To Work, Or Not to Work – Is It Even A Question?

While getting ready for tomorrow’s release of Core Emunah 2 “G-d & Me” I wanted to share with you something that’s been at the forefront of my mind for a while now.

One of the biggest questions that face almost all the young men with whom I work is that if, with HaShem’s help, we succeed in “setting them on fire” with a desire to learn; it only sets the stage for a whole set of questions. It’s not just the boys themselves that ask them, rather it comes both from them and their parents.

After all, there is only “so long” that a guy can live the “Yeshiva life.” He has to know, as well, how to make a living. Can Yeshiva provide that for my/your son?

This is a very difficult issue when looked at from a practical side. It is true that the reality of life is such that “there are only two certain things in life: death and taxes” (Ben Franklin. Of course, if he were a Jew, he would know that, in reality, there are THREE things that are certain in life: death, taxes, and Jewish Guilt!). In other words, you’re going to need money at some point in your life, and where are you supposed to get it from? Obviously, you need a job, and almost all jobs require both education and training.

Chazal don’t ignore this issue. They are quite upfront about it. It is for this reason that they speak of the greatness of work, and how it is beneficial to them who do it (as long as they do it well).

Let’s give some examples of this:

  • The Gemara in Tractate Kiddushin 29a states that “one who doesn’t teach his son a profession is like one who teaches him robbery.”
  • The Gemara in Tractate Nedarim 49b says “Great is labor that gives honor to it’s master”
  • The Gemara in Tractate Berachos 8a states “Greater is that which was said about he who takes pleasure in the works of his hands more than he who is a yarei shemayim (has fear of Heaven)”
  • The Mishna in Avos (3:17) states that “if there isn’t flour, there isn’t Torah.”


Aren’t all of these examples of how it is clear that everyone needs a job? Well, yes.

However, as with all things in life, there is always more than one side of the coin. The beginning point in all things Jewish isn’t based on what we think we need, but rather – first and foremost – by our level of bitachon in HKB”H. Which is, of course, dependent on our level of emunah.

There are some individuals who are on such great levels of emunah and bitachon that they are not held to the same standards as most of us are. It is for this reason that the Gemara in Tractate Berachos 35a tells us of the “argument” between Rabbi Shimon Ben Yochai (RSB”Y)  and Rabbi Yishmael (R”Y).

The Gemara records that these two great Rabbi’s had a big argument in life: what do we prioritize?

R”Y said “Make your Torah the mainstay of your day, and your job should be arai (sporadic? temporary) whereas RSB”Y said that one must make his main focus on doing the ratzon HaShem, (HaShem’s will) for only in this way does a Jew truly “succeed”. The Gemara finishes and states that many people did like R”Y and succeeded whereas many did like RSB”Y and didn’t succeed.

It should be clear that this Gemara is talking about how to properly synthesize a life of Torah devotion along with a life in which we work on making a living. Do we need to work? No (RSB”Y, as through total devotion to HaShem the work that “we” should be doing will be done by others in our stead) or Yes (R”Y)? However, if the answer is “yes” then the question really becomes “Then how much do I need to do?” To which R”Y answers “when you find the time”.

Now, it should be clear to everyone that there is a third option as well: make your job the mainstay of your day, and do Torah “when you can find the time.” Why didn’t Chazal think to say this as well? I’m pretty sure that they were smart enough to think of it. I’m also sure that they certainly could have also finished and said: “And a great many people have done this and succeeded as well!” So, why didn’t they write that answer?


This brings me to an epiphany that I had many years ago. What am I working for?

I have asked this question of a great many people in the course of lecturing around the country, here in Israel. The answer is always the same “to make money.” OK. Good answer. Now what? Well, continue the train of thought “What do you need the money for?” “To pay for the things I need in life.” OK, also a good answer. “So, really, what you need the money for is to allow you to live (not just to survive).” “Yes, that’s why I need it.” They all answer “So, what are you living for?” I continue to ask. Silence.

One of the many problems that we have with guys who walk in Yeshiva today, (and it’s not just the Yeshiva I teach at, but virtually all Yeshivos), is the fact that they come in with no real Jewish education. This doesn’t mean that they don’t know how to read a Chumash or that they have never seen a Mishna or a Gemara, or can’t read them either. It’s the fact that despite all of the money that was poured into their Jewish education, there was no real “Jewish” or “education” whatsoever. That is unless you call the capability to answer questions on a test “education” and the fact that some (or more) of the subject matter “Torah related” as meaning that it is “Jewish”.

There is no passion. There is no devotion. There is no fundamental understanding of why the Torah is important to them. Why should they give up “life” for its sake? “I’ve got to make a living, Rabbi” I hear this all the time. I don’t disagree. However, define “living”?

Many are the people who are looking forward to their “careers”, this despite the fact that on the average most people change, not only their jobs but their profession around three times during their lifetime.

It all boils down to this fundamental issue.

What is a job? What is a career? It’s just a means of making the money that you need to cover the expense of living. That’s it.

I need money to allow for me to cover the expenses that my life incurs. But whatever it is that you do as a job, or a “career” is exactly that. No more, no less.

I have never heard at a person’s funeral “he lived an amazing career.” They might mention what he did to make a living, but it’s not WHAT they did that make them a person of mention. It’s HOW they did it.

Now, here’s the thing.

SO, after we have worked our daily work, we hang up our “hats” or “work clothes” in the closet, we now are on our way home. We did the job, whether or not we like it, mainly because we need the money, so now that I have finished “the job” and I’m now on “my” time, the real question is “who am I?”

In most cases “I’m a doctor/lawyer/accountant/garbage collector” or any other such answer will NOT answer the question. You are not what you DO.

What you are is what you aspire to be!

Do you aspire to be a talmid chocham? A Ben Torah? Do you aspire to be an Oved HaShem? That’s the real question that needs to be asked. No other.

What a Jewish education is supposed to be is one that sets the child before the path he or she is supposed to walk on in life. The only time that its “life” is when our drive is a greater, deeper connection to the source of all life, that is HaShem. It’s one in which the measuring stick of one’s worth is not solely his scholastic achievements, not which clubs he joins, nor to which college or Yeshiva he is accepted. The real yardstick of Jewish education is “how much does this child/adult aspire to be like HaShem?” That’s it!

It is for this reason that the Gemara in Berachos didn’t offer the third option “Make work your mainstay and Torah … learn when you can”. It’s because if that is the yardstick, then there is no hope for greatness. The only way to achieve greatness in the realm of Torah, through which we come closer to HaShem’s da’as, is through intense Torah study.

It is for this reason that when I speak with guys on the topic of a job, I spend as much time as possible with them trying to drive home this issue specifically.

Whatever it is that you do in order to make money, be it a job or a career, that’s all it is! It’s a means to make money! This doesn’t mean that it can’t also be a means of kiddush HaShem (or it’s polar opposite, chas v’shalom!) but keep your priorities straight! Regardless of how much or your day is devoted to it – it’s just a job. It’s your means to make the money you need to cover the expense of your life.

But what is your life about? Why are you here? What is your focus supposed to be all the days of your life? That’s what we try and teach in Yeshiva.

Which brings me back to the beginning. What do you say to kids who grew up in the Jewish system, who are now 18, 19 or 20 and are still not sure why Torah is important to them when they walk through the doors? What do you say when their parents are pressuring them to come back “home” to learn a job or a profession? I can’t blame the parents for wanting it… I can’t even blame them for their kid’s lack of fundamental Jewish understanding… only because it is far too little and too late!


To sum up:

When I speak to guys (or even to myself) I always tell them that for the vast majority of them they are going to have to get a job. There isn’t a doubt in my mind. However, for as long as you can – push it off! At least until it becomes clear to you that life isn’t about your job, or your house, or the name of your clothes. Keep your job in perspective. It’s what you do to pay for your life, but live your life for the sake of your life! Don’t, after all of the investment and effort in working to make the money, forget what you did it for: to live a life in which you work hard on attaining the ultimate goal, closeness to HaShem.

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