A Saudi prince has recently been preaching financial austerity and fighting ill-gotten wealth. But before becoming intoxicated by this sudden fresh air, we learned that while campaigning for this cause, the prince paused just long enough to buy himself a little bauble: A $300 million chateau.

Extravagant tastes are expected in a king’s son. But if you can’t have a king as your father, a good path toward wealth is that of politics. For example, Bill and Hillary Clinton just purchased, for $2 million, the mansion next door to their already palatial home in Chappaqua, New York. Their daughter Chelsea lives in a block-long Manhattan apartment worth $6 million. To help pay the grocery bills, Bill pocketed $500,000 for a talk he gave in Russia, and Hillary accepted $250,000 for a speech to Wall Street bigwigs. Not bad for a family that, as Hillary once declared, left the White House “flat broke.”

Being a former president also has its perks. Barack Obama is purchasing a little place near Washington for a mere $8 million. Not bad for a former community organizer who urged financial discipline on his countrymen. He was paid $300,000 for a little talk he gave on Wall Street. (If $300,000 is available in New York, can $500,000 in Moscow be far behind?)

The wise King Solomon’s dictum, “lovers of money are never satisfied with money” (Koheles 5:9), is still a universal truth. European leaders fulfill the dictum with luxurious villas on the Riviera, and which politician in Israel dares refute King Solomon? Former PM Ehud Barak lives in palatial quarters estimated at $4 million, and other top Israeli ministers and officials tend to their extensive land and properties while mouthing slogans about Zionist ideals of economic equality and helping the “little man.” With few exceptions — Golda Meir, Menachem Begin, and Jimmy Carter come to mind — the aroma of money remains overpowering. Like sea water, the more one drinks, the thirstier one becomes.

(Curious: When I left the pulpit rabbinate, no one offered me huge speaking fees. In fact, no one offered me any fees at all. Perhaps that was because I had nothing to offer in return — such as access to the president of the USA, or exclusive rights to lucrative investments in oil or gas, or introductions to key policy makers. As a result, I was spared the dilemmas of worrying about the moral implications of accepting exorbitant fees. Of course, I might have suggested access to the One Above, or lucrative investments in tzedakah. But these are available to anyone.)

The temptations of bribery — which has many incarnations beyond money — are overwhelming, the rationalizations irresistible. Read carefully the Torah’s insights on bribery: “It blinds the eyes of the wise, and perverts the words of the righteous,” (Devarim 16:19). Note that not only ordinary people are affected by the bribe, but even the intellectual and moral elite are affected — and infected. Even the wise will turn a blind eye to certain facts; even the righteous will inevitably pervert the truth. If the eye and the mind — of tzaddikim! — function differently when the pocket is stuffed with ill-gotten cash or favors, how much more so for those who are Torah-less. And that is why few political leaders leave office poorer than when they came in. Which might explain why politicians spend millions in order to win elections, and why in the state of Georgia, a recent candidate for the House of Representatives spent over $40 million. (Not a typo: forty million.)

Obviously, there are here and there mayors and legislators and judges of unimpeachable integrity who are untainted by the smell of power and favors and money. But they do not run for higher office; all we get are clones of Clinton and Trump. And somehow a Jewish mind turns to the towering Torah leaders of our generation: Rav Moshe Feinstein, Rav Aharon Kotler, Rav Yosef Elyashiv, Rav J. B. Soloveitchik, and many others. For these consummate Torah torchbearers, no chateaus, no mansions, no Riviera villas, no multimillion-dollar homes. They did not preach — but instead lived — austere and humble existences for generations long, and as true servants of G-d and the Jewish People, succeeded in preserving authentic Judaism. They remind Jews that we are all princes of the divine King.

Meanwhile, on the streets below, politicians in their chauffeured limos come and go, complaining about religious turpitude. (Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 698)