Uvechein - Gelt, Pachdecha - Gelt, Al Kol Ma’asecha - Gelt
By Rabbi Avrohom Birnbaum
“Uvechein - gelt. Pachdecha - gelt. Al kol ma’asecha - gelt.” This seemingly sacrilegious choice of words is said in the name of none other than the quintessential oheiv Yisroel, Rav Levi Yitzchok of Berditchev.
THE FINANCIAL PRESSURE COOKER
As was his wont, Rav Levi Yitzchok would petition Hashem on behalf of the Jewish nation as a lawyer petitions a judge. He would say, “Hashem, what do we ask of You on Rosh Hashanah? We ask, ‘Uvechein tein pachdecha al kol ma’asecha. Grant that Your fear and awe, Hashem, our G-d, should be on all of Your works. Hashem, we want nothing more than that the whole world should know that You are Hashem, that we should we worthy of bringing Moshiach who will herald that era. But how can we properly focus on the avodas Hashem necessary to bring Moshiach if we are starving? How can we focus if, from morning till night, we are busy trying to earn the money we need just to survive? In such a situation, we do not have the yishuv hadaas to serve You. So please, Hashem, ‘Uvechein - gelt. Pachdecha - gelt. Al kol ma’asecha - gelt.’”
The above quote and the explanation came to mind this past Shabbos on the way home from a kiddush. At the kiddush, I had the rare treat of meeting one of my dear friends, a fellow Yated columnist and editor whom I rarely meet in person. We had a great shmoozeand, naturally, during the course of the conversation, we gravitated to talking about what a tremendous achrayus writing in a public forum carries and what we were thinking of writing about in the future. My friend mentioned that he thinks that the tremendous financial pressure that so many of us - perhaps the vast majority of those in our communities - are under is a prime source of, or at least exacerbates, many of the difficulties and challenges, communal and individual, that we face in our times.
Basically, there is a very small percentage of those in our community who have, boruch Hashem, attained great financial success, and that is wonderful. The vast majority, however, are struggling. Most get by during the initial years of marriage, but as families grow and expenses mount, the oxygen slowly gets sucked out of the air, as the air itself becomes thick not only with worry, but a constant juggling of priorities. Mothers and fathers have to make agonizing decisions daily. Decisions of what to sacrifice, how much time with their children they must give up in order to pay those ever escalating bills, what necessities should go on the chopping block because they can’t afford them, why they feel they must send their child to camp or even move into a larger house because otherwise their child will feel deprived in a way that will negatively affect his chinuch… And the list goes on.
DUAL INCOMES, DUAL IDENTITIES, DUAL PRESSURES
My friend put it succinctly when he said, “The lifestyle that we live is simply unsustainable.”
It matters not whether a person is in kollel, in the workforce, in chinuch or anything else, he remarked. It is nearly impossible for today’s family to make ends meet without both parents working, and even then it is very tight.
The pressures that parents and especially mothers must deal with while filling two jobs - being a mommy, which is a full time job if there ever was one, while augmenting the family income or at times being the primary breadwinner - has tremendous ramifications for the entire family unit. Fathers, who must juggle workdays of 10 to 12 hours when one includes daily travel, while simultaneously trying to maintain regular sedorim, are under constant pressure. I know of many people who begin their day at 5 a.m. with a two-hour seder, run off to work after davening, return home at 7 p.m., eat supper, learn with their children, say hello to the family, and be back in the bais medrash at 8:30 for night seder. These people are not rare exceptions. They are everywhere. They are heroes, both the fathers and the mothers.
Nevertheless, when parents live under such constant pressure and despite all that effort are still not making it, it is very, very tough. Certainly, there are some supermen and superwomen who can somehow manage to juggle all of those tasks without losing their equilibrium, but we know that most of us can’t. There is a price being paid for this juggling act.
A GOLDEN “MITRAYIM”-LIKE CAGE?
Indeed, those who claim that this constant pressure and juggling do not affect the family and the individuals are fooling themselves. In truth, what is happening to us in many ways echoes Paroh’s strategy in this week’s parsha. When the Bnei Yisroel said that they wanted to go serve Hashem, Paroh’s response was, “Tichbad ha’avodah. Increase their workload even more!” In this way, they would be so overwhelmed that they wouldn’t even have a chance to contemplate spiritual matters. Sometimes one wonders, have we locked ourselves in a Mitzrayim-like cage, albeit a golden one?
The first step to dealing with a problem is recognizing it.
(One more thing, dear readers. Please don’t start with the knee-jerk reaction that it is the kollel system that is to blame. This issue that we are discussing is faced in frum communities everywhere - from Lakewood to Brooklyn to Teaneck to the Five Towns. Most families have difficulties making it, even with two breadwinners. Tuition costs and the kinds of lifestyles that we lead, for better or for worse, are unsustainable and cross ideological lines.)
So what do we do? What is the answer?
IS THERE AN ANSWER?
There is no single answer and this problem is apparently here to stay. On second thought, there is an answer, but it is an answer that will not be brought to fruition, because it not only demands a paradigm shift, but also very strong, visionary, unbending and principled leadership, something that is, unfortunately, a rarity in our time.
There are lifestyle changes, tuition relief changes, even location changes of where we live and how we live that will have to be implemented if we want even a remote chance of getting off the treadmill of our lives that is continuously being set to a quicker pace and a more elevated climb.
We have seen some chassidishe communities make progress and have a modicum of success in helping deal with lifestyle changes, tuition relief and housing ideas that have brought respite and partial solutions to some of these problems. Unfortunately, we have not seen similar success in other communities.
As a community, we have been largely passive or reactive in nature to the problems facing us, not proactive. Leadership is the ability to anticipate the change before it comes and put forth solutions that will circumvent or address the problems before they happen.
I was recently at an annual parlor meeting for a Lakewood mosad where I witnessed the introduction of what they called “The Young Leadership Committee.” The guys were a fine group of affluent young men who had achieved some financial success and, to this mosad at least, leadership meant that they would foot some of the budget. That is great.
However, I was thinking, “Where is our real leadership?” We need real leaders who truly recognize the stress that our communities are going through and are willing to stick out their necks despite the thousands of naysayers. They must be willing to make coalitions with other leaders to address, at least in some ways, the many difficulties that we suffer as a result of the unsustainable lifestyle that we live.
Until then, we will continue to constantly beseech Hashem Echad with the holy words of the defender of Klal Yisroel, the great Rav Levi Yitzchok, and say, “Uvechein - gelt. Pachdecha - gelt. Al kol ma’asecha – gelt.”