"All of man's earnings are decreed on Rosh Hashanah, except for expenses regarding Shabbat and Yom Tov and expenses relating to Jewish education" (Beitzah 16a). Though the above is hard to prove, and must have no practical bearing on how we dispense our wealth, it reflects the fundamental notion that while we are required to work for our sustenance, ultimately it is only through the blessings of G-d that our endeavors meet with success.
One who cheats, cuts corners and does not conduct monetary dealings with full integrity not only cheats his fellow man but undermines G-d's plan for division of the world's wealth. With this understanding, the Talmud's statement that the first question that G-d will address to us after 120 years, nasata v'natata b'emunah, takes on new meaning. Normally translated “were your business dealings conducted honestly” this basic facet of the question, does not do full justice to the term Emunah, which relates to our faith in G-d. In truth our monetary dealings are the best barometer of our true faith in G-d. If one believes that G-d decrees how much wealth all are to be blessed (or not so blessed) with, why interfere with His plan?
Proper allocation of wealth forms one of the three components enabling us to “influence” the decision making process of G-d. “Repentance, prayer and Tzedaka annul the evil decree” (machzor). While repentance relates to all aspects of Judaism, and prayer allows man to silently address of his needs to the Almighty the only mitzvah per se that has such power is tzedakah, the sharing of our wealth with others. At a most basic level if we are asking G-d, to bestow favor upon us and inscribe us in the book of long life, good health, sustenance and support, then we must be willing to help others in their time of need.
Tzedakah is not only for the benefit of the needy, it is of equal if not greater benefit to the donor. The giving of tzedakah should develop within those who are fortunate enough to be able to share G-d’s blessings with others, the character traits of mercy, kindness and gratitude. The hard work and business savvy one may posses has little bearing on the cornerstone of our faith; that our wealth is a gift from G-d, who has entrusted His bounty with us to be used as He has instructed. The goal of tzedakah is not just to try to alleviate poverty – an impossible goal, “for the poor shall never cease” (Deuteronomy 15:11) – but to instill within us the need to identify with and to feel the pain of others.
As Jews who see the proper accumulation and sharing of wealth as one of the noblest way to serve G-d, we must be open to deriving for ourselves spiritual lessons from the workings of the marketplace. While the stock market is a vehicle to (try and) make money it can, it seems to me, also serve a valuable moral message.
Perhaps the recent volatility in the stock market can help highlight for us how fleeting wealth really can be and often is. Years of careful investing can be ruined overnight due to decisions and events over which we have no control and by companies in which we have no investments. Our wealth is truly not in our hands. While this may be frightening if we are able to “conduct our business dealings faithfully” we accept our monetary losses as expressing the inscrutable Divine will. As long as we our blessed with wealth Jewish law demands that we share at least 10% and preferably 20% of our (net) income with others.