Stepping up: Part 2| March 21, 2023
How can I ensure I am doing my part in the community?
Flip through any Mishpacha and stand proud at what’s promoted in advertisements. No, really. Holy causes show way more prominently than exotic getaways. A very partial list includes chesed events, women’s health, Yom Tov assistance, aiding refugees, shemiras einayim, shidduch initiatives, special ed options, and the crown jewel of Jewish living — yeshivos. Behind each enterprise are the remarkable human beings who devote their life and soul to whatever sacred endeavor it is, and there sure are a lot of them.
Responsibility to Klal Yisrael is serious business, but we sometimes struggle to properly apply that value. Below is a sampling of reader response to our discussion on stepping up.
Am I Selfish?
I don’t work, but I love to be busy, so I do a lot of volunteering. I run the local kallah gemach, coordinate PTA, and I’m on call for crises that arise in town. These outlets offer me a social life while playing to my skill set; the manager in me is soaring. I am filling a communal need, but I’m filling my own needs, too. I’m embarrassed to say that I love being the hero of the hour. Is that okay?
While you could work on the self-serving elements (mitzvos lo lishma) of doing good, know that these are inevitable in the climb to absolute altruism (mitzvos lishma). Waiting for completely healthy and pure intentions before taking something on, usually means we’d miss a lot of opportunities to help out. The general rule is that if what you’re doing is actually good, you’re fine.
The fact that this plays to your skills is great. Using our talents is rewarding. That shouldn’t concern us; it should guide us toward our most effective and joyous areas of contribution.
It’s disturbing when benevolence goes awry and is not kindness at all, but harming (allowing a tantruming four-year-old free access to the nosh cabinet, or neglecting more primary responsibilities); misjudgment (burning yourself out); or inappropriately caving in (giving in out of weakness instead of implementing necessary solutions).
There’s an effective way to differentiate. Consider if what you’re doing qualifies as a mitzvah. If you get sechar (Heavenly merit) for this, you’re presumably not too far off. Despite the biases, flaws, and feel-good elements, if it’s good enough for G-d, it’s got to be good. The examples of misplaced kindness cited above are all just plain wrong.
Long story short: it isn’t likely that the gratification you get from your community work is something to worry about. Impure incentives join up with our altruistic ones to keep us moving while we keep trying for better. Giving is wonderful and never perfect.
I’m Not Teaching; I Want A Learning Guy
I don’t appreciate the pressure on girls to teach. I want my husband to learn in kollel for as long as possible, and limud haTorah is more important than teaching. I happen to have really enjoyed some subbing that I did, and wish I had the luxury to go that route, but there’s nothing wrong with being a professional, and my responsibility to my future family comes first.
We were having an intense volley over this in a seminary class, discussing whether a job in education means compromising on a husband’s long-term learning. A girl finally opined, “You know, if I decided to teach, my husband would still be able to learn, we’d just have less money.”
That’s probably true. Moreover, your husband will make less money in yeshivah than as an investment banker for J.P. Morgan or Credit Suisse, too.
A man working to support his family is the regular and honorable default setting for most people. So is a lucrative career option for women. Teaching may not be tenable for many, just as kollel isn’t. But often what makes any idealistic choice doable for some and not for others in similar economic circumstances, is the belief in its importance.
Unfortunately, teaching salaries, despite improvements, still fall short. The upshot is that the privilege to teach Torah is available to some more than others, whether because it’s a second salary, or due to alternative sources of income. Sometimes, however, it boils down to a stronger commitment to making it work.
You invoke “responsibility” and the legitimacy of a professional position. Having a workable financial approach is certainly important. What’s interesting is that these arguments are used in the kollel discussion as well. By thinking about how you would respond to these claims regarding kollel, you may be able to resolve your hesitations toward chinuch. Perhaps the same appreciation for Torah that drives you to marry a ben Torah despite less financial certainty can stretch a bit and invite you to also teach Torah.
For example, the ideas that “Whoever accepts the yoke of Torah, the yoke of worldly matters is removed from them (Avos 3:5)” and that “Anyone inspired with the insightful understanding to stand separately before G‑d to serve Him, who removes from his neck the pressure of the many (worldly) calculations that people have, Hashem will be his portion and inheritance in This World and in all worlds, and provide for his needs (see Rambam Shemittah V’Yovel 13:13)” are true for the beis medrash — and for those who perpetuate Torah in the classroom.
You seem thrilled to support your family so that your husband can shteig. Pre-World War II yeshivah students married much later than today, because few young women were interested in a man who wasn’t working. Many young women trace their deep love of Torah to an all-star lineup of teachers who nurtured it. If high-quality, qualified candidates like yourself opt out of teaching, who will inspire that passion going forward?
As you rightly point out, limud haTorah is the most important value. If the perpetuation of Torah is honestly what’s most important to you, rethink a hop to the other side of the desk. If you teach, you could be the backbone of your husband’s Torah, plus the Torah of the future families of your students. Every period. Every year. It would be welcome news for our daughters, granddaughters, and BMG for that matter.
Hear No Evil, See No Evil
I’m trying to start an organization that matches adults with religiously floundering kids who need extra learning help and more of a frum adult presence in their life. Some of my friends think I should drop the plan, because I’m way out of my league and shouldn’t open myself up to responsibility that’s too “heavy duty.” They also don’t get why I would want to suffer by hearing about other people’s problems. Am I totally off?
You may have heard the saying, “A ship in harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are built for.” Let’s paraphrase that: “Jews are not safer hiding under the bed, because that’s not what Jews are made for.” There’s a mistaken belief that by avoiding responsibility we avoid culpability.
During the times of the Beis Hamikdash, the tzaddikim were marked for calamity first, because they hadn’t tried to change the wrongdoers (Shabbos 55a). That’s how serious it is to not stand up for what’s right, or not try to make a difference. None of us are private citizens; we’re all responsible for each other. Not signing up doesn’t avoid liability.
If this is indeed too big a project, scale down, or enlist partners. I have found that most people underestimate themselves and are usually capable of more than they thought, not less. That’s particularly true when you are driven and passionate. So go for it!
Rav Shlomo Freifeld would say that the size of a person’s character is measured by how much responsibility they take for others, so good for you!
My kids used to love my community adventures. Lately, they roll their eyes when I ask if they want to walk with me to the hospital for Shabbos rounds, and they have no interest in joining me for deliveries to shut-ins in our neighborhood. They aren’t even around the house much for me to ask them. How do I get them re-interested, and frankly, how do I get them back home?
As long as your kids are delighted, and the community is desperate, you’ve got a pretty clear case. Anything in between gets trickier. When your children don’t feel that home base is inviting, it’s time for serious soul searching and refocusing.
The Torah places priorities on doing for others, whether tzedakah, chesed, or teaching Torah. We have limited resources, so we must constantly assess and reassess to ensure that our focus is where it should be. Severity of need is a factor that must be taken into consideration, as is determining who else can step in. If Recha Sternbuch had stayed at her son’s bar mitzvah, Jews running from Nazis wouldn’t have made it over the border to Switzerland.
But it’s rare that someone is really so indispensable that they can’t slow down. Most commonly, there are legitimate needs on both sides that have to be balanced. All things being equal, those closest to you come first. The real mitzvah that can’t be done by others is caring for your family. No one else will be your children’s mother, or your husband’s wife.
Growing up, my parents had an open home, and we always felt we were competing for their attention. So raising my family, I always put my kids first. While we occasionally host, it’s literally on occasion. But I’m noticing now that while I would give the shirt off my back to another person, my kids (16 and under) are very possessive and kvetch about letting anyone sleep in their rooms or use their stuff… How do I strike a balance, and is it too late?!
Oy. Judging from your ability to “give the shirt off your back to another person,” your parents clearly did something right. On the other hand, it left you with residual resentment, to the extent that your home is built on that reaction.
In theory we want to strike a perfect balance of simultaneously giving to those closest to us and everyone else. But perfect balances don’t exist. When trying to get everyone under the umbrella, someone is bound to get wet. In your case, you purposely left one side out in the rain and ironically found that staying dry was overrated.
Certainly, by cutting out this fundamental aspect of Jewish life — contributing to the klal — your family loses out. Bringing up children to care about Klal Yisrael creates a different kind of kid and different kind of adult.
What can you do now? Of course, you can backpedal, but go slowly, both for you and for your kids. Adopt a neighbor or friend who needs to be hosted, periodically go through the kids’ stuff with them to give things to a gemach, volunteer for a cause, or take them with you to help with a shul event.
Equally as important is that you change the language at home. Point out anchors of your community. Praise your kids when they give, lead, or influence others meaningfully. Don’t let them hear you kvetch about your childhood.
A lot of parenting is a figuring-out-as-you-go experience, and your willingness to change course is admirable.
My parents ran an outreach center and had massive weekly Shabbos meals. I assumed I would have that kind of home, and we discussed it when we dated. But we’ve been married for two years, and it’s clear that my shy, introverted husband needs a quiet Shabbos table. I want to support my husband’s needs, but I don’t want to lose an integral part of my Yiddishkeit.
Feeling bored and unfulfilled is obviously not good. However, idealism and outreach aren’t spouse-dependent. Organize events at other venues or offer your home during the week. Get involved with organizations that work with interested unaffiliated Jews or that liaise with families looking for Jewish education. Leave your Shabbos table be.
Marriage always has to reconcile personality differences. The connection between husband and wife is an earthly allegory to the Jewish People and G-d. When we strengthen those bonds, we are metaphysically connecting our Creator to His people. That’s intense community activism.
Most important on myriad levels is to appreciate your husband’s qualities and welcome what he brings to your home without pushing him to be what he isn’t.
Low Key, High Voltage
I thought about finding a “Partners in Torah’’ buddy or cooking dinners once a month for families who need it. But difficulties in my own family make it impossible to carry through. I feel like even people in tough straits like me should reach out, but I don’t know how.
I am humbled by your words. Despite your challenges, you wish you could do more for the rest of us. Here are some ideas of how you can help.
Find potential in any encounter: Encouraging words to someone going through hard times, pointing out the right address to a confused stranger, or answering a question about Orthodox fringes and proffering the number of a local rabbi don’t demand an outlay of time, energy, or money. It just takes heart, of which you clearly have plenty.
Patronize: Whether it’s shopping, needing a plumber, or finding a mortgage broker, check out heimishe options and see if you can swing it. Whenever you can, help keep everyone’s parnassah flowing.
Your mitzvah can be everyone’s mitzvah: The great rebbes of Europe struggled to attach kavanah, intention, to the holy deaths of the assimilated kedoshim of World War II. They posited that just as in a body, where the head thinks for the rest, in the collective body of our people, those who died with awareness and intention, inserted the kavanah ingredient for the collective whole (Esther Farbstein, Hidden in Thunder, chap. 10). The Arizal would say, “In the name of all Jews” when performing a mitzvah. By performing mitzvos with excellence, at some level you can compensate for those who don’t know better (see Seforno, Shir Hashirim 8:8).
Daven for us: Many prayers speak in plural, because we all can and should pray for everyone. Consider all children when you say, “Put in our heart the wisdom to understand, to learn, to keep all aspects of Your Torah.” Think of everyone’s emotional and physical health with, “Heal us, and we will be healed”; and remember all our lost brothers at, “Hashiveinu l’Sorasecha.” When you recite, “Sim shalom tovah u’vrachah — place peace, good, and blessing on us,” you assist victims of vengeful machlokes. Someone like you, dealing with your own difficulties as you do, has a particularly powerful line to Upstairs.
I really admire people who can harness their skills to serve the klal in a big way, but I’m not so special. I’m not a great organizer, orator, or fundraiser. How can I find a role?
A key principle to consider is that mitzvos that come our way are not accidental, but Hashgachah pratis doorways inviting us in. If we step through them as we can, we’re doing beautifully.
Another reader says that she, “chaperones class trips, hosts guests, started a gemach, and recruited 80 volunteers for a project in the last 18 months.” She points out that, “Sometimes leaders of organizations or even those in any communal activism assume that everyone else should be doing this, too. Like if they are cooking 80 meals, how can you not make time to deliver five? They forget that each individual has a different life with its own challenges.”
If you’re wondering how she managed to motivate 80 people to join her undertaking, she explains that, “A big chunk of people don’t want to volunteer because they fear commitment. I assure them that it’s okay to do only as much as they can do and don’t impose minimums. That makes it much easier to get people on board and keep them on board.”
What does this mean for you? The next time you’re asked to volunteer something small, see it as a Heaven-sent pitch straight onto your playing field, and try and catch those balls one day at a time.
There’s room for everyone, whatever capacity you bring to the Klal Yisrael table. There are so many niches, so many directions, and so many sizes. When we step up however we can, we’re a proxy of the Ribbono shel Olam, doing our part to keep the awesome miracle of our survival rolling forward
Mrs. Batya Weinberg has been involved in numerous aspects of Jewish education for over 30 years. She’s a senior lecturer in many seminaries and a noted student advisor.
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 836)
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