Life, liberty, and the pursuit of livelihood
The pursuit of livelihood is arguably one of the greatest motivating forces in life. People invest years of training, relocate across the world, develop unlikely relationships, and may even neglect loved ones in their quest for employment.
As believing Jews, we have another extremely potent tool in our parnassah-earning arsenal: bircas hashanim. This brachah speaks in the language of agriculture, alluding to fertile soil, crop yields, and precipitation. For the agrarian society of yore, this was the expression of livelihood, a season’s harvest was the equivalent of a few months’ salary. Therefore, the Yaaros Devash teaches, this is the place to daven for parnassah.
According to the gemara (Megillah 17b), this brachah is a request to Hashem that the “mafkiyei shearim” (price gougers) not succeed in artificially raising the prices of wheat, thus rendering it unaffordable. The intention in this brachah is that Hashem provide such abundance that price gouging be rendered ineffective.
Rav Chaim Friedlander (Sifsei Chaim) notes that today we see another method for “mafkiyei shearim” — to inflate the price of fruit and vegetables, the surplus is simply thrown in the sea or buried underground and left to rot.
Although price gouging is a concerning practice and many of us have been frustrated with the giant markup on essentials, our main parnassah concerns generally center around how much we earn. Chazal (Beitzah 16a) teach that a person’s livelihood is determined from year to year on Rosh Hashanah. If our net earnings were already preset in Tishrei, why bother davening for parnassah anytime thereafter?
Indeed, the Gemara asks this question with regard to rainfall. If the amount of rain we will receive is determined in Tishrei, why are we warned that in accordance with our spiritual state, precipitation can vacillate over the course of the year?
When it comes to both rainfall and financial windfall, sometimes a little can go a long way.
The rainfall decreed on Rosh Hashanah can be distributed in myriad ways. Hashem can send a colossal rainstorm capable of nourishing vast tracts of parched earth. But if He sends it to the Sahara Desert, it’s worthless. Similarly, heavy rain is a blessing when seeds are still embedded underground. Once delicate shoots have emerged, that very same rain will be destructive.
The money decreed for us on Rosh Hashanah can be allocated in countless ways. Hashem can orchestrate significant price markdowns in our local shops so smaller sums of money stretch further. On the other hand, He can send us extra, unforeseen expenses that burn through large bonuses or supplementary income.
If Hashem desires, the amount of money we’re allotted on Rosh Hashanah can cover many more months’ worth of expenses than anticipated, or alternately, be consumed by expenses we never budgeted for in the first place.
This is the meaning behind the word “aleinu” in the opening of the brachah (“Bareich aleinu”). We entreat Hashem that the sum He’s apportioned us at the beginning of the year be distributed in a manner of brachah, uniquely tailored for our specific needs.
The brachah opens with a request for Hashem to bless “hashanah hazos,” this year, and continues to reference time in increments of “shanah.” Shanah shares a root with the word “shinui — change.” Here we allude to the potential for change in the ensuing year. Our financial needs shift with the seasons. Yamim Tovim, back-to-school, summer, and winter all have their unique expenses, and we daven that Hashem’s largesse correspond with the needs each “shinui” on the calendar engenders.
Additionally, our spiritual state fluctuates as well, and the amount Hashem decreed for us on Rosh Hashanah is distributed in tandem with our spiritual merits. We ask that Hashem bestow His generosity in a way that ensures brachah, even when our spiritual self changes in the wrong direction.
Shanah can also be interpreted as a year. Each year provides circumstances and conditions that necessitate distinct financial responses. Depending on the year, we may be blessed with a new baby, celebrate a bar mitzvah, make a wedding, deal with a medical crisis, or care for an ailing relative. Often the change in circumstance was something we anticipated, but sometimes we’re taken by surprise and scramble to fill the financial void. “Bareich aleinu es hashanah hazos,” is our appeal for Hashem to distribute our predetermined livelihood in a way that accounts for all the events that crop up, both the ones we predicted, and those unforeseen.
“V’sabeinu mituvecha — satisfy us from Your goodness.” The Yaaros Devash exhorts us to daven for parnassah acquired through permissible means, and not chas v’shalom in ways that are proscribed by halachah. He warns that even if there is a minute amount of prohibited behavior behind someone’s earnings, their family suffers profound spiritual defilement when they partake in a livelihood earned through issur. Shady business practice isn’t simply a matter of not getting caught. Our neshamos and those of our children hang in the balance when we choose to subvert halachah in order to make a buck.
So concerned for our spiritual welfare is the Yaaros Devash, he entreats us to daven for all who experience financial difficulty, as he explains: “The main source of transgressions in Klal Yisrael arises from lack of parnassah. If they had ample livelihood, they wouldn’t stray from the straight path” (Yaaros Devash, 1:1).
This is the subtext of “Sabeinu mituvecha” — Hashem, please provide us with “tuv,” such abundant good, that we’re never tempted to rely on forbidden acts to earn our keep.
Anyone who’s dieted recognizes the struggle to feel satiated with her food plan. Satiety is also an issue when it comes to parnassah. Even if my salary objectively covers my needs, I may still be hankering for more. Sometimes my feeling of lack is a function of what others have and I don’t. Sometimes my need for a secure financial cushion creates a feeling of lack when in fact I have what I need. Sometimes I’ve simply fallen into the illusion that acquisition equals happiness. “Sabeinu” means to satisfy, and I ask Hashem that I feel satisfied with what He sends me, and for me and my family to feel that what He sends is enough.
The Hand of Hashem
The imperative for parnassah is one of the most frequently cited challenges to acquiring emunah. When we don’t earn enough, we doubt that Hashem’s looking after us. But when we do earn a lavish income, we’re apt to stumble in our emunah as well. I’ll never forget a conversation I had with a woman who held herself to rigorous spiritual standards. During our discussion, she grew very agitated and arrogantly proclaimed, “No one will tell me what to do with my money!”
Granted, her declaration was made in a moment of extreme emotion. Nonetheless, the notion that she was so comfortable disregarding Hashem’s role in her finances left me concerned. In general, when we work hard to earn our keep, it’s challenging to recall that our success is ensured through His desire alone. When we consider many other equally talented people who tread our selfsame parnassah path yet didn’t succeed as we did, we can consider that Hashem’s will made the difference.
According to Rav Chaim Friedlander (Sifsei Chaim), this is the reason this brachah is one of the only ones that opens with “Bareich aleinu Hashem Elokeinu,” invoking the double name of Hashem. He quotes the Vilna Gaon’s interpretation of Hashem Elokeinu as “He Who guides us daily,” adding that the name Elokeinu indicates Hashgachah pratis, direct intervention from Hashem. Our tendency to self-attribute our financial success to the tune of “Kochi v’otzem yadi asah li es hachayil hazeh — by my strength and the force of my hand did I achieve,” is preempted with the declaration of Hashem Elokeinu’s involvement in and assurance of our success.
Rav Uri Weissblum (Hearas Hatefillah) notes that this brachah is the last of six bakashos we make regarding our individual needs: Daas, teshuvah, selichah, geulah from affliction, refuah, and parnassah. The next set of bakashos in our Shemoneh Esreh focuses on our yearning for the ultimate Geulah.
Mrs. Elana Moskowitz has been teaching in seminaries for over 20 years.
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 842)
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