I slowly came to view my work as a form of hishtadlut to support my family as well as an opportunity for kiddush Hashem, rather than purely as a vehicle for money and personal fulfillment
ike many Israelis, I acquired my high-tech training — and my fluency in English — in the army, where I served in a top-secret communications unit.
At the time, I was not fully religious, though I came from a traditional Sephardic family where we made Kiddush Friday night, fasted on Yom Kippur, and knew with absolute certainty that Someone above was running things.
I completed my army service during the high-tech boom of the 1990s, and was hired by a leading Israeli high-tech company. The company enjoyed explosive growth, and I soon found myself managing a team of about 15 engineers.
About ten years into my tenure at the company, when I was married with several children, my family and I made the decision to become religious. My newfound observance posed no conflict with my job, as I davened Shacharit at the haneitz minyan and scheduled my Torah learning for before and after work. Yet as avodat Hashem became more central to my life, I slowly came to view my work as a form of hishtadlut to support my family as well as an opportunity for kiddush Hashem, rather than purely as a vehicle for money and personal fulfillment.
In my early years as a manager, I saw myself as the boss and my underlings as, well, just that. If it was my word against their word, mine held sway. I was strict with my employees and insisted that my instructions be carried out precisely. When I became religious, however, I began to understand that all Jews are created in the image of Hashem, and that just as every point on a circle is equidistant from the midpoint, every Jew is equally beloved to Hashem, regardless of his rank in the company or elsewhere. The biggest change that happened to me at work as a result of my becoming a baal teshuvah, therefore, was not my donning black-and-white chareidi garb or my organizing a Sephardic Minchah minyan in the office, but rather my newfound respect for my colleagues, especially my subordinates.
In 25 years, our company grew from a small, Jerusalem-based start-up into an international firm employing thousands of people worldwide. Close to a decade ago, when the company was on the verge of going public, it was bought out prior to its IPO by a major American telecommunications conglomerate with more money in offshore accounts than it knew what to do with. The honeymoon didn’t last long, though, as our new parent company discovered very quickly that the two businesses were not as compatible as it had thought and decided to divest itself of many of the departments in its newly acquired subsidiary. Our company experienced substantial layoffs every year, shrinking from over 5,000 employees to barely a thousand, as the American conglomerate basically ran it into the ground, apparently as part of a general strategy of buying out its competitors and destroying them. I weathered these layoffs for several years, until I, too, was informed that the company no longer required my services.
I was 46 at the time, with 20 years of management experience at this one company under my belt. Yet I quickly discovered that in the high-tech world, my age, my experience, and my level of seniority were liabilities. Each time I sent out my resume, the response was, “You’re overqualified.” Despite a year of intensive networking and job hunting, I managed to land only two interviews, neither of which ended in a job offer.
For the first year after I was laid off, I lived off severance pay and unemployment insurance. I spent the year learning in kollel, in between efforts to land a suitable job.
When my unemployment benefits ran out, with no job on the horizon, I realized that I had to do something. I had always enjoyed driving — in fact, one of my favorite pastimes was driving around Yerushalayim on Friday afternoon and stopping at bus stops to offer people rides — so I decided to buy a taxi and begin working as a cabbie. Going from working as a senior manager in a leading high-tech company to driving a taxi was a major drop in prestige, but the bills had to be paid somehow.
I soon discovered, however, that driving a taxi in Israel is hardly a way to earn a living. It’s a cutthroat industry, with a razor-thin profit margin, and unless a driver overcharges his passengers or cheats the government out of the taxes it demands — which I wasn’t willing to do — his take-home pay is typically negligible. Vehicular expenses (financing, gas, repairs, insurance, etc.) and taxes ate up the majority of my income, leaving my wife and me unable to make ends meet on her minimal teacher’s salary and my earnings as a cabbie. Our bank account went into severe overdraft as we struggled to limit our spending and get used to a lower standard of living.
One day, about a year after I had starting driving a taxi, I was heading home after a particularly discouraging day of fruitlessly searching for passengers. In the privacy of my cab, I looked Heavenward and began having a conversation with my true Dispatcher.
“Hashem,” I said aloud, “please answer me — not for my sake, but for Yours, since I know You are in pain because I am suffering. What did I do wrong to cause the channels of parnassah to be blocked?”
Then, another question popped out of my mouth completely unbidden. “Do I owe money to someone?”
It was an odd question, since I’m the type of person who never borrows money from people and is careful to pay up commitments promptly. Any time I pledge money in shul, I make sure to pay the next day.
Why did I just say that? I wondered. Hashem must have put those words in my mouth, but why?
At exactly that moment, I spotted a familiar face on the street. It was Eitan, an architect who, two years earlier, had been hired to draw up plans for expanding and adding porches to the apartment building I lived in. At some point, the neighbors had decided not to proceed with the proposed renovation, and the architect’s plans had been forgotten.
And we had never paid for those plans!
I pulled over to the side of the street, jumped out of my taxi, and hurried over to Eitan, whom I had not seen or heard from in two years. “Please tell me,” I said, “how much do we owe you for the plans you drew up for my building?”
Surprised, Eitan said he would e-mail me an Excel spreadsheet with the breakdown of the charges.
Two hours later, I was at his doorstep with a handful of cash and postdated checks to cover the balance of my portion of the debt. I asked Eitan for forgiveness, and he assured me that he bore no grudge over the long-delayed payment. I also posted a sign in my building reminding the neighbors that they owed Eitan money, and most of them subsequently paid him as well.
I met Eitan on a Tuesday morning. Later that day, I got a call from a former colleague of mine who had since taken a job with a company in central Israel that is subcontracted by the Israeli Air Force.
“Are you still looking for a job?” he asked. “Because there’s a position here that’s perfect for you.”
I immediately submitted my r?sum?, and the next morning the company called to invite me for an interview the following day. Thursday morning, I drove out to the Tel Aviv area for an interview. I was offered a management position on the spot, even though I did not have a college degree, which was one of the basic job requirements.
I couldn’t help but marvel at the uncanny sequence of events that had just transpired. In the two years since I had been laid off, I had not received a single job offer. And now — less than 48 hours after suddenly remembering my building’s debt to Eitan, inexplicably meeting him in the street, and paying him — I had been offered a senior position with a prestigious company.
Excited as I was about the offer and the incredible Hashgachah pratit that led up to it, I forced myself to take a step back and consider whether this was really the right job for me.
Making a quick calculation, I realized that the nine-hour-a-day job being offered to me — which would require an additional three hours a day of rush-hour commuting time, one and a half hours each way — would require me to forgo my haneitz minyan and almost all of my Torah learning, as well as much of my family time.
In the years since I had become a baal teshuvah, and especially since I had been laid off from my job, I had worked on strengthening my emunah and bitachon and had studied various sefarim on the subject. One principle I had internalized from the writings of Rav Dessler is that if a person’s occupation is damaging to his kedushah, his hishtadlut is misplaced.
Is this job offer a gift from Hashem, I wondered, or is it a test? Suspecting that it was the latter, I immediately called my rav, who advised me not to take the job. “It’s excessive hishtadlut,” he agreed.
Even though I had no other prospects, I decided to turn down the offer. How I would support my family, I still didn’t know, but I told myself that parnassah is from Hashem, and that putting myself in a situation where I would have to neglect my obligations to Him is not the path to financial success.
The beauty of learning about bitachon and working to truly internalize what you’ve learned is that even in a situation of challenge, such as when you’re offered a plum job after a year of total unemployment followed by a year of underemployment, you’re able to not only do the right thing, but also know it’s the right thing. From the moment I decided to turn down the job, I didn’t have a moment’s regret. I knew that my Dispatcher would send me a different opportunity.
I just didn’t know how soon that opportunity would come.
Thursday afternoon, mere hours after my job interview in Tel Aviv, I was driving around Yerushalayim looking for fares, when I saw a woman on the other side of the street trying to hail a cab. When I made a U-turn and pulled up alongside her, I realized with no small amount of embarrassment that she was a former colleague of mine who was still employed by my old company. She was on her way to work, and was shocked to see that I was working as a taxi driver.
She didn’t have to tell me where to go; I knew the way quite well.
“You know,” she remarked, “the company was recently bought out by its previous owners, and is rehiring a lot of its old employees. If you send me your r?sum?, I’ll bring it to the attention of management.”
When I returned home, I promptly sent her my resume, and on Monday morning I got a call from another former colleague who was still with the company. I had worked with this fellow for 20 years, so he still remembered me well, and he told me he was interested in hiring me, no interview necessary.
Now that the American parent company was out of the picture, our old company was making a comeback, under a new name but with the same people, the same corporate culture, and the same energy as before.
I sold my taxi and resumed working for my old-new company, in a position that was similar to the one I had held in the past, but actually a promotion from my old post. (Interestingly, one of the neighbors in my building, who was similarly unemployed, also landed a prestigious job just a week after paying Eitan — although he, a nonreligious Jew, dismissed the timing as pure coincidence.)
Today, I’m working at a job that I enjoy and earning a professional salary that covers my family’s needs comfortably, while still managing to daven at sunrise and maintain regular daily learning sedarim. On Friday afternoons, I still drive around Yerushalayim looking for people who need rides and transporting them to their destinations, while silently thanking Hashem that I no longer have to do this for a living (or non-living).
Struggling to eke out a living as a taxi driver has made me a completely different manager. When I first became religious and realized that I am no better than my so-called underlings, even if Hashem happened to bless me with a senior position, I tried to humble myself and see myself as an equal to the people below me. After driving a taxi and being ordered around by passengers all day (on a good day), I no longer have to work hard to bring myself down to anyone else’s level, since I know that, but for Hashem’s kindness to me, I am nothing and nobody.
My management style today is collaborative, not hierarchal: My colleagues work with me, not for me. From my first day at my new job, I conveyed to my work group that we’re all in the same boat, doing our hishtadlut to support our families in whatever position Hashem has put us. The employee who cleans the floors is no less important than the employee who develops a dazzling new algorithm, and their relative ranking in human terms is meaningless in the Eyes of the true Dispatcher.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 758)