Rabbi Boruch Clinton
Klal Perspectives, The Ben Torah Baal Habayis
To read this issue’s questions, CLICK HERE.
21st Century Parnassa: There’s No Reason Why Not
While today, a successful transition into the workforce is certainly no trivial matter, on the whole, things right now are probably no worse than at any other time in the past. The same God Who lovingly guided our ancestors through their many challenges is still around, and still holding our hands.
For some years, I taught Jewish history at the high school level. It was a welcome responsibility, as it forced me to constantly deepen my own knowledge so that at each stage through the curriculum cycle I would understand the material a bit better. Among other things, I discovered that no matter what perils lay outside the city walls, and no matter what you happened do for a living, finding the right balance between the holy and profane has always been a struggle. Consider Eruvin 22b:
Rav Ada bar Masna (decided) to travel (out of town for a long period of time) to yeshiva. His wife said to him: “And what should I do with your children?” He replied: “Is there no more kurmi (soft, edible rubber) in the swamp (with which to feed them)?”
While it’s obvious that participation in the working world presents plenty of significant moral challenges, I’m not convinced that ours are qualitatively worse than those of any other historical period. During Rabbi Akiva, lifetime, a volcano erupted that suddenly buried and, at the same time, preserved the Italian city of Pompeii. Archaeologists uncovered many of Pompei’s artistic and commercial artifacts in the 19th century but, for much of the past century, a significant portion of them were kept hidden under lock and key. It seems that their morally explicit nature was considered too shocking for modern audiences! Your spiritually challenging, morning subway commute is probably no worse than a trip to the market was in any major population center of the Roman Empire. Human nature is human nature.
The relevance of most of what I’m going to write here actually hangs on this insight. A young man, anxiously embarking on his career, should understand that he is concerned – in broad terms – about the same kind of issues that worried his ancestors from time immemorial. He must also know that the Torah provides guarantees and support for managing just these problems, giving him some powerful tools to work with. If he’s been led to believe instead that our generation is fundamentally unique, that the challenges of today’s “outside world” are for all intents and purposes insurmountable, then he’s off to a fragile start, indeed.
Perhaps then, we would better prepare our young men (and women) for their professional lives by presenting them with a much more realistic portrayal of what’s actually out there. This is in our community’s best interest since, in any case, they’re bound to eventually figure it out on their own, and probably won’t appreciate having been misled.
Just a couple of illustrative examples:
“The outside world is nasty and brutish; the world of the yeshiva is refined by mussar and good midos.”
Despite what we’re sometimes told, gentiles are NOT universally anti-Semitic, dishonest, and immoral. Nor are (Orthodox) Jews universally honest and moral. For various reasons, I was expecting the very worst when, a year ago, I started work for a company in the information technology industry. Instead, I found myself in an environment of friendly and supportive cooperation, where mistakes were politely managed and successes happily celebrated… and where my peculiar religious needs were genuinely respected. My co-workers were concerned with doing their jobs well and providing value in exchange for their pay.
Sure, there are workplaces whose torments must feel like hellish, medieval dungeons. But, perhaps in part due to a century and a half of labor movements and professional business management studies, on the whole, things are a great deal better than they once were.
“If someone tells you there is wisdom among the nations, believe it.” (Midrash Eicha Rabba 2:13)
I believe, by the way, that exposing our children to carefully selected works of art and culture is critically important to their social and moral development. It’s important for them to see that there are individuals in every corner of society who energetically struggle to discover truth and to do the right thing. Some succeed. Some try hard and fail. Some don’t get far, but at least aspire to something higher. I might well be wrong, but I believe a child who grows up imagining that truth and morality don’t exist beyond the few blocks of his neighborhood is a child who is only a few steps away from rationalizing a decision to cheat government programs.
“Exposure to computers and the Internet destroy one’s ability to think.”
Sitting within earshot of my workstation at my company this past year were a half dozen very talented developers. The sound of their voices became a kind of background music to me during my work. I noticed that they would often spend hours in uninterrupted conversation, seeking solutions to very complicated technical problems. Software development is very demanding work. There is no question that these were very intelligent people capable of focusing on tough problems for long periods of time. Undoubtedly, these young men – and the population subset they represent – were exposed to computers and the Internet more than just about anyone else on earth.
The software powering the government services, utilities, commerce, and devices we all use was created and maintained by countless thousands of developers. Each of them must, by definition, be capable of sustained and intense concentration. Yet virtually all of them are the products of childhood digital hyper-connectivity.
Excessive exposure to computers is certainly not conducive to either Torah growth or kedushah – nor is it healthy – but that’s no reason to exaggerate or even fabricate problems to advance social agendas.
A Theology of Compromise
While any Orthodox Jew worthy of the title stands ready to sacrifice for Hashem’s Torah if called upon, in this imperfect world, compromise in both the secular and religious parts of our daily lives is common. Most mature adults realize that “having it all” just isn’t on the menu. Everyone has to deal with limits: which of us has ever had enough time, money, talent, intelligence and energy to do everything he wants?
What might be new is the very modern feeling that we can, or even must, have it all. In a more secular sense, it might take the form of the mid-winter “warm weather” vacation or regular upgrades to a newer car lease. “Everyone else has them, my life feels empty of meaning until I get mine, too.” In the specifically Jewish context – and ignoring for the moment the enormous intrinsic value that these activities can have – it might be the feeling that my children can (or must) all engage in full-time learning, that my daughters can (or must) attend $25,000/year seminaries, and that I can (or must) adopt every new and expensive minhag because “that’s what we do.”
I’m not saying that, where appropriate, the full-time study of Torah isn’t both precious and critically important. But perhaps to some degree, it’s been reduced to an economic commodity – little more than a status symbol. In that context, it is market forces rather than common sense that drive its adoption.
To some degree in my lifetime – and certainly in living memory – the feeling “if we haven’t got the money, we just won’t buy it” was prevalent. Chazal certainly seemed to think that way:
“Make your Shabbos like a weekday rather than accept the help of others.” (Pesachim 112a; see Tosafos to Beitza 15b who applied it to undertaking unsecured debt for any mitzva activity)
What was the primary halachic application of this ruling? Forgoing shalosh seudos each Shabbos is preferred over accepting yeshiva tuition scholarships for your children. Which of us – myself included – would even consider such a choice? But even if we’re unlikely to go that far, objectively considering compromises can help reduce all kinds of pressure. A young family capable of making hard-headed choices might discover that more money, time, and energy are available for truly important purposes than they’d first thought. Perhaps, in fact, some of our struggles are self-inflicted.
In my later years as a rebbi – and especially while engaged in the process of writing my book “Accountable” on financial responsibility – I made a point of discussing money management, debt, and financial honesty in the classroom. In hindsight, one particularly important point now seems clear: teaching the key principles of financial management and budgeting skills really doesn’t require that much time. Halachic considerations aside, the whole thing needn’t take much more than a couple of hours.
While reflecting on some of the material in another book (“Working With Torah”), I was struck by a rather sad irony. We live in a time and place that offers more career options to fit any skill, aptitude, and social need than ever before, with vast educational resources within easy reach that help guide informed choices. Yet many young people are entirely unaware of anything beyond a pitifully small handful of tired and overcrowded options. Wouldn’t it be nice if those resources could reach the people in our communities who need them most? Couldn’t the yeshiva – or another communal institution – help make this happen?
When everything is said and done, though, a community can do only so much: ultimately, an individual’s decisions are his responsibility alone. Of course, he’d be a fool not to consider the advice of his parents and those of his rebbeim who know him well. But someone who has halachically been an adult since bar mitzva and has already started out on the path of raising his own family, must be ready to take the initiative.
The Whole, Unedited Torah
Without some of our best and brightest young men devoting themselves to full-time Torah study, we would quickly collapse as a recognizably Jewish community. But we must not ignore the fact that Chazal themselves promise the greatest spiritual success specifically to the person who combines Torah and derech eretz: “…for toiling in both will cause sin to be forgotten” (Avos 2:2) – and identify a significant source of corruption and crime: “Whoever doesn’t teach his son a trade, teaches him crime” (Shabbos 29a).
Sure, there are plenty of derashos that offer esoteric interpretations for these sources (and others like them). But their simple meaning is uncontested – a ben Torah with yiras shomayim and a solid connection to a beis hamidrash can not only survive out there, he can flourish. This is the message that must accompany our young men as they set out into the world.
Rabbi Boruch Clinton spent twenty years a rebbi in yeshiva and Bais Yaakov high schools before transitioning into the information technology industry. He is the author of Accountable: a Torah Guide to Fiscal Responsibility and Working with Torah: A Torah Guide to Employment, available through www.marbitz.com.