning the lottery changes lives… to the detriment of the lottery winner! Most studies suggest that a lottery winner is actually more likely to go bankrupt than someone who does not win. As many as seventy percent of lottery winners find themselves penniless within seven years! A curious observation found that the greater the winning, the more likely the winning ticket holder was to lose it all.

The Beatles were right. Money can’t buy love. Or happiness. We know this in our heart of hearts, and yet we seem doomed to have to learn the lesson over and over again! Just as the obese person believes that losing weight will usher in a world of happiness, the lottery winner believes that his windfall will solve all life’s problems.

Unfortunately, that is not the case.

Rather than stand in long lines hoping to have it delivered to us in the guise of a lottery ticket, we might reflect how fortunate we are not to have that burden!

Wealthy or poor? Which allows us to be the person God would have us be?

* * *

Is it a greater nisayon to be wealthy or to be poor?

Soon after crossing the Red Sea, as the Jews began their long trek in the desert, Jews wondered where their next day’s nourishment would come from. Jews complained; they wished to have rather died in Egypt, where they could at least “sit by pots of meat and eat our fill of bread.” They berated Moshe and Aaron for bringing them out to the desert “to kill the entire community by starvation.”

They had only just left the bonds of their slavery – a slavery they had cried out to be freed from – and already they chafed against the burdens of their poverty. Once again, God heard their cries and showered them with water, quail and manna, covered with dew, while simultaneously declaring, “Yes, I will rain bread from heaven for you; and the people shall go out and collect a certain portion every day, l’maan anasenu – so that I may test them, whether or not they will keep My law.”

No struggling to make ends meet. Free sustenance and free delivery. What kind of nisayon is that? What does God mean saying, “So I may test them?” For God to provide the manna was a chesed not a nisayon, exclaims the Abarbanel. It would seem that the deprivation caused by the desert travails was the test; and the manna was the Divine solution to the problem.

The Chatam Sofer once spent time as a house guest of a member of the Rothschild family who was not only a wealthy man, but also a very pious Jew. As the great scholar was about to leave, he was asked by the host, “Please tell me if you find any aspect of my household which is not run according to the Torah. If so, I will immediately rectify the situation.”

The Chatam Sofer pondered for a moment and then replied: “Everything that I see within your household is contrary to Torah thought.”

The pious philanthropist was aghast at the response, but soon enough the Chatam Sofer smiled and explained: “The Torah grimly foretells, vayishman yeshurun vayivat – when the Jewish people accrue wealth, they will rebel. Your home, however, is clearly an exception to this prediction. You have passed the test of plenty. May God grant that all who are prosperous follow your noble example.”

When Reb Mendel of Kotzk was seven or eight years old, he was reported to have asked his teacher in cheder, “When the Israelites were in the desert, and they each received the exact measure of manna necessary to sustain each member of the household, not more and not less, how were they able to fulfill the mitzvah of tzedakah ?” The teacher is reported to have remained speechless. What an unbelievable test – having everything I need, yet not being able to share. Sharing, after all, is what makes one human. What a nisayon – what a test!

On a deeper level, however, there are mefarshim who view the test of manna as the test of wealth. The possession of plenty affords one the means to develop spiritually, intellectually and religiously. When burdens and anxieties of providing daily bread are removed, the test then becomes of what to do with the time, energies and peace of mind now leisurely available. What is to substitute for agony and hardship otherwise spent on one’s daily sustenance?

Rashbam, Ibn Ezra and others, view the test of manna coming from the insecurity and anxieties resulting from daily dependence upon a Higher Being – God. Manna only came down in the quantity required for the day. None was to be left for the following day. Ramban aptly comments in Beha’alotecha, “That even the manna on which we live is not in our possession…but we desire it and are dependent upon it at all times… thus we have nothing at all save our hope for manna.” What a way to live – from hand to mouth. Is it any wonder that Chazal teach: “One cannot compare a person who has bread in his basket with one who does not have bread in his basket?” It takes enormous faith and then some to overcome tests of dependence and anxieties of reliance. Thus Reb Yehoshua suggests that an individual should go out and work every day and not depend on miracles, just as the Israelites gathered their manna daily, and even on Erev Shabbat worried about the next day’s portion. On the other hand, Reb Eliezer Hamodai concludes from the very same manna report, that “Whoever has enough to eat today and says, ‘What will I eat tomorrow?’ such a person is lacking faith.”

Wealth, poverty, health, sickness, happiness, sadness – each brings its own set of challenges and tests. There are no escapes from nisyonos. The Magid of Mezritsch said that the nisayon of the manna was meant to test one’s genuine faith in God. How so? Because to have been assured of one’s daily needs without any worries and concerns and still remain ever cognizant of our dependence upon Him, is a much greater nisayon than being poor and having faith in God.

So, is it a greater ordeal to be wealthy or to be poor? Each has challenges; each has the potential for fulfillment and meaning. But, as a practical matter, it seems that wealth, and sudden wealth in particular, poses the greatest challenge.

Consider well as you stand in line, waiting to purchase that lottery ticket. Are you sure you really want to win, or is it the dream of winning that is enough?