Sunday, October 23, 2016

Choosing a Trade

So here's some tremendous advice from the Chovos HaLevavos (Duties of the Heart) on choosing a trade:
God gave the cat an instinct to catch mice, to the hawk to hunt birds, while other birds catch fish. Thus, ingrained in the nature of each animal species, there is a liking and desire for a special kind of vegetable or animal to serve it as its nourishment, as well as the means of getting them. Accordingly, God also provided them with certain body structures and parts, as, for instance, the lion's strong and sharp teeth and claws, or the long legs and bill of the bird that catches fish. On the other hand, animals whose food comes from the vegetable kingdom are not provided with hunting equipment. Similarly, God gave man certain aptitudes for securing a livelihood.
Therefore, man should follow his natural inclination when selecting the means to make a living. If he feels a desire for a special trade for which he is physically fit, he should choose that occupation as the means of gaining his livelihood, and be contented with its advantages and drawbacks. He should not quit even when times are bad, but rather trust in God that He will provide his sustenance.
(Chavas HaLevavas, cited in With All Your Heart, Rabbi S. Wagschal, p. 77)
So by way of illustration allow me a confessional moment where you may learn from my mistakes. I worked for a quarter of a century on Wall St. as a project manager in financial operations. I was miserable most of the time. I'm not a Wall St. guy. I don't care much about money. I don't care for the aggressiveness of the Wall St. culture. While I have some interest in computers and project management, it doesn't drive me. I made some friends that I treasure to this day, but can't say that I look back on the work with a sense of satisfaction. And the culture pretty much made me sick.

I wanted to be a social worker. What can I say - I like helping people and I find the intricacies of human lives to be very interesting. 

The Good Lord tried to help me to become a social worker. One evening years ago I got a phone call from a neighbor who worked on the board of a Brooklyn based charity. A home for developmentally disabled men needed a Shabbos manager to work with the Shabbos counselors who were all college students. I was in my thirties already and they needed somebody a little older to supervise.

I had never done this kind of work before, but I went down to Brooklyn to check it out. Walking for the first time into a home full of people with disabilities can be daunting and in this home many had severe disabilities: autism, severe retardation, severe cerebral palsy. I met some of the residents and tried my best to be natural with them as I took in all the information. I hope didn't look to awkward or afraid. I went home, couldn't stop thinking about them, and took the job.

I stayed there for six wonderful years until my full-time career - project management - took me to another city. I missed the social work, but felt that I had to stick with the project management because of its higher income earning potential - the costs of supporting a frum family being what they are.

There's more details to the story but the outcome of it is that I believe that I should have moved over to social work. I didn't go for the money out of any lust for money but rather the idealism of raising a Jewish family which today is expensive. Still, I believe I made a mistake. I didn't listen to the Chovos HaLevovos. He says to do the work that suits your nature and be satisfied with the advantages and disadvantages. I didn't do that. I'm not sure that many people in the yeshiva world do. I fear that the New York money culture has rubbed off on us and we don't think enough about finding work that suits our natures. We just go for the most money we can make. I know so many miserable baal habatim who hate their work. They stayed in kollel until the last minute, didn't plan for the future, and now just go for the money. In my view, the Chovos HaLevovos says not to do this.

Grumpy men don't inspire their families. It's a terrible thing for a child to see his father suffer, particularly when it's needless suffering.  I recall a talk by Rabbi Yitzchok Breitowitz of Ohr Somoyach where he lamented the cynicism that affects so many people in the yeshiva world. (He used the term 'yeshiva world.' In my view, that world has been replaced by the Charedi world which is not quite the same as the yeshiva world). I wonder how much of it comes from frustrations with choice of parnassa. It affects avodas Hashem and emunah. As Rabbi Avigdor Miller often said, Judaism is built on gratitude. If you are miserable all day long, you are not going to feel much gratitude. In the Western world today, a person can work in a field that suits him. This has been the case in the United States for decades. You don't need to suffer. Discover your nature, your skills, get some training, and go into work that suits you. In my opinion, so teaches the Chovos HaLevovos. Rav Hirsch tells us to study Torah "as a businessman, a tradesman, an artist, a doctor, or a scientist." Choose the trade that suits you.

I believe it's much more common for women to go into work they like. I remember in my dating days all the women who were getting graduate degrees in psychology and music therapy and art. I felt enormous jealousy. I know that the obligation of family support falls on the man, but I don't think this means a man is obligated to be miserable. It doesn't help anybody if he is. Rav Hirsch uttered words similar to that of the Duties of the Heart:
Capacity to earn a living and support himself. The attainments which are to fit the child for its future career must include also such knowledge and skill as will one day assure him the possibility of becoming self-supporting as you have been, also of forming a circle round himself and bringing into it possessions of his own, and, from this circle and with these possessions, of living a full life of justice and love; and so transmitting to the next generation what he has received from you. Therefore you have to take thought that your child will be provided with some business, some craft, some art, some profession, according to his disposition. All are equally worthy, provided they are honest and honourable." Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch, Horeb 552
 "According to his disposition" is the phrase I'd like to highlight here. You'll see the phrase and again and again in Rav Hirsch's child rearing advice.

I know many people who go through life as if there's only one mitzvah out there and you know which one I'm talking about. Thus, choice of parnassah consists only of getting enough money for this mitzvah.

In my view, this is not the Torah Im Derech Eretz way. We have 613 mitzvos and having a healthy personality is part of it. Having a sense of satisfaction with one's work goes a long way to help make that happen. As Rav Hirsch says, "Cheerfully and purposefully he works at his chosen profession, and, the happier since the Sabbath-rest vouchsafes God's approval of his activities during the week." (Jewish Joyfulness)

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