The Gerer Rebbe on Living with the Meltdown

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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.

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15 Responses

  1. michoel halberstam says:

    THe real issue is whether the leadership of Mosdos who rely on the contributions of wealthy people who typify everything wrong being discussed here does not contribute to the idea that if you become wealth at any cost and any price you will get kovod. Thay being the case the question ” Ma yaaseh oso Haben shelo yechto” is very compelling.

    It is certain laudable to tell people to reduce their expectations, but who sits up fromt in shul, at the Tisch, at the Melava Malka , etc. We are witness to stories in the press every day of things happening which should not happen. But there do not appear to be any consequences to those who do these things. This is a more fundamental question that no one wants to handle. I can easily forego a souped up cell phone, but is that going to change anything.

  2. Yitzchok Adlerstein says:

    Rabbi Moshe Kolodny, the distinguished archivist at Agudath Israel, corresponded privately to inform me that Rashi managed to squeeze the gist of my essay into a few words. Why am I not surprised? You can find Rashi’s take in his commentary to Tehillim 112:5

  3. n,leff says:

    Beautiful thoughts. But we have heard it all before, to little avail. Eg, look at what happened with the takanos of the moetzes who tried to limit spending on weddings. By and large, these guidelines are being ignored. Apparently, the social pressures that lead to non-Toradik behaviour are very strong–if not insurmountable.

  4. n,leff says:

    Beautiful thoughts. But we have heard it all before, to little avail. Eg, look at what happened with the takanos of the moetzes who tried to limit spending on weddings. By and large, these guidelines are being ignored. Apparently, the social pressures that lead to non-Toradik behaviour are very strong–if not insurmountable.

  5. The Contarian says:

    Miriam

    Three comments on your comments on my post

    1. The Gerrer wedding has been moved up a week.
    2. All weddings are great religious expriences.
    3. The issue is not the individual voter who can go to the polls any
    he/she wants to. It is the party polling organization that must be in place when polling starts to assist their voters to get the polls, make sure that the polls are being run fairly as far as their candidates are concerned, etc, etc.

  6. YM says:

    I feel inspired for the moment. Thank you Rabbi Adlerstein

  7. Miriam says:

    Regarding the request to change the Feb 10 election date in deference to Tu BiShvat tischen and a Gerrer wedding: I don’t have issue with Gerrer Hassidim having a 10,000 person wedding, it’s a big religious inspiration for the community.

    But it’s kind of silly to say that responsible people will be too overextended from a previous night of partying to make it to their polling station before 10 pm the next night. Unless they’re the kind of people who never party, so they don’t know how to manage their partying :-)

  8. Miriam says:

    “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” (emphasis added)

    There is an additional problem here – if one doesn’t take personal responsibility for one’s finances it’s even harder to assume control, or accept new realities.

  9. LOberstein says:

    In keeping with your article , I want to inform your readers of a new program in Baltimore to deal with the high cost of weddings. The rabbonim were concerned that at least 30-60 Baltimore weddings a year were taking place in Lakewood halls due to the lower price. The result is a fixed price wedding costing $ 10,000 including the hall at Shomrei Emunah and a sensible but but not lavish menu for up to 325 guests. This is open to anyone, not just mechanchim, as originally thought. All local caterers agreed to participate. Tonight was the first one between children of two mechanchim, who otherwise whould have make the wedding in Lakewood causing hundreds of people to travel just to save thousands of dollars. I understand that a number of weddings are already arranged and this will help bring the cost down and set a standard of modesty.

  10. tzippi says:

    I am all for being no’sei b’ol im chavero (lit. sharing the yoke with one’s friend, and yes, we all have luxuries we can give up. But that being said, for many, many of us, we are already cutting corners and there aren’t too many more left. And I never went down the latte route to begin with to be able to give it up now.

    I guess we – those in my situation – need a different chizuk shmooze.

  11. The Contarian says:

    Speaking of lavish weddings, the Israeli press reports today thatMK Litzman of Yaahdut Hatorah – Agudat Yisrael Division – Gerrer faction demanded that the election not be held on Feb 10 because Tu beshvat falls the day before amd the chassidish olam which he does not represent will be holding tischen that night and they will have difficulty getting to the polls.

    The press also mentions that the Gerrer Rebbe will be marrying off a daughter the night before the election and that all Gerrer Chasidim are expected to attend and the celebrating all night will keep many Gerrer from voting.

    I am confused. Does someone need to have 10000+ people at a wedding?

  12. Steve Brizel says:

    Perhaps, the Charedi media can do their part by rejecting advertisements for vacations in exotic locations for Sukkos, Pesach, etc. As of this date, I see no evidence of any reduction of such advertising in Mishpacha.

  13. Avigdor says:

    As I watched brokerage account fall and my nights became more sleepless I realized that I had been banking on my “abilities” instead of the Almighty’s kindness. But I did get something for my losses, the best Rosh Hashanah davening I’ve ever had. In some ways now I hope that the market doesn’t bounce back before I am able to live with in my true means.

    Thank you for an excellent article.

  14. lacosta says:

    what about a side message, that learning 168 hr/wk x 5-50 yr for every newlywed bachur on the public’s expense is not a derech that is financially sustainable, absent Manna ?

  15. anonymous says:

    I agree with this article and believe that it is time for klal Yisroel to wake up and see the handwriting on the wall. It clearly says that as Jews we are NOT like all of the rest of the world as well as the major shifts happening in the world are given to us by Hashem, yet as a result of our own doing.