Finding the Silver Lining in the Meltdown

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The global meltdown of financial markets guarantees that money – and our attitudes to it – will dominate public and private discussions for some time to come. Some of the consequences of the loss of trillions of dollars in the value of shares around the world are already being felt by the Torah community in Israel, and those are almost sure to intensify.

Private philanthropy from abroad provides a measure of a social safety net for thousands of poor religious families in Israel, and the same philanthropy supports the kollelim, in which tens of thousands of avreichim learn. Shell-shocked donors have already begun to cut back dramatically in the face of total uncertainty about where the global economy is headed.

Already the poverty rates in Israel are more than double the average of thirty developed nations in the OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development). The average poverty rate in the OECD countries is 10.6% of the population; in Israel it is 24.5%. And the situation is even worse when it comes to children. According to the National Insurance Institute, 34% of Israel’s children live beneath the poverty level. The comparable figure in the OECD countries is 12%.

Poverty in Israel is overwhelmingly a chareidi and Arab phenomenom, a fact which only highlights the vulnerability of the chareidi population and how much suffering lies in store. For the poorest segments of the chareidi population it would be hard to find any form of silver lining in the current world economic downturn.

But if the poorest members of chareidi society will ultimately bear the greatest brunt of the suffering from the meltdown, they have not been the first to feel its effects. Economic suffering, like wealth, trickles down. The poor do not generally have money invested in the stock market, and the first to lose their jobs around the world have tended to be high-salaried employees, not those in the lowest-paying jobs.

AMONG THOSE WHOSE sense of financial security has been profoundly shaken, whether they were only comfortable – in Israeli terms anyone who could reasonably contemplate marrying of his children without reliance on a gemach – or super rich, the meltdown holds out the possibility of becoming better Jews.

Let’s face it, as long as one feels he has enough money to meet his anticipated needs, it is difficult to work on bitachon – the key to any close relationship to Hashem. That is true of even those at the highest spiritual levels, and how much more so for the rest of us. The famous Jerusalem maggid Rabbi Shalom Schwadron used to tell a story about his great mentor Rabbi Yechezkel Levenstein. One day he came to visit Reb Chatzkel, and found him in a particularly elevated mood.

Reb Yechezkel explained that his entire life he had been poor. When he served as Mashgiach in Mirrer in Europe and later in Shanghai, he did not have anything to offer bochurim who visited in his home. His poverty, Reb Chatzkel related, had forced him recognize his dependence on Hashem and to continually work on his bitachon.

Only when he was appointed Mashgiach in Yeshivas Ponevezh did Reb Chatzkel receive a regular salary for the first time in his life. Lately, however, he told Rabbi Schwadron, the Ponevezher Rav had fallen months behind on his salary. As a consequence, said Reb Chatzkel, he had been forced to work again on his bitachon, which he had found to be atrophying with receipt of a regular salary. Thus his elation.

Social scientists have long noted that comparative wealth – i.e. having more than most of those with whom one associates – correlates positively with happiness. Those who are better off than their friends and acquaintances may not be guilty of viewing others with einayim ramot (having uplifted eyes). They may be big ba’alei chesed, and truly empathize with those less fortunate than them. But at the end of the day knowing that they have more than others provides a certain sense of comfort.

That comfort level has now been shaken. Many of us will now have to discover our sense of self-worth in what we are and do, rather than in what we possess.

Rabbi Elchonon Wasserman writes in an essay on the Great Depression (published in the new editions of Kovetz Ma’amarim) of the natural human tendency to attribute financial successes to our own merits. Objectively we may know that is nonsense: We went into a certain fund because our brother-in-law needed help making the minimal initial investment, and had no idea in what it was invested for the decade or more it went up 20% a year. Yet there is still part of us that fits the description of a certain heir – “He was born on third base and thinks he hit a triple.”

Only when we wake up one morning and discover the Fund is all in “long” positions on the plummeting New York Stock Exchange, do we fully realize how little we did to “earn” our previous wealth. With that recognition comes an entirely new perspective both on ourselves and on all those who were not similarly blessed.

Over the past few weeks, I have heard a number variants of the comment, “I’d be a lot richer today if I had spent last year learning full-time.” How many will act on that perception and increase their Torah learning, I do not know. But some definitely will. Those additional hours will help compensate for any diminution in the numbers of those learning in kollel.

The crescendo of bad economic news mounted as we prepared to enter our sukkot – the ultimate symbol of what Rav Dessler calls bitul hayesh, eschewal of reliance on the solidity of the material world. The sukkah beckons us to put aside our attachment to the material world and place ourselves directly under the protection of Hashem, just as our ancestors did when they followed Him into a howling desert. To the extent that we succeeded in doing so on Sukkot and during the perilous times lie ahead, we will emerge as better and happier Jews.

This article appeared in the Mishpacha on November 5, 2008

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5 Responses

  1. anonymous says:

    cvmay,
    Yes, I believe it will work. I believe like many jews that as we are in the chevelei moshiach that this particular financial situation is a sign from Hashem to (return home).
    It is time to learn more Torah, as well.

  2. TheDunder says:

    When you write about the vulnerability of the hareidi community and the new vulnerability of the kollel system, we need to separate unavoidable vulnerability and self-imposed vulnerability.

    People in kollel are able-bodied, healthy people (for the most part), and therefore can work. We should be encouraging philanthropists to cut back on sending money to kollels in these harsh economic times and send consistent money to people who absolutely need the charity (you know, like children with cancer or people without legs). If philanthropist were to start understanding this reality and if people in kollel were to begin putting things in perspective, this economic crisis should not hurt the people who really need the money.

  3. evanstonjew says:

    Here is a basic principle …it is better to be rich and healthy than sick and poor.Poverty, like poor health, is a human tragedy that outweighs any externalities such as an increase in bitachon. The gnawing anxiety about the future, the terrible pathos of seeing one’s children go hungry, the constant race to find new gemachs takes away the simple joys of life.Why anyone would preach a sermon about the benefits of poverty or even the virtues of seeing one’s life savings diminish by 40% is beyond me.

  4. Ori says:

    Cvmay, that is interesting. I’d have expected the flow to be in the reverse direction. The Israeli economy is likely to suffer a lot worse than the US.

  5. cvmay says:

    Has any good come from this financial failure? One organization suprisingly has seen a benefit from this global disaster, and is reporting non-stop phone calls. Nefesh B’nefesh the premier organization that assists families and individuals plan aliyah to Israel has reported increased calls for applications, information, & help due to the U.S. financial collapse.

    Interesting…… When a father* (hashem) desperately desires his children*(bnei yisroel) to return home, any strategy (tachbula) will be tried. Do you think this one may work? Wishes for a speedy geulah!