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Rabbi Yisroel Reisman

Klal Perspectives, The Ben Torah Baal Habayis

To read this issue’s questions, CLICK HERE.

The Primary Challenge of Being a Baal Habayis

In his extraordinary work on the siddur, Rav Shimon Schwab, z”tl, draws a fascinating distinction between man and angel that touches on the essence of the kochos hanefesh (spiritual abilities) of a frum Jew.

The Gemara (Sanhedrin 39b) tells us that at krias yam suf (splitting of the sea), the angels wanted to recite shirah (song of praise). הקב”ה objected: “מעשי ידי טובעים בים, ואתם אומרים שירה?” (my creations are drowning at sea, and you wish to sing?!) Hashem rebuked the angels for wanting to sing shirah at a moment of human suffering. Yet, at that very same event, Klal Yisroel’s song of thanksgiving was considered meritorious. Shiras hayam (Song of the Sea) marked a moment of greatness for Klal Yirsroel, a high point in their relationship with Hakadosh Boruch Hu. Why was there no disapproval of their desire to sing?

Rav Schwab explains that there is a fundamental difference between angels and men. An angel is only capable of focusing on a single objective – he is a בר חד שליחות, a being with a single mission.  Thus, angels could not express joy while simultaneously recognizing the pain of the destruction of Hashem’s Egyptian subjects. An angel does not have the capacity to experience joy and sorrow simultaneously.  By contrast, a human is endowed with the capability, and sometimes, the responsibility, to be a בר ב’ שליחויות, a man of multiple missions. A person has the capacity to reconcile conflicting emotions. Moreover, a person has the ability to focus on contrasting objectives and embrace competing responsibilities. Thus, Bnei Yisroel were praised for saying shirah, even as they recognized the tragedy of the drowning of the Mitzrim.

We find this in other places as well. When the angels were told that Sedom would be destroyed, they embarked on their mission without protest. Indeed, why would they protest the destruction of an evil city? Yet, when Avraham Avinu, heard of the impending destruction, he prayed for the welfare of the people of Sedom. It was only Avraham Avinu, and not an angel, who could feel compassion (ורחמיו על כל מעשיו), even as he recognized and rejected their evil behavior (באבוד רשעים רינה).

Being a בר ב’ שליחויות capable of dealing with conflicting challenges is the challenge of an eved Hashem (servant of G-d).

An Angel No More

In our yeshiva years, we immerse ourselves in learning, to the exclusion of all else. We have the opportunity to focus single-mindedly on one mission, a “chad shlichus.” Yet at some point, for most of our talmidim, this idyllic period comes to a close. Our young men (and women) find themselves thrust into a new environment faced with a new challenge, that of becoming a בר ב’ שליחויות. This is a challenge for which many of our talmidim have not been adequately prepared.

The ability of a ben Torah to focus on success in earning a parnassa (living) while maintaining avodas Hashem (serving G-d) as his primary goal, is difficult indeed. Success in integrating multiple roles is dependent on one’s ability to become a בר ב’ שליחויות. This requires serious planning and a great amount of effort. More than anything, it requires that one recognize and appreciate theבר ב’ שליחויות  challenge. With effort, these two worlds, these two objectives, can be harmonized, and pursued together. The pasuk relates that during the coronation of Shlomo Hamelech, his father Dovid Hamelech ordered that Shlomo be brought to the river on a פרידה, a mule. The Torah is replete with narratives describing the travels of nevi’im (prophets) and shoftim (judges), but only in relating the events of Shlomo Hamelech’s coronation does the pasuk mention the mode of transportation.  What is the significance of Shlomo HaMelech’s mule?

The Chasam Sofer explains that Dovid Hamelech was teaching his son an important lesson at this pivotal crossroad in his life. Shlomo Hamelech had been living the life of a ben Torah, focusing exclusively on his learning. Now, the responsibilities of the kingdom were thrust upon him. He was to become a בר ב’ שליחויות. A leader must be capable of balancing conflicting feelings and demands – in his public leadership as well as his personal affairs. A ruler must assert strength, confidence, and power. Yet a king must retain his modesty, and be fully capable of subordinating his personal interests to the welfare of his subjects. Dovid Hamelech introduces the mule, a cross between horse and a donkey, symbolizing the ability to balance contrasting identities and synthesize competing goals.  Dovid Hamelech was conveying this message to his young son – the message of בר ב’ שליחויות.

The ability to be a בר ב’ שליחויות, requires training. B’nei Torah who have spent years focused exclusively on learning often become overwhelmed when competing responsibilities are thrust upon them. One way that yeshivos can help to equip talmidim for this eventual challenge is by exposing bochurim to additional dimensions of avodas Hashem. For example, yeshivos should strongly encourage talmidim to give of their time to help others. Rav Moshe Feinstein, zt”l, speaking to bnai Torah, encouraged us to give “maaser” – to devote 10% of our time to helping others, whether in kiruv, chizuk or chessed (This was subsequently published in his Dibros Moshe on Kiddushin). I don’t know of a yeshiva that has a program that follows this ideal. This is an elementary form of בר ב’ שליחויות.

During my bais medrash years in Torah Vodaas, most of us were involved in learning an hour each Thursday, at the beginning of first seder, with an eighth grader from a weaker background. Today, thirty-seven years later, I have reconnected with the young man with whom I learned then. We served as Pirchei leaders and were involved with Zeirei Agudas Yisroel. I don’t believe that our hasmodoh (being engrossed in our studies) suffered from giving to the Klal. If anything, it was the masmidim in the beis medrash who led the way. We developed an increased sense of responsibility to Klal Yisroel, and a greater desire to use our time properly and develop our kochos. My own involvement with two young boys from JEP was a powerful learning experience. Due to their family situation, a number of sensitive halachic questions arose. Rav Pam advised me to consult Rav Moshe Feinstein. Many decades have passed since I drove to the Lower East side to present these questions, yet the yesod (principle) that I learned from Rav Moshe’s response is something that remains with me and continues to guide me.

The Challenge of Self-Definition

After an initial period of adjustment, a working ben Torah may attain a degree of success in balancing his dual responsibilities. However, a crisis at work or an overwhelming deadline can easily derail this equilibrium. At times when he must temporarily cut back on his sedorim (learning times), it is his tefilah (prayer) that will help him maintain his closeness to Hashem. If, during his years in yeshiva, he has taken the time to deepen his appreciation and understanding of tefilah, he will be better equipped to meet this challenge. If he has learned to define himself as an eved Hashem – not only in terms of learning but in terms of his avodah, he will be less likely to falter – not only in his tefilah but in his learning as well. This is because the most wrenching challenge of leaving yeshiva is the profound loss of identity. On some level, the serious ben Torah feels as if he has abandoned the community of ovdei Hashem. This fear can easily become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

In one of his published letters, Rav Wolbe, zt”l, comments that it would be preferable for talmidim, while still in yeshiva, to dress in the style and manner that they plan to adopt when they leave yeshiva. This may be more theoretical than practical. Still, Rav Wolbe’s comment gives us pause. It reflects a deep sensitivity to the impact of the change that takes place when a young man leaves yeshiva. The degree of external transformation will have a deep impact on one’s self-perception. If, when leaving yeshiva, the level of external change is minimized, it will be far easier for the talmid to retain his self-image as a ben torah, It will be easier for him to maintain his spiritual aspirations and to experience this shift as a natural progression in a continuous path of avodas Hashem.

A talmid who had recently entered the workforce once stopped by to talk. I noticed that he was wearing his tzitzis out, something that he had not done during his years at the yeshiva, and I asked him about it. He explained that during yeshiva, he had not felt the need for this practice. However, in the corporate world, he wanted to be constantly reminded of his identity as a ben Torah. Another young man told me that in the middle of each workday, he closes his office door and has a 15-minute phone seder with a former chavrusa who is still in kollel. He shared this with great pride, despite the fact that it is “only” a fifteen minute seder. It is his reality check, a reminder of his true identity, in the middle of a hectic day.

There is another, even greater external change that paralyzes our young ben Torah as he enters the workplace. Young couples learning in Eretz Yisroel frequently return to America at the last minute, when they must immediately enter the workforce. This is too dramatic a change! The sudden shift from the intensity of learning in Eretz Yisroel to the workplace is totally overwhelming! It would be far better to return to the United States and remain in kollel for a zman (period) or two (perhaps in the same beis hamedrash and with the same chavrusos with whom he’ll be learning during his working years). The long-term benefit of establishing oneself within a community as a full time learner far outweighs the forfeited time in Eretz Yisroel. A more gradual acculturation will enable him to maintain his identity as a lomaid Torah even as he becomes a baal habayis.

The Importance of Regular Learning Sedorim

One who does not retain his identity as a ben Torah will dramatically reduce his involvement in limud Torah when he enters the workforce. Conversely, one who does not maintain his limud Torah will certainly lose his identity as a ben Torah. This perception will have a dramatic effect on every aspect of his life.

Most baalei batim are able to dedicate time in their weekly schedule to learn in a bais medrash. Shabbos afternoon, Sunday mornings and late Thursday nights are often productive and attainable time slots for learning.  If avodas Hashem continues to remain one’s central focus, one attempts to grab an extra few hours of learning on a legal holiday, perhaps waking up at his usual time in order to take advantage of this increased opportunity to learn. There are, admittedly, an extraordinary number of obligations competing for the time and energy of the baal habayis. Nevertheless, if one is motivated and committed, one can find many opportunities to learn.

It is not easy. It is not easy to learn after a long and arduous day. It is not easy to remain motivated. No longer can one enjoy a leisurely pre-seder coffee and settle in front of a Gemara for an enjoyable stretch of learning. Rav Ya’akov Kamenetzky, zt”l, used to point out that Yaakov Avinu left the comfort of his home to learn in the yeshiva of Shem v’Ever. He explained that Yaakov Avinu’s goal was learn the Torah of golus (exile). In a sense, he had to prepare himself for the transition of leaving yeshiva and entering the workforce. What did he learn during those years? There is only one piece of information that we have. Rashi teaches us that for those fourteen years Yaakov Avinu did not sleep in a bed.  A key preparation for leaving yeshiva is the ability to transcend one’s former comfort zone – such as learning to do with less sleep.  The baal habayis must motivate himself with greater intensity than was required in yeshiva. This does not come easily, but there are some practical tools that assist in generating and preserving motivation:

  • Setting Goals: The success of Daf Yomi can largely be attributed to the tangible goal of finishing mesechtos and, ultimately, shas. Setting clear goals helps to focus ones energy and provides a sense of accomplishment. But a baal habayis should not be content to limit himself to a bekius seder (i.e., covering ground with little analysis). Many baalei batim have committed to preparing for and taking semicha bechinos (exams for rabbinic ordination). It is a good idea to write notes, summarizing the yedios and yesodos (information and principles) of each topic. This is a practice that requires focus and generates hasmada.  A focus on the mastery of halacha is another motivator. I know someone who is learning Mesechta Berochos with a chavrusa while keeping a seder in Mishna Berura on the topics covered. Writing a synopsis of the pertinent halachos is a valuable and worthwhile exercise. Clear objectives, whether to learn a specific sugyah (topic) or a complete a certain sefer, encourage and inspire people to increase their commitment to their learning.
  • Importance of a Chavrusah: Committing to learn with a partner or to attend a seder together is a useful mechayev (obligation). There is mutual motivation and encouragement among chavrusas.
  • Having Role Models: At every stage, it is of crucial importance to look up to our Exposure to their hasmada, wisdom and tzidkus (righteousness) instills within us a profound sense of kavod haTorah (honor for Torah). We must continue to maintain our connection to those who model the ideal. We cannot attempt to navigate the workplace without an ongoing connection to our rebbeim. Yet, we must also cultivate role models whose experiences model our current challenges. We must seek out baalei battim who continue to grow in leaning and succeed in maintaining their standards in ruchnius. We must learn from those who are successfully balancing two roles -בר ב’ שליחויות, and learn from them. Find out how they do it. Learn from their mistakes and their successes. What gedorim (boundaries) have they set for themselves? What motivational strategies have helped them? We too, must set out to learn the “Torah of golus.”

Focus on Excellence

Even as the ben Torah balances multiple roles, he must guard himself from the societal distractions that threaten to lure him away from his primary goals. The lure of materialism, cautions Rav Dessler, undermines our ability to attain excellence in serving Hashem.  Rav Aryeh Carmell, in an essay entitled “The Theory of Relativity,” writes that “the focus of excellence in one area is relative to our pursuit of excellence in others.” It is unfortunate that our community places excessive emphasis on upscale standards of gashmius (materialism). Advertisements in frum newspapers, which once promoted low prices and good value, now promote luxury offerings. Success is equated with luxurious living. The drive to advance and achieve should be channeled primarily for growth in ruchnius. גדלות האדם, the insatiable drive  to be more, should not be confused with the desire to have more.

The Workplace Setting

With the passage of time, the workplace environment has become increasingly hostile to the values and goals of the ben Torah.  The increasing coarseness of the general society and the lowering of basic moral standards have made the נסיון (challenge) of entering a secular office or work setting all the more difficult. Even the most committed ben Torah is vulnerable to the influence of the culture and norms of workplace colleagues. Here too, preparation and guidance are crucial. One must display consistency in reacting to inappropriate remarks and coarse attempts at humor. It is important to set the tone, and to resist joining in, the very first time an off color joke is made. One’s initial response will set the tone for further interactions. We must instill in our talmidim the pride that will enable them to conduct themselves with confidence and dignity. If a ben Torah has been trained to model kovod habrios (respect for others), restraint and self-discipline, he will earn the respect of his co-workers.

At times, we must curb our ambitions. Professional success cannot become our overriding goal. True, we must seek to maintain a high standard of competence, professionalism and responsibility. But career advancement must not be achieved at all costs. We must weigh and balance our goals and opportunities with the בר ב’ שליחויות yardstick. Will my career path enable me to remain a בר ב’ שליחויות? Or will the demands and time pressures be incompatible with family life and my learning sedorim? One of my talmidim interviewed at a prestigious law firm, which presented itself as a congenial, family friendly environment. However, in an informal conversation, one of the younger associates asked him, “Are you married?” “Yes,” he replied. “Well, if you work here,” quipped the young attorney, “you might not remain married for very long.” Needless to say, he sought employment elsewhere.

The Dubno Maggid once reproached the Vilna Goan with the tayne, “What is the great kuntz (trick) that you know כל התורה כולה (the whole Torah)? You have secluded yourself within your small room with no outside distractions or influences. If you would go out into the marketplace and mingle with people, and yet remain a gaon (genius), that would be impressive!” The Goan replied, “Mir Yidden Zeinen Nit kuntzen machers.” A person does not have to do what is a kuntz, that which is complicated and difficult; he has to do what is right. Even one who is no longer sheltered within the beis medrash walls would do well to heed the mussar of the Dubno Maggid. A person engaged in a dual mission – a בר ב’ שליחויות – should not burden himself with unnecessary distractions. He should avoid the attempt to juggle too many balls, and be careful not to place himself in precarious positions. It is not wise for a ben Torah to put himself into a situation that will require him to perform kuntzen. Rather, by engaging in the proper preparation and seeking ongoing guidance, a person should do what is right – to make his work setting and lifestyle one which upholds and promotes his avodas Hashem.


Rabbi Yisroel Reisman is Rav of Agudas Yisrael of Madison and a Rebbe at Torah Vodaas and delivers a popular weekly lecture that is broadcast throughout the US.

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