Wednesday, February 04, 2009

The Corporate Dilemma and the Financial Downturn

I. The Contradiction

The Gemara (Yoma 76a) records the following conversation: R. Shimon bar Yochai's students asked him why the man did not fall just once a year, and the Jews would collect their needs for the year at that one time. He responded with a parable: A man had a son to whom he gave money once a year and the son only came to visit that one time a year. The man decided to support his son every day and, therefore, the son had to visit each day. Similarly, regarding the Jews in the desert, if the man only fell once a year then they would only have to think about God that one time annually. But since it fell every day, someone who had four or five children would worry that the man would not fall the next day and all of his children would starve. Because of that, the Jews directed their attention to God (in their thoughts and prayers) each day. In other words, it is religiously good for people to worry a little bit about their livelihood.

Click here to read moreHowever, we find a talmudic passage to the contrary. The Gemara (Menachos 103b) quotes the verse that is part of the tochakhah curses: "Your life shall hang in doubt before you; you shall fear day and night, and have no assurance of life" (Deut. 28:66). The Gemara explains that "Your life shall hang in doubt before you" refers to someone who gathers his harvest each year and therefore does not know if he will have money in the next year (cf. Rashi). The next phrase, "You shall fear day and night", refers to someone who gathers his harvest each week, and doesn't know whether he will have money in the next week. And the final phrase, "And have no assurance of life", refers to someone who lives from day to day. The implication seems to be that each succeeding phrase in the verse is a greater curse. So having to worry about your daily living is worse than having to worry about your annual living.

While the Gemara in Yoma says that it is good not to know where your food for the next day will come from so that you will pray, the Gemara in Menachos seems to say that it is a curse!

II. Poverty

This is a level of poverty that is hard for most of us to imagine. Lately, my two year old son has been enjoying the old childrens' book Caps for Sale. At one point in the book, the cap salesman does not sell any caps in the morning and therefore doesn't have money for lunch; instead, he goes for a walk. I think some of us might wonder why he doesn't just pack himself a lunch so he doesn't have to worry about that. Of course, the answer is that he doesn't have any money until he sells his caps for the day. We aren't talking about someone not having enough money for an eggplant parmigiana at the local restaurant. He doesn't have enough money for a slice of bread!

I seem to recall that R. Barukh Epstein, in his memoir Mekor Barukh, tells of one time when he was living with his uncle the Netziv, the rosh yeshiva of Volozhin. One time, as I remember the story, when they were eating at home during a lunch break from yeshiva, the Netziv asked his wife for a little margarine to put on his bread and his wife said that if he had even a little margarine then there would be none for their daughter. That story always struck me as a level of poverty I've thankfully never personally witnessed.

III. The Corporate Dilemma

Is that living day-to-day, like the cap salesman, a blessing? In the corporate world, where you receive an annual salary, you pretty much know how much money you're going to make over the next year and, often, you have a good idea of the next few years. While bonuses vary, you at least have a minimum salary on which you can count. This makes bitachon very difficult. Sure, unexpected expenses can come up and you will end up keeping less of your salary (a wise man once said, "It's not what you make but what you keep"), so there is still room for God in your financial situation. But it is a much smaller room than those who live day-to-day, such as peddlers who live off their daily sales and, to some degree, salesmen who are paid from commissions.

There is an answer to that corporate dilemma, and it is the same answer to the contradiction between the two Gemara passages above. R. Yitzchak Blaser (Kokhevei Or, no. 11) explains that whether living day-to-day is a blessing or a curse is all a matter of your attitude. If you have strong faith, like the Jews in the desert, then the opportunity to direct your thoughts and prayers to good is a blessing. You don't go crazy with worry but you also don't take God's sustaining you and your family for granted. But if you don't have strong faith, then living day-to-day is not an opportunity but a curse. Your worry and anxiety can be consuming and even emotionally crippling.

The same, too, applies to the corporate dilemma. Your attitude is all the difference. If you lack bitachon, then having a steady salary can be a curse similar, although in a more comfortable way, to that of living day-to-day. It is religiously damaging. If you can maintain the proper attitude of faith then having the steady salary is a blessing.

IV. Learning the Lesson

However, that attitude is difficult to maintain, as is, I am sure, an attitude of faith while living under crushing poverty. One thing we can do to improve our attitude is to take lessons when available. The current financial crisis is one such opportunity. We have seen things that we took for granted -- jobs, salaries, retirement investments, endowments -- disappear. Unemployment has risen to shocking levels, particularly among highly educated and experienced people. Entire industries have collapsed in mere months.

We can learn a lesson from this. We have to see that even a corporate job with a steady salary is not guaranteed -- nor are pensions, investments and severance packages. Everything requires bitachon and the appearance of a guarantee is merely an illusion. This is one lesson we can learn from the current economic downturn.

(The preceding was sparked by a conversation with R. Shaul Robinson)

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