As the heavenly ledgers are opened, our deeds weighed, and our monetary allotment for the upcoming year determined, esteemed Rosh Yeshiva Rav Yitzchok Sorotzkin probes the budgetary priorities of a society grappling to find financial clarity. By Shimmy Blum.
I once watched an extremely wealthy Yid being served a meal. I was expecting to see a royal feast, but was shocked to see him served two boiled potatoes and a glass of milk. I was informed that he had developed ulcers due to his stress and was unable to eat heavier food. Is it worth killing yourself to be rich in order to eat boiled potatoes?”
Rav Yitzchok Sorotzkin, shlita, rosh yeshivah of Telshe and Mesivta of Lakewood, doesn’t mince words when it comes to dealing head-on with the financial issues that have bombarded our communities in recent years.
Rav Sorotzkin brings decades of brilliant shiurim and a gadol’s breadth of Torah and hashkafah to bnei Torah and balabatim alike. And one topic that holds a prominent place in the Rosh Yeshivah’s heart is the lifestyle that our communities adhere to outside the walls of the beis medrash — in our homes, stores, and wedding halls.
How far do people need to stretch themselves financially? Will children feel deprived if their parents suddenly adopt austerity measures? Rav Sorotzkin — the son of the beloved Telshe Rosh Yeshivah, Rav Boruch Sorotzkin ztz”l, scion of one of the world’s foremost Torah families, and author of the Gevuras Yitzchok and Rinas Yitzchok seforim series — has gained a reputation as a trailblazer due to his willingness to address these and other complex financial issues. As one year comes to a close and another begins with its own determined amount of financial stability and prosperity, Rav Sorotzkin believes that — personal blessings notwithstanding — it’s time to trim down our budgets.
With all the important issues facing our community today, why does the Rosh Yeshivah believe that the topic of monetary restraint deserves such focus?
“Hashem wants to see what we do with our money. Unfortunately, our communities have gotten accustomed to an extravagant lifestyle, far above how most of the goyim around us live. You have people earning $250,000 a year who say that they just can’t make ends meet, when there are other families who manage on a fraction of that amount. This lifestyle creates a tremendous pressure on others within our communities to keep up, which understandably puts an enormous strain on individuals and families. The Lakewood mashgiach, Rav Nosson Wachtfogel ztz”l, said that the nisayon of our generation is the nisayon of affluence.”
But if a Yid is blessed with a comfortable living, why should he refrain from enjoying his money?
“Of course, a Yid who earns a comfortable living doesn’t need to live like a pauper, but we don’t want to see a never-ending pursuit of money and luxuries either. Chazal tell us that the Torah’s desired lifestyle is one of ‘pas b’melach tochal,’ of sticking to necessities, and this dictum is not limited to those learning in kollel. The Gemara (Chullin 84) teaches us that one should always live below his means, in order to be able to manage in the future if times aren’t that good. It goes without saying that one shouldn’t acquire luxuries above his means, a tendency that is unfortunately very common today.
“Most of all, we must realize that the money chase does not bring us happiness. According to statistics, Americans, living in ‘the land of plenty,’ are perhaps the unhappiest people in the world. The Mirrer mashgiach, Rav Yerucham Levovitz ztz”l, would compare the attempt to satiate one’s thirst for money to a thirsty man drinking salt water: the more you drink, the thirstier you become. In America itself, you’ll often see poor minorities and immigrants, or those living in rural shacks, walking around a lot happier than everyone else. And then there are wealthy businessmen who are constantly stressed out and traveling in order to acquire wealth. They can go through their entire lives barely able to enjoy their families, their children, and their communities.”
How can we engender such a seismic change in our community lifestyle?
“I believe that the best way to tackle this problem is for leaders of our communities to launch a broad effort on this front, with lots of awareness and initiatives. Now is a most opportune time to do so. We see that the economic challenges we face are lasting a lot longer than we initially expected, and we must make long-term adjustments.
“Just as we’ve, baruch Hashem, managed to accomplish a lot through forums and other forms of awareness on issues such as chinuch, tzniyus, lashon hara, and tefillah, we can do so regarding financial responsibility too. These values need to be inculcated in our children at home and in school. Just as schools have a dress code to ensure that girls come dressed tzniyusdig, they should also make sure that parents don’t feel pressured to buy their young girls briefcases that cost $100 or more and barely fit anything in them because ‘everyone’ in class has them. Rebbeim in cheder should also explain to talmidim that they don’t need a brand-name hat or a top-of-the-line bar mitzvah seudah with all the frills.”
The Rosh Yeshivah has spoken publicly about this issue for many years, and is grateful that financial awareness is becoming more frequently discussed. It takes a topsy-turvy economy, and a confusing world where raising children has become a most complex challenge, for people to stop in their tracks and take stock of the values they not only advocate, but display.
Until a broader societal change is accomplished, how can one adopt a lower standard of living without having his children feel deprived and resentful?
“Fighting the tide is indeed very challenging. We must be realistic, and can’t deprive our children of everything that their friends have. On the other hand, we can definitely taper down their expectations. We can patiently and lovingly explain to them that not everyone can afford, or wants to live, the lifestyle that some of their friends have. We can explain that we don’t believe that it suits what the Torah wants. You’ll be surprised at how willingly they’ll accept this.
“Because in the end, our children’s expectations will largely follow the tone we set in the home. If we accustom them to constantly getting expensive toys and anything else they want, they’ll indeed have a hard time living without everything they want, both as children and later on as adults. The two words ‘I need,’ which we hear so often from children today, are treif. In fact, when I was growing up, it was only ‘I want.’ Then, those wants weren’t like the oxygen they are today.
“Furthermore, if children see their parents living responsibly and get accustomed to enjoying simpler pleasures, they’ll be happy with less and not always crave another extra. Children who are raised in such an environment have these values deeply ingrained in them and they eventually eschew unnecessary spending on their own, without resentment.”
When parents are looking into a prospective shidduch for their child, is a difference in lifestyle between the families sufficient reason for concern, or perhaps even to nix the shidduch?
“If the child desires to live a bread-and-butter kollel lifestyle for the long term, then it is imperative to ascertain that the prospective spouse is truly prepared for that. If kollel is unlikely to be a long-term option, then meeting the minds to live a reasonable lifestyle within budget shouldn’t be too difficult, even if one spouse grew up with more means than the other. However, if one spouse grew up in indulgent surroundings where they were never told that they can’t get something they want, they might have great difficulty conforming to any spending restraints. If a boy or girl is not prepared to face the word ‘no,’ that is of great concern.”
If one’s wife expresses bitterness over not being able to live up to her desired standard, is it reasonable to spend beyond one’s means to maintain shalom and tranquility in the home?
“Generally speaking, if the wife merely desires a reasonable lifestyle that is just out of reach for now, communication would go a long way. The husband can explain that he’d like to get her what she wants, but will have to wait until their situation b’ezras Hashem becomes more secure, and that she should choose something more affordable in the interim. Guidance from outside financial experts or organizations like Mesila can also help the couple get a better handle on their finances and perhaps help them restructure their budget to responsibly accommodate more of their desires.
“On the other hand, if one spouse demands an extravagant lifestyle that is completely out of reach, then simple talk and compromise usually won’t work. Being irresponsible and going into debt in order to achieve ‘shalom’ in such circumstances will usually make for an endless cycle of stress and unhappiness. Counseling by a rav or professional would then be warranted.”
How much should one extend his budget to buy clothing and jewelry for his wife and children, particularly before Yom Tov?
Read full story in this week’s Mishpacha Magazine.