In last week’s Torah portion, you will remember, Abraham leaves Canaan shortly after arriving there because of a famine and goes to Egypt, where because of the Nile River, there is always food. In Egypt his wife Sarah is abducted by Pharaoh because she’s so beautiful. Gd strikes Pharaoh and his household with a plague. Pharaoh then returns Sarah and Abraham quickly leaves Egypt, as the Torah (13:2) puts it, kaveyd m’od bamikneh, bakesef uvazahav (very heavy with cattle, silver and with gold) that Pharaoh had given him.
Can you imagine how Abraham must have felt? There must have been a great mix of emotions. Yes, he was grateful to leave Egypt with everyone intact. But now he was rich! The Midrash tells us that Abraham was so poor when he went down to Egypt that he couldn’t pay the innkeepers on the way and had to ask for food on credit. As he left Egypt, he must have felt like he just won the Mega-Millions lottery.
Speaking or lotteries, let me ask you: How many of you bought a ticket for the Meg-Millions lottery last week? How many of you won?
I have a hard time understanding the phenomenon of the Mega-Million lottery. What is the Mega-Millions lottery? 44 states have come together for a combined lottery so that they could increase the payout and attract more to buy a ticket. How does this happen? You see, week after week goes by and, if no one wins, the jackpot grows incrementally because so many states are involved. It can grow quickly into the hundreds of millions of dollars—or as this week’s lottery can attest, $1.6 Billion. And when this happens, people line up by the tens of thousands to buy tickets.
What’s hard for me to understand is that in most states a winning ticket on any given week will win $10-$20 million or so. Apparently that doesn’t do it for most people. Me, personally, I could do very well with $5 million. But apparently all these people who lined up for hours to buy Tuesday’s Mega-Millions were inspired by the billion dollar payout. $10 million next week, you keep it. $1.6 billion—even though there’s only a 292 million to one chance of winning—now you’ve got me interested. Can you tell me, why this is?
They say there’s more of a chance of dying on the way to buy a Mega-Millions ticket than actually winning. It’s also been said that the quickest way to double your money playing the lottery is to fold it in ½ and put it back in your pocket!
Again, did you buy a ticket for this Mega-Millions lottery? Does Judaism permit one to buy a lottery ticket? Gambling is permitted in Jewish law for recreational purposes, but not to earn a living because being a professional gambler can be detrimental to a soul’s spiritual health. And one shouldn’t buy more than one ticket because it indicates a lack of faith for if Gd wants you to win, you’ll win with the one ticket.
Most of you know the old story of the head Rabbi of a Yeshiva heavy in debt. He prays to Gd asking why he hasn’t won the lottery to help him out of debt. Gd answers him in his prayer, “You can’t win if you don’t buy a ticket!”
My favorite lottery story is of a miser who would bet $10 every week on the lottery. Finally, one day he won and the prize was $100 million dollars!
His wife—who checked the tickets and knew he had won—was worried about how to break the news to him for she knew that he had a serious heart condition. So she went to the Rabbi and asked him to tell her husband the news. But she warned him to be very careful because of her husband’s heart condition. She told him to talk about the weather, to talk about sports, to talk about the shul and then gradually work the topic around to the lottery.
So this is what the Rabbi did. He talked about sports. He talked about the weather and the shul. And then he said: “Tell me, Jake, I hear that you play the lottery? Is that true?”
“Yep,” said the Jake, “every single week.”
“How much do you play for?” asked the Rabbi.
“$10 dollars every single week,” said Jake.
“Tell me, Jake, what would you do if you won $100 million dollars?” asked the Rabbi.
“Well I’d give it all to the shule,” said Jake.
And the Rabbi had a heart attack!
So yes, I buy lottery tickets and use numbers from the gematria, the numerology of Shaarei Shamayim. And no, unfortunately, I haven’t won yet. But when I do—notice I said “when”—I’ll use it to create a fund for Jewish life.
I think buying a lottery ticket may, in fact, be a good thing because it lifts the spirits of everyone who plays with hope and gives them a license to dream—to ask important questions and reflect in a meaningful way. Once you buy a ticket you invariably ask yourself what you would do with the money if you won. Would you continue to work? If not, what would you do with your newfound time? Would you build us an addition of a new social hall for the shul? How much should you give away to tzedaka, charity? Would you buy a new home, a new Lexus? In short, buying a lottery ticket forces you to ask: What would you change about your life?
These questions are not easy to answer and require some serious soul searching. If you think that if you won the lottery you would stop working immediately, what does that say about what you do? Do you work just for the money or is what you do a profession or a calling or making a contribution to society? If winning the lottery meant quitting your job and having more time, how would you spend it—with your family, exercising, learning Torah, volunteering? In short, what really matters to you…and if it is truly important, why not find the time to do it now?
Why buy a lottery ticket when the chances of your winning are less than being hit by lightning? You see, without that ticket in your hand, you’ll probably never ask yourself these questions and $2 is a small amount to pay for the license to dream.
Rabbi Anchelle Perl made a good point in an email to me when he wrote: The good news is that there is a lottery we’ve already won, even before the Mega Millions. Because if we are honest with ourselves, we all are already rich. We all have some unique gifts and talents. Most likely, we didn’t wake up one morning and realize that we had them; we worked hard to develop those Gd-given gifts and formed them into something we could be proud of.
Every person is rich. Some of us know how to write; others know how to speak. Some have tremendous talent in working with children; others have love and empathy that can brighten an elderly person’s life. Some know how to play a musical instrument; others can drive heavy machinery with ease. And some of us were blessed with the gift of material abundance as well...Are we investing our skills in the right places? Are we mindful of the One Who gave us those gifts, and are we using them to fulfill His desire that we use them to make the world a better, holier place?
So you didn’t win the Mega-Millions lottery last week. But just like Abraham who left Egypt with cattle, gold and silver—and in this week’s parsha, like Abraham and Sarah who are blessed with a child in their old age—you’ve already won Gd’s lottery. Gd has blessed you with so much. Let me suggest that you spend some time discussing with family and friends how you would spend the rest of your life and the difference you would like to make whether you win the next Mega-Millions lottery or not for you are already a winner.