By Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried
I really enjoyed this when I read it recently in the TJP. I have given this a lot of thought. I agree that joy comes from within and that it is our job to accept all that Hashem has orchestrated for us and our family. I believe this to be true, having tried to live my life accordingly and use any reversal or situation as a learning tool or message from Hashem to me and my family.
In looking at the story in the TJP, perhaps this rabbi had all that he needed at a simpler time in history. A simpler life was, and probably still is, the norm in Meah She’arim.
I once had a client who lived through The Depression tell me that it was really not such a bad time. Why? Because everyone who lived on the block was in the same boat. All the kids wore old clothes, played stickball in the street. In her neighborhood, she did not see the haves and the have-nots.
Today, I am not so sure your view will resonate. There is a minimum standard of living required to be observant in the U.S.; educate your children and live a meaningful Jewish life. Location matters. Just look at the “fill in the blank” family. We did all we could for them. But in the end they had to move to a city where poverty is more of the norm, and there are systems in place to help them.
What do we tell a family that can’t pay minimum tuition, the rent is due and there is no money for food, and the electricity will be cut off once again? Where does the community’s role to support this family begin and end? What beneficial life experience and scars will the children of this family have to endure? Sure we prop up the family as best as we can, hoping times will be better.
I agree with your premise that joy comes from within. But there are circumstances and situations that are more than one can endure, especially when children are involved.
— David B. W.
I agree with you that there was a time when life was far less complicated. I also have seen, living in Jerusalem for 16 years, how much easier it is to do with less when everyone else is doing the same.
I still contend, however, that the complications of life and the immediate side affects of that life (such as electricity turned off) is not a whole lot different than a family who could not find wood and would have no heat in the dead of a European winter.
Indeed, shtetl life in the “good old days” was far from idyllic; we don’t realize, ala Fiddler, that many were quite miserable in the shtetls with their abject poverty. There were many, however, who shared the exact same physical circumstances, but their inner peace transcended their conditions. They achieved joy and enjoyed life alongside people who were cursing the same life.
Consider Victor Frankl who lived alongside fellow inmates in the most cursed hell mankind has experienced: the infernos of Auschwitz. Could we even consider comparing a difficult financial situation and electricity cut off to the constant smell of death wafting through their nostrils? Even so, he was able to achieve a modicum of inner peace and joy, feeling freer than his bestial Nazi oppressors. He learned that peace and joy is simply not contingent on one’s surroundings.
I don’t propose to oversimplify the types of situations you noted, or not to deal with current situations as they come up, or to even suggest that one lives in Dallas as one lived in the shtetl, oblivious to contemporary needs.
What I do suggest, however, is that those needs and complications need not rock one’s inner peace. That inner peace and joy will have an enormous impact on the children of that situation, allowing them to see the good in life and not end up with the scars you suggest they inevitably will develop.
Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried, noted scholar and author of numerous works on Jewish law, philosophy and Talmud, is founder and dean of DATA, the Dallas Kollel. Questions can be sent to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.