Can Money Ever Strengthen Relationships?

In addition to my wife, there is one person who knows the crevasses of my psyche and innermost thoughts. I feel emotionally connected to him in a way that I probably will never connect with most other people. But he and I will never be friends. He is my therapist.

I started seeing my therapist seven years ago, when a chaplaincy internship was becoming overwhelming, and I needed more support. It turned into a longer-term involvement – one that sustains me emotionally and spiritually and helps me gain greater self-awareness. Each weak, I pour out my soul to a person I trust and who I know has my best interests at heart. He listens with care, and even occasionally humor, and homes in on what really matters (or doesn’t matter) from among my many experiences.

But I know that at the end of each session, he will go his way and I will go my way. And I know that if I fail to pay him for his time, our relationship will go away, too.

Many in our society – especially at this time of material excess and superficiality – might be tempted to argue that the business aspect of any relationship diminishes its significance. In many cases, that is true. Marriages that become all about money (or the lack thereof) often dissolve on their own. Friendships that are reduced to opportunities for showing off wealth (or the disparity of wealth) are hardly the sort that help one find fulfillment and meaning. Even business relationships can come undone when the higher purpose of one’s partnership is lost in the hunt for higher profits. Money can be used to manipulate, control, and silence other people.

Yet as the relationship between patient and therapist illustrates, there can be moments when money clarifies, rather than inhibits, relationship. My therapist is not merely bound by the goodness of his heart to care for me and to do what he reasonably can to support me, but also by his professional code of ethics. Likewise, knowing from the start that there are boundaries to our relationship and that what I say in the room will not impact friendships and relationships outside of it (unless I want it to) is a great relief. Having a contract or exchange of fees with my therapist formalizes the patient/therapist relationship and gives me confidence that he both cares about me – and is required to keep caring about me even if I divulge something embarrassing or shameful. Our business relationship actually leads to greater openness and connection, because it is structured with care.

This week’s Torah portion is about (at least) two instances in which money clarifies and deepens relationship.

In a poignant scene, Abraham seeks out a place to bury his wife Sarah, and in time others in his family – and even himself. His wife has just died, but in the thick of mourning, Abraham sees clearly what he needs to do. He seeks out a particular area (a cave, in fact) that Ephron the Hittite owns. Ephron offers to give Abraham the land for free, but Abraham insists on paying for it.

After agreeing on the fair market rate for the land, Abraham gives Ephron the money – and Ephron is quick to accept it. The medieval commentator Rashi indicates that Ephron might not have been sincere in his offer to give the land for free to Abraham. But Abraham seems to intuitively know that receiving someone’s land as a gift is asking too much – and could lead to resentment. Abraham does not appear upset when Ephron accepts payment, but rather understanding that if he pays, the land will be his family’s in perpetuity. Further, in doing business with the member of a different tribal community, Abraham wants clarity in relationship and in the significance of the transaction. Money simplifies the transaction – and in turn preserves his relationship with Ephron, and perhaps all of the Hittites.

After burying his wife in the plot that he purchased, Abraham sets out in another important venture: finding a spouse for his son. Once again, he uses a relationship based on money in order to do so. Rather than personally seeking out a suitable partner for his son or having another family member seek one out (as might have been common in this epoch of arranged marriages), Abraham commissions the senior servant in his household to do so.

Why would Abraham entrust such an important task to a person in his employ? Precisely because he has a clearly defined, if warm and caring, relationship with his servant. His servant has greater impartiality, while also possessing great loyalty. Rabbi David Kimhi (known as the Radak) suggests that the servant had actually grown up in Abraham’s household and was worthy of the task because of his enduring loyalty to Abraham over such a long period of time. Even so, the servant swears a symbolically laden oath to Abraham, specifying his duty to find a spouse of particular character for Abraham’s son. The servant’s well-defined mission transcends any financial relationship, but is still reinforced by one.

One might even argue that the servant’s presentation of gifts to Rebecca and her family later in the story, when she is identified as a good mate for Abraham’s son, reiterates this principle.

No, relationships should not be about money. But yes, they can in some circumstances be deepened when money is used to affirm their significance and clarify their parameters. The symbolic significance of money as an indication of value provides an opportunity, not merely a pitfall.

The power of money is often misused in society and in our relationships. But it need not be categorically harmful. If harnessed with care towards a good end, money can affirm the trust between people and emphasize the far more transcendent purpose that their relationship embodies.

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