Remaining a ben Torah requires remaining a bar daas
One of the main topics at both the recent national convention of Agudath Israel of America and the subsequent Agudah Midwest convention was the transition from full-time learning: How does one retain the stamp of a ben Torah upon entering the working world?
The subject has never been more relevant, for never has such a high percentage of young men remained in full-time learning for so long. In Europe, yeshivah students were known by the name of their hometowns because at most, one or two young men from each town went on to one of the great yeshivos. The vast majority of young men were pushed by economic necessity into the workplace around bar mitzvah age or shortly thereafter.
One consequence of our unparalleled affluence is the ability to provide yeshivah training for most young men in the Torah community until at least the early twenties, and for a large percentage, far beyond that.
Yet the ubiquity of long-term learning makes the transition that much more jarring when it comes. Leaving the beis medrash is often accompanied by a welter of emotions, including a sense of failure and even of having betrayed the olam hayeshivos. And those negative feelings can lead, in some cases, to resentment of the yeshivah world for not having prepared those leaving for what awaits them — and for looking down (or more precisely, being perceived as looking down) on those no longer involved in full-time learning.
Orchos Chayim: Ben Torah for Life by Rav Aaron Lopiansky, rosh yeshivah of Yeshivah of Greater Washington, addresses the issues raised by that transition. At the late-night question-and-answer session with Mirrer Rosh Yeshivah Rav Elya Brudny and Rav Yosef Elefant — which has become for many the highlight of Agudah's national convention —both gedolim noted that it is a book that should be in every Torah home. (Rav Brudny referred to it as an "absolutely important" work by an "adam gadol meod," and Rav Elefant termed it a "masterpiece.")
Ben Torah for Life is at once a nuanced work of Torah hashkafah, with Torah sources quoted, often at length, on almost every page, and an eminently practical work. The paradox is only apparent — for the most immediate need for someone completing his period of life as a member of Shevet Levi is to understand the role of the other tribes in Klal Yisrael.
In his years in yeshivah and kollel, the average ben Torah will have learned Rav Chaim of Volozhin's classic work Nefesh HaChaim, in which Rav Chaim explicates the profound impact of every word of Torah learning on the entire cosmos many times. But he'll be less likely to have heard shmuessen on the final paragraphs of Mesilas Yesharim, in which the Ramchal writes that the highest level of Divine service is as accessible to "the one who plies a humble trade" as to "the one from whose mouth learning never departs."
Each of us has a unique mission. We only awaken in the morning because Hashem believes in us and our ability to contribute to bringing kevod Shamayim to the world. That mission need not be world-changing. Exercising our bechirah properly in the face of our specific challenges or even our triumphs is sufficient.
IT'S A TERRIBLE MISTAKE to think that the hours spent earning a living are a waste, totally lacking in spiritual significance. When we review the halachos incumbent upon us at every moment, as the Kedushas Levi famously notes, we are engaged in talmud Torah. When we do not transgress a negative mitzvah, we are not just treading water to keep ourselves from drowning. Every time we resist the powerful urge to look where we should not, overcome the temptation to fit in to our environment, whether it be in dress or speech, we have not just stood still, we have uplifted ourselves and brought pleasure to our Creator.
Hashem's vision for the world encompasses a world in which everything — farming, waging war, caring for the poor — is to be conducted in accord with halachah. And when we act accordingly, we are bringing Hashem's vision to fruition.
Sustaining and advancing the physical world, yishuvo shel olam, is itself a mitzvah. A mitzvah of such importance that in certain circumstances it requires freeing a non-Jewish slave, and thereby transgressing a positive mitzvah. Other aspects of yishuvo shel olam — taking a wife, planting a vineyard, building a house — take precedence over joining in battle against our enemies.
These are just a few of the examples of how Rav Lopiansky reframes the normal aspects of derech eretz and the yegias kapecha — with which most people are engaged for much of their lives — as far from degraded or meaningless. The Avos faced many trials and tribulations — they are compared to horses rushing through a swamp — precisely because the manner in which they confronted those challenges was so dear to HaKadosh Baruch Hu.
Ben Torah for Life is not a comprehensive guide for those entering the workplace. For the myriad halachic queries that arise in the working world, Rav Lopiansky refers the reader to Rabbi Ari Wasserman's Making It Work.
Nor does the author seek to answer every quandary that may confront the ben Torah as he emerges from the beis medrash. Each person is different and his circumstances are different. It is therefore crucial that each person find a rav to offer guidance. And in that quest, the most important rule is: Better a personal rebbi than a distant gadol. There is a crucial distinction between whom one goes to for a brachah and from whom one seeks an eitzah.
WHILE THE YEARS SPENT as a member of Shevet Levi form the vision for a lifetime and are to be cherished, not regretted, the expression of that vision changes dramatically in one's new stage in life. If one was struggling financially in kollel, he had the compensating pride in being moser nefesh for Torah. That is no longer the case.
If an avreich returns from kollel enthusiastic about the chaburah he delivered that day, his wife feels she is a partner in his success by virtue of her mesirus nefesh in supporting the family. But if a working man comes home and talks about his work, his wife may feel that his work is intruding upon their bond.
Furthermore, the manner in which one connects to Hashem changes with the transition from the beis medrash. Learning to savor the chavivus of mitzvos to some extent replaces the connection that once was provided by Gemara learning. And that requires a reorientation.
Even the form of one's learning changes. Tachlis, the sense of constantly building upon a base of accumulated Torah knowledge becomes more central. Many aspects of halachah that were not previously of practical application now are, and being thoroughly grounded in the issues is an immediate necessity.
Rav Lopiansky recommends written summaries of one's learning and advocates participation in one of the many testing frameworks in order to provide a sense of continued Torah growth. (My own suspicion is that even many yeshivah bochurim would have more satisfaction in learning if they were more confident of their command of what they had learned in the preceding zman.)
Above all, remaining a ben Torah requires remaining a bar daas, a person whose life is run according to a thought-out plan. At minimum, that requires regular times to assess goals and evaluate the progress in reaching them. The distraction of constant connectivity is the great enemy of daas.
(One of the few topics Rav Lopiansky — famed for his ability to consider all sides of an issue — speaks about in absolutes is the inherent deficiency in learning or davening with one's phone turned on. Another is his statement that a man may never engage in a deep discussion with a member of the opposite gender other than his wife, even if motivated purely by compassion, for the risk of an emotional bond developing is too great.)
Rav Elefant described Ben Torah for Life as "the first sefer in the modern era that addresses topics critical to our existence as the Am HaTorah with such depth, clarity, honesty, and respect." What more can I add?