Working With Torah

A Guide to Parnassa (Online Edition)

Boruch Clinton

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A Dialogue With a Thoughtful Reader

The following exchange with someone who had just read my book raises some issues that might be of general interest. The reader's first question was based on these words from page 4 of "Working With Torah":
    He knows that any trade - no matter what the conventional wisdom might say about its prospects - can generate prosperity (Mishna, Kiddushin 82a). His melacha might be his duty, but it's not the actual source of his success, as, in general terms, economic status is decided before birth (Niddah 16b) and the specific details for this year were set last Rosh Hashana (Beitza 16a - Shabbos, yom tov and chinuch expenses being deductible).
Reader: I've always had trouble with the idea that any profession can bring prosperity. In your subsequent chapters you draw attention to the median salaries of various occupations. It seems you agree that a person has to respect statistics and not pursue what should be a hobby (art, music, acting) for employment - or even professional child care- even if it seems fulfilling.

BC: The fact is that some people DO make their fortunes without formal professional education and some people actually do manage to turn minimal business models into successful careers. There are more than a few millionaires who are also high school or undergrad dropouts (most of the upper echelon of tech billionaires never graduated - including Steve Jobs, Michael Dell and Bill Gates).
So it can happen. And if God wants it too, it most certainly WILL happen. The trick for an 18-25 year-old is to know what he should be doing - because, as we should all realize, the vast majority of dropouts do not succeed. I believe it depends who you are (which requires a great deal of careful self-analysis): for a real baal bitachon, it might well be reasonable to keep learning for as long as he can and hope for the best. For most people, however, at least some attention to "statistics" is critical.
But you also have to be careful not to start too soon: don't forget, the post high-school years are the very best years of learning that most people will ever experience. It's a crime to lose them unnecessarily.

The reader's next question was based on these words from page 109 of "Working With Torah":
    Because God, in His wisdom, decreed that we must ("By the sweat of your brow will you eat your bread"). Partly, according to the Chovos Halevavos, to test our strength and loyalty to His Torah (how do we act, in both halachic and moral terms, while under stress?).
    But, since results aren't connected to effort, how much effort you should invest in, say, a career, will be determined by different considerations. How many hours should I invest pursuing this potential customer? For how many years should I train for a career? How much deep thought should I spare for anticipating all the countless potential problems with this contract or that sale item...intellectual energy that would otherwise be spent on Torah study? There is, of course, no set answer for these questions, but someone with bitachon at least knows how the question is framed and will understand the general guidelines for developing a solution.
Reader: I'm also curious about the connection between effort and income. If a person doesn't lift a fork, the food doesn't make it to his mouth. If a person works half time he won't make as much generally as a full time employee. It seems "bitachon" with reduced effort relative to statistical requirements is really just reliance on charity.

BC: Let's look at it the other way. Just as there are people who made it big despite breaking all the rules by not preparing, there are also countless individuals who put in 18 hour days and still never make it. Besides the wasted time (at least from the perspective of hindsight), obsessive work schedules also come with serious personal and social consequences (family, marriage, Torah learning). Our conviction that God ultimately decides how successful we'll be is immensely liberating because it largely eliminates our need to obsess. We each have to make reasonable and effective efforts - no more and no less.
Certainly people make mistakes in their calculations. Some choose too much learning at the expense of their financial responsibilities. Others choose too much work at the expense of their Torah and next-worldly obligations. But it is quite possible that neither error will actually have any direct effect on one's actual income - which, again, is in God's hands.

Reader: Everyone else has to go to university and pull all-nighters here and there with the Chinese students in the library, but Mr Faithful can enjoy the chol hamoed carnivals and beat the system by taking a very quick accounting course with Cope? I appreciate that is an obnoxious way of framing my problem, and I need to think it through carefully.

BC: A lot of it depends on intent. If Mr. Faithful is using bitachon as a mask for laziness, then he is indeed in very bad spiritual shape. But if he is confident that he has taken the steps that are appropriate to his background and that, from now on, he's going to brush aside natural worries about his parnassa and throw himself into perfecting his mitzva life, then it's an entirely different picture.

Reader: You wrote about budgets. Behind everything is a fundamental question: do I also need to plan to earn enough to pay my anticipated kids' tuition? This sets the level of income needed and would govern how much sweat I need to invest in training and the job based on statistics re earnings. I work much harder than others and much of my higher earnings go to tuition the others just aren't paying. Someone I know sees his male neighbors returning home at 5:30 pm, and is resentful. Tuition is the great "equalizer". Should one have a balanced life, studying Torah in the evenings, doing homework with the kids, but then expect the community to pick up the tab?

BC: That's a hot-button issue these days. The fact is that no one can *plan* to earn enough money to cover tuition expenses for a large family. A very small number of families might end up being able to afford the $150,000/year bills, but most - even high-end professionals - cannot reasonably expect to have that kind of money at their disposal.
So it really is out of our hands.
The fact is that, from a halchic perspective, education is a communal responsibility. That means that every family must contribute regardless of whether or not they have their own children in the system. If everyone would carry their share in that context, it would probably work out. In the meantime, we'll have to keep looking for alternative solutions.

Reader: I need to keep reading to see if you cover where to live. It seems house prices lock in required income levels, but we need to hover around the yeshivos and kollelim which generally means the need for some deep pocketed local individuals.

BC: I talk about that a bit more in a new project I'm just completing (called "Accountable - a Torah Guide to Fiscal Responsibility").

Reader: I'm not sure I see how, as a communal matter, we can encourage the average person to shoot for a career that is expected to earn 65k (as I think is suggested by your book) if he is to have 5 kids going to Jewish school. And especially if the frum people live in established central communities (i.e. expensive real estate). Who is going to make up the difference for the community? And does this plan bank on double incomes?

BC: These are certainly good questions. However, as religious people, we do have to figure God into the picture. He most clearly expects us to live intense Torah lives which, practically, for most people, involves at least some years of full-time Torah learning. God has told us quite clearly that He is the source of our parnassa but that we must also make a reasonable, minimal effort. If there appears to be a conflict between what's required for "intense Torah lives" and "minimal", then we comfortably leave the details in His qualified hands. We will have done our bit.
Throughout history, the survival of the Jewish people has never been considered likely by natural standards (see my notes on "The Problem of Jewish Survival" from my Project Emunah site). Perhaps it's not a bad thing to have no easy answer to an existential problem; to be forced to admit (as the Gemara Sotah 49b words it): "And on what may we rely? Only on our Father in heaven!"