His message isn’t pleasant to listen to, but the Gerer Rebbe shlit”a may have gotten the best line yet around the global economic meltdown.
Others are treating the crisis with a giant Post-It Note, with “Blame” angrily scrawled on it. They attach it to what they believe is the best (or most convenient) place to make it stick, until the next pundit moves it elsewhere.
The Rebbe, however, reached for a different pad, and offered the first prescription for the future. While no one yet can gauge whether we are being overly pessimistic or whether we do not have a clue on how bad things are going to turn out, the Rebbe’s advice will remain valid in all outcomes.
He is calling for frum Jews to reevaluate their lifestyles and spending habits. He asks us to ponder whether we really need every electronic gadget we have become addicted to, and whether our tastes in clothing are what HKBH expects of a people dedicated in principle to kedushah. He decries our wastefulness, pointing to yeshivos that leave their lights on all Shabbos. He is concerned not only with the bottom line, but with the terrible example it imparts to our children about conserving what HKBH has given us. (Regarding to living within one’s means, see Rashi, Beitzah 16A s.v. kol mezonosav.)
We have heard this call many times before. Many of us nod in agreement when we hear how making weddings put people in debt for years, or in disbelief when we learn the bottom line of what is spent on luxury Pesach programs. Many of us listen wistfully when people describe the mesiras nefesh that used to be the price of entry into a yeshiva just a generation or so ago. Many of us (myself included) would have no trouble comparing the merits of a half-dozen expensive varietal wines, all with good hashgochos, while feeling more than a twinge of guilt as we wonder whether the Ribbono Shel Olam really wants us to commit so much psychic energy on increasing refinements of our gashmiyus. How many gourmet cookbooks do we need? Has the Orthodox community become a garden of earthly delights? At what point do we worry whether we have slipped into Rav Dessler’s depiction of shemiras Shabbos: “Some people swallow the kedushah of Shabbos with the gefilte fish?” At what point would the Ramban say that we have become menuvalim b’reshus haTorah/ despicable within the confines of the Torah?
We need to go no further than Chumash to learn what happens when we refuse to learn certain crucial lessons ourselves. Not wishing to see us drift even further away, Hashem sees to it that we learn these lessons the hard way. Could it be that He gave us decades to address the problem of galloping gashmiyus, and that time has run out?
I don’t pretend to know the answer, of course. I have no inside track in Heaven; I am not a prophet. It doesn’t take prophecy to realize that tough times may be upon us, and they are certainly upon our brethren in Israel, especially in communities and institutions dependent upon donations from abroad. The plunge in the dollar’s value took a huge chunk of change away, even before the current meltdown. Charitable giving is already off. It looks like the Israeli government will not rush in with money it does not have in the first place. (If Bibi has shown himself effective in any area, it is in fiscal management of the country. If he loses to Tzipi Livni, she has already demonstrated that she will go to the wall without caving in to demands for monetary concessions to religious parties.) The Israeli economy will not emerge unscathed from a scaling down of the global economy. Any way you look at it, the advice of the Rebbe is not for the far future, but for now.
We might think (at least those of us that still have our jobs) that things are not nearly as bad here, and we can push off becoming morose till the effects are immediately upon us. Chazal tell us otherwise, however. “A person should suffer along with the community…Did Moshe not have a mattress or a pillow upon which to sit [instead of a rock while overseeing the war with Amalek] (Tannis 11A)? Rather, Moshe said, ‘Since Bnei Yisrael are steeped in distress, I will be with them in distress.”
In other words, halacha may very well mandate some form of commiseration with our brothers and sisters in Israel, some small act of self-denial that will raise our consciousness of their travail.
Self-denial may be a good thing. It might turn out to be the first step on a journey that many of us have recognized as needed and positive for quite some time. Perhaps this act of identification will lead us where we have been unwilling to go completely on our own – to a better balance between the spiritual and the material.
Give up the daily latte, or the insistence on the designer label, or choosing the upscale brand at the supermarket. Calculate the monthly savings. Give it to your local Tomchei Shabbos, or your favorite kollel in Israel, or to a fund for the dispossessed from Gush Katif still languishing in limbo because of the contempt of those not fit to govern. Give it to no one, if you wish. Just learn the art of restraint, and to identify more closely with others who are the first to be overcome by the economic tsunami.
R Shlomo Brevda, shlit”a, is known for his give-it-to-them-with-both-barrels mussar. People who cannot listen to this style of mussar stop coming; others thrive on it. Years ago, he paused in the middle of his delivery, as I recall, to speak of what he called one of the most important steps for serious mussar growth. He advised the opposite of what our mothers told us as children, when we ate. Instead of finishing everything on our plates, we should try to leave over something uneaten, to teach ourselves that we could do without, that we did not need everything that was available and permissible. Chillingly, he added that many recoiled from his suggestion, but he was confident that this behavior (attributed to the Raavad) was not extreme at all, and that those who rejected it were doing themselves a great disservice.
Had I listened, I would probably be in a better spiritual place, as well as pounds lighter. His advice sounds better all the time.