Forever a Ben Torah

March 28, 2024

Elisheva Braun

There are three things you can be in Lakewood, goes the highly prejudiced, profoundly offensive joke: A gaon, a gvir, or a gornisht.

What of the frum world’s middle class, the caste that can claim neither shiny Range Rovers  nor 18-hour sedarim?

In the exalted ordinariness of their frum lives, a number feel overlooked, insignificant, and unworthy.

These working families—the husbands, wives, and children so often in the shadows—were spotlighted by Voice readers of late. A storm of letters—some of which we’ve printed—reflect a sense of frustration and futility.

Now that we’re no longer a kollel family, what are we? Do our years of sacrifice mean nothing anymore? And why are we still struggling to make ends meet when we’ve gone out to work?

Here, three rabbanim tackle these and other too-common sentiments on this broad topic, sharing insight, reflections, and some practical advice.

Underpinning of Klal Yisrael

Rav Chaim Meir Roth

The number of kollel yungerleit our generation was blessed with is a zechus and a sign of the affluence our generation. It’s a phenomenon that was much rarer in the past.

The fact is that Klal Yisrael can’t operate with everyone in yeshivah. Most people will eventually go out to work; the Shevet Levi isn’t the majority. This is the way the Ribono Shel Olam created the world. It’s not a mistake or a bad thing.

It’s crucial that a person has guidance when navigating leaving yeshivah and entering the workforce. Every person should have a rav who understands his needs and can advise him, offer practical advice, and help him acclimate to his new stage in life. A local monthly va’ad where those who are working can receive education, chizuk, and advice recently opened up. A person’s chinuch doesn’t end when he leaves yeshivah. It’s a continuous process.

Many of our Avos were shepherds. That was their avodah at the time. Of course, we’re not the Avos, but we can learn the lesson that we can serve Hashem in any capacity. Our ultimate goal in Yiddishkeit is not davka kollel. Our goal is to do what Hashem wants us to do at any given time.

We have to stop measuring avodas Hashem by external yardsticks. Sometimes being an eved Hashem means learning and living with less, sometimes it means consulting a rav and moving into the business world. In no way should a person who has left kollel be small in his own eyes. He should be proud and happy to be fulfilling ratzon Hashem in this new way.

If a person is serving Hashem in the best way he can in his current capacity, he is succeeding. If a person feels he didn’t do his best in yeshivah, he has a chance to improve his relationship with Hashem in his new circumstances when he goes out to work.

The kollel years change a person. They give him a deeper connection with the Torah,Yiddishkeit, and Hashem. In transitioning to serve Hashem in a new capacity, a person should never give up on growing. He should continue to set goals in ruchniyus and maintain the levels he has reached. He must realize that he’s a special part of Klal Yisrael; he’s part of the underpinning of Klal Yisrael.

Going out to work brings unique opportunities to serve Hashem in new ways. A person can inspire people by showing them how a ben Torah behaves in the business world. He can create a kiddush Hashem in a new way. Additionally, overcoming the many struggles that emerge while working gives the Ribono Shel Olam so much nachas ruach.

Sometimes, the wife feels that her sacrificesover so many years were all for nothing now that her husband is working. That’s a mistake. In the kollel years, her husband became who he is. She’ll get the schar for everything he accomplished in that time.

Rav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld said that his wife’s zechusim are what will allow him entry into Gan Eden. He explained that his wife did whatever she could to enable himto learn Torah.

“I didn’t do such a good job,” Rav Sonnenfeld said. “But that has nothing to do with her. When they offer my wife a portion in Gan Eden, she’ll say, ‘What kind of Gan Eden is it if my husband is in Gehinnom?’ That’s how my wife will secure a place for me in Gan Eden.”

In a sense, the woman’s work is completely l’shem Shamayim and therefore has more shleimus. When she enables him to learn, she’s doing everything she can to facilitate his growth. Whether or not her husband becomes a gadol b’Torah, she did her job. The wife gets schar regardless of her husband’s achievements or lack thereof.

Many women are disappointed when their husbands leave kollel. (Sometimes the woman wants her husband to be in kollel even when it may not be the right thing for him. In these cases, it’s often her family’s image she’s worried about and not his ruchniyus.) I want to acknowledge that the change can be difficult. The disappointment is real.

But no matter where a man is, his wife’s role never changes. She’s there, perhaps then more than ever, to enable and encourage him to reach his potential in serving Hashem.

Safety Net

Rabbi Eliezer Gewirtzman

Transitioning from learning to working requires tremendous foresight and guidance, but unfortunately, many people don’t give it much thought. Very few people, especially if they’re young, feel the need to approach a rav or rebbi for guidance in this shift.

There are two kinds of men who transition to the workforce. Some see working as an escape from challenging or unsuccessful yeshivah years. They often look forward to this new chapter in their lives and don’t worry about the dangers it will bring.

Then there are those who leave the koslei beis medrash because they have no other choice. These men tend to see themselves as upstanding bnei Torah. “I heard few schmuessen,” they think. “I know what to do. I’ll be okay.”

The reality is that no one should jump into the working world unprepared.

Before they’re in it, people don’t realize the pressures of a job. They don’t anticipate how draining a full day at work can be or the toll a daily commute takes on time and energy. It’s a big change, and most people don’t understand its magnitude. Often, upon entering the workforce, people focus on advancing their career and making a good impression. Ruchniyus takes a back seat.

The transformation happens slowly. First, they start looking a little less yeshivish, but of course, there’s an explanation—professional attire is different than a yeshivahman’s.

Then, they’re learning less. They simply don’t have time. People think it’s automatic. “Of course I’ll learn. I’ve learned all my life.”

But when they’re kove’a itim, it can be hard for them to focus. They try to sit by a Gemara, but it doesn’t work. They don’t get into it. They feel no sipuk. The next thing they know, months have passed without learning. By the time they wake up and realizes what happened, they feel a deep disconnect from their learning days.

In yeshivah there’s a certain amount of peer pressure in shemiras hamitzvos, in tefillah, even in yeshivishkeit.

When a person goes out to work in the non-Jewish world, or even in a frum environment, he’s in a place that doesn’t put ehrlichkeit on a pedestal, and maintaining one’s level of Yiddishkeit becomes a lot more difficult.

Unfortunately, many people have a yeridah when going out to work.

It takes time for them—or more often, their wives—to recognize what’s happened and reach out for help. Often, by the time they acknowledge what’s going on, the change is very significant.

Preparation is everything

All of this can be avoided.

All that’s needed is awareness ahead of time and the commitment to keeping one’s Yiddishkeit on track. These are the points to explore when one is on the cusp of leaving kollel.

  1. The monetary nisyonos that come up in business, especially as a business owner or a salesperson, are real and many. Even for an office employee, it’s important to understand that there’s a Shulchan Aruch between you and your boss. Be mindful of the many Choshen Mishpat she’eilos that can easily trip you up.
  2. Ehrlichkeit. It’s so important to ground yourself in Yiddishkeit and in your kehillah, and to maintain the tzurah of a ben Torah. Realize that the decisions you make when you’re going out to work will define who you are and who your children are. Don’t think that because you’re no longer in yeshivah, your choices don’t matter. Your choices now will shape the rest of your life.
  3. If you don’t think about maintaining every area of Yiddishkeit, it won’t happen. On the other hand, if you make it your goal, it won’t be difficult to do. Don’t allow yourself to downgrade your Yiddishkeit. Yes, you won’t be able to maintain the number of hours you learn, but you can maintain the level of your learning. You won’t be in yeshivah, but the depth and intensity of your davening should never fade.

Some people take off their hats and jackets for Minchah, for instance. Realize that with every step back you take, you’re falling.

  • For most people in the yeshivah world, going to work in an office is the first time they’re dealing with female colleagues. Business trips have their own challenges. It’s crucial to establish clear gedarim in tznius and kedushah.
  • People think, “If I’m in this industry, I have to behave a certain way.”

But that simply isn’t true. If you look around, you’ll find that in every industry, there are those who maintain their level of ruchniyus. Not only do they make the time to learn many hours a day, they also don’t give up an inch of their tzuros as bnei Torah.

Find a role model in your field, someone you can emulate for their ehrlichkeit and integrity. Speak to him, learn how he does things, ask his advice, and find a way to take after him.

  • Finally, and probably most important of all, we work to support our families. That pursuit should never define us. There have to be other priorities in your life: your ruchniyus, your family, your growth. Letting your possessions define you is a very dangerous road.

All about the yom acharon

A conversation withRabbi Aaron Twersky

In the early morning light, the beis medrash was empty except for a handful of early risers.

Two men sat facing each other, shtenders almost colliding as they argued and swayed over their Gemaras. Time passed, but the two seemed oblivious. They appeared to inhabit a world of their own, a bubble of Torah undiluted by distraction.

Finally, one checked his watch. With a sigh, he gently closed his Gemara.

“Now that I’ve finished with my Olam Hazeh for the day, I’m going to do my Olam Habah,” he told his chavrusa. “I’m going to work so I can send my children to yeshivah.”

“There are many ways to serve Hashem,” Rabbi Twersky shared as he concluded the anecdote. “Perhaps we should talk more about what a tremendous thing it is to be an ehrliche Yid, an eved Hashem.”

What would you say to someone who feels second class because he’s no longer in kollel?

I would work with the person to try to find out what’s bothering them, asking, “Why do you feel second rate?”

The truth is that everyone struggles—whether they’re in kollel or not. Feeling like no one’s there for them in their struggle is really an internal thing. Our simchah, success, and self-worth have to come from within. It’s not about what’s in the papers; it’s not about what others are machshiv. The joy of being a Yid is the simchah of our goal.

My rebbi, Rav Shmuel Berenbaum, would say, “Avodas Hashem has to be like a business. We have to set goals and constantly take stock of where we’re holding.”

We should think more about this. Couples should speak about what it means to be happy and successful.

“We want to raise our income by 20 percent over the next two years,” they might decide. “If we don’t, does that mean we’re unsuccessful? On the other hand, we want our children to grow in Torah and yiras Shamayim. If they don’t, does that make us unsuccessful?”

Families should talk about this. “When we look back in five years from now, what will tell us that we were successful?”

Success isn’t paying the bills easily. Success is serving Hashem in the way we’re expected to right now. Success means being an eved Hashem.

Many people expect to be on safer fiscal footing once they’ve left kollel, but often, this is unfortunately not the case, at least not right away. How can a person find chizuk when, despite having a job, he’s still struggling financially?

Someone was once invited to move out of town. He asked Rav Yaakov Kamenetzky for advice, explaining, “Lakewood is better for my children’s chinuch, but out of town would be better for parnassah.”

“Having parnassah is also good for chinuch,” was Rav Yaakov’s reply.

The Gemara says that one who feeds his family is giving the greatest form of tzedakah. This is especially true if he’s struggling, as a rich person isn’t working to put food on the table.

When a person is struggling financially, he should look for the positive in his life. He should think about the brachah he does have. However, if a person thinks he needs classy clothes or a new car every three years to be a success, that needs to be rethought.

There are those who leave kollel and are still in an entry level position ten years later. What does that mean? The fact that a person is struggling doesn’t mean he isn’t doing a great job, and it doesn’t mean he should have left kollel earlier. It means that this is what Hashem wants for him. Hashem gives people the kochos to earn what they’re meant to earn. “Mezonoso shel adam ketzuvin lo…” means that this is the parnassah he was destined for.

In a similar vein, life doesn’t necessarily get easier once the husband is working. What chizuk can the rav offer?

Mesirus nefesh for kollel extends far beyond the kollel years. This is especially true for men who enter the workforce after years in kollel. They start out late and at the bottom of their industry’s totem pole. It’s not easy to feel like a novice at age 30, 40, or 50, and it’s often an uphill battle to financial stability.

But that person still has his kollel years. They stay with him forever. Kollel made him into a different person; his family is different. Just as there is retroactive mesirus nefesh for the kollel years, there are retroactive benefits too.

How does a woman’s role shift with the changes in her husband’s life?

One of the big struggles that wives have is to allow their husband to go out at night to learn after he’s been out all day without beis hasedarim. It’s not easy; it’s a real struggle. In Eishes Chayil, we see how hard the woman works—trading and working during the day and keeping her family warm at night.

It says, “Vatizchak l’yom acharon.” When it’s all over, in the final days, she’ll reap her rewards. Everything we do is for the yom acharon,and it should constantly be on our minds.

What would the rav say to a wife who feels less than now that her husband is working?

Some women have a hard time respecting their husband once he’s working, but a woman should respect her husband because he’s her husband. (I’ve seen it the other way as well, though it’s less common, and it’s important that a man also respects his wife regardless of whether she supports him in kollel or not.)

The Rambam writes that a wife should treat her husband like a prince, and a man should give more respect to his wife than to himself. This is regardless of their level of ruchniyus. Respecting one’s husband, regardless of his decisions, is something to work on. It can be difficult in some cases; it’s an avodah.

There’s so much to respect in every person, and a woman should find the admirable aspects of her husband. She should realize that withholding respect is counterproductive. If he doesn’t feel respected, he won’t feel motivated to learn at all. Finally, a person can’t learn if his family doesn’t have the money to meet their basic needs. Lack of parnassah is destructive and disruptive.

It helps to remember that supporting his family is what Hashem wants from her husband right now; this is his avodas Hashem.