Holding back: taking responsibly for your financial decisions

Over the course of just a generation or two, a long-standing traditional way of thinking has been all but lost from Jewish life. It wasn't something we had to consciously learn, it was obvious. But regular exposure to nusach ha'tefila and Torah sources certainly helped reinforce the mindset. I'm talking about financial responsibility which, ultimately, means believing that I am the only person who's responsible for my financial well being. Once I grow to adulthood, I have no right to expect or demand my parents, school, community, or government support me. If I want a nice place to live, clothes to wear, and the comforts of life, I'm the only one obliged to make sure it happens.

How universal and obvious was this thinking?

Just imagine a world in which we there was nothing wrong with demanding our parents, schools, communities, and governments provide our needs. Would the words שונא מתנות יחיה (from משלי טו) make any sense? Could a rational person living in such a world, while bentching, beg God to support us Himself so we shouldn't have to seek the support of flesh and blood (לא לידי מתנת בשר ודם ולא לידי הלואתם)?

While I'm sure there have always been individuals whose selfish shortsightedness led them to seek dependence on others, they would have been the exception. And I'd bet they experienced more failure than success. But an entire generation that spends half their lives looking to others for material support can't expect a happy outcome.

Of course, it's not just the Jewish community that's seen such changes. Western society in general has experienced a similar attitude shift. We're just coming along for the ride. Within living memory - certainly until the Second World War - it was common for poor people to endure great hardship rather than accept welfare. The humiliation experienced by those who fell that low was overwhelming.

But the fact that Jews didn't invent the problem hardly makes it better.

Let's dig a bit deeper into the nature of this problem and then into some possible solutions.

The problem

Why does the Torah prefer self reliance? Perhaps partly because a gift, while technically free, comes at a cost. You now "owe one" to your benefactor (עבד לוה לאיש מלוה - משלי כב ז), and might later have trouble making objective moral decisions if they conflict with that benefactor's needs.

Perhaps worse, having come to rely on handouts, you will now find it that much more difficult to live "gift free," leading to moral compromise. It's not hard to visualize a young family receiving payments from a government program who can't bring themselves to report a bit of extra income that disqualifies them. At that moment, they're crossing the line between dependence and corruption - and the other side of that line gets very dark, very quickly.

Despite your best efforts there might well be times when you're forced to take a handout. If that time does come, accept the help with grace and gratitude and not as something for which you're entitled.

Some will argue that times have changed and modern government benefits are somehow not really considered "ידי בשר בדם". I have to admit that I don't see any logic behind that argument. But even if I'm wrong, building your life on a foundation of dependence can hardly be a healthy choice.

There's something else about free money. When resources come without an associated cost (meaning: work), there's less incentive to limit consumption. And when consumption isn't limited, it tends to expand until it can't be satisfied from normal sources. And when the expanding needs of a consumption-driven lifestyle can't be satisfied through normal sources, criminal sources are considered.

Sound unlikely? See the Chofetz Chaim (בבאור הלכה סוף הל' יום טוב).

The solution

If the problem we're talking about is the result of people not taking responsibility for themselves, then the solution is simple: take responsibility. But I suppose adding a few quick details won't hurt.

If you're not sure how it will turn out, plan better

There's nothing sinful in thinking about your future career. On the contrary: Chazal taught that NOT thinking about your future career leads to sin (כל שאינו מלמד את בנו אמנות מלמדו ליסטות - קידושין כט).

The trick is to plan and, eventually, launch a career while maintaining a good balance with your other goals. A bochur in mesivta or beis hamedrash certainly doesn't want to steal too much time and focus from his learning. But who can't spare a half an hour a day? After all, it's been many centuries since Rabbi Yochanan (שבת יא) observed that the מדה of תורתו אומנתו not longer existed.

So what can you accomplish in a half an hour? Perhaps not that much. But multiply that by daily half hour sessions stretched out over months or even years, and a motivated and disciplined individual could easily teach himself to program, get a real estate or insurance brokerage license, or creatively dream up an entirely new skill that the world is desperately waiting to discover it needs.

The point is that a some lightweight preparation invested early on can pay itself back a thousand times, and maybe even let you learn Torah longer and better.

If you can't afford it, don't do it

Part of financial responsibility involves making responsible spending choices.

  • Is it wise to spend half your annual income on one child's chasuna and the other half on her sister's seminary year?

  • Should you incur dept to finance years learning in yeshiva and kollel?

  • Can you justify adding thousands of dollars of personal debt to purchase brand name glasses and clothes when not having them will cause you public embarrassment?

But aren't those things that we must do? Shouldn't we do our part and leave the details to God?

Perhaps it would be worthwhile to examine the word must.

  • Of course, parents must ensure our children enjoy appropriate chassunos. But who said that must include many thousands of dollars of luxury jewellery items and watches, matching gowns, and catered sheva brachos?

  • Of course, parents must educate all their children. But who said that a Torah education must include a seminary year?

  • Of course, all men must learn Torah. But who says we have the right to expect our learning to be uninterrupted by the need to earn a living? And who says God even prefers it? As noted by the Chovos Halevovos, it wasn't by accident that God created the world in a way that requires most people to earn their own living.

  • Brand name goods? הקנאה והתאוה והכבוד מוציאין את האדם מן העולם

God does set your income each year and is the source of your blessings. But He also set limits and expects us to use our common sense. The potential consequences of uncontrolled debt are significant and there's no obvious halachic justification to assume debt where the ability to repay is doubtful. So assess your must haves very carefully before pulling out a credit card.

Don't make the world worse than it already is

It's not only about you. When you choose to spend more on a simcha, a vacation, or clothes, you're making it harder for the people around you to stay within their means. All of us will one day have to answer for the suffering of complete strangers that we could have prevented.

There's a bigger picture here. Don't ignore it.