Life is challenging, for everyone. So much to do, so little time. This is arguably even more of an issue in the complex world of the contemporary baal habayis, with a larger family and numerous religious obligations and goals. The struggle to meet the challenge can produce overwhelming guilt, stress and exhaustion.
There are three primary values that can assist each of us in addressing this challenge: clarity, satisfaction, and support.
Should I be trying to “Do It All”?
You don’t need to. You are not expected to. G-d does not expect any one of us to do it all.
This is a fundamental concept that must be absorbed both intellectually and emotionally. We may have been created equal, but we were not created identical. In every aspect of life, we must see ourselves as individuals with a particular task – a specific area of specialty and endeavor within G-d’s world. One size does not fit all.
As Ramchal explained, there are numerous aspects of goodness and G-dliness that man was expected to achieve. However, each of these aspects develops within an exclusive set of circumstances. As such, G-d did not expect one man to do it all; rather he divided up the tasks of achieving these goals amongst mankind.
The situation can be compared to a government, where the king’s many servants must obey his orders. All of them together must fulfill the task of running his government, and the king therefore gives each one a particular assignment, so that between them all everything necessary is accomplished. Each of these servants has the obligation to complete his particular assignment. He is then rewarded by the king according to how he functions in his particular area of responsibility. (Derech Hashem 2:3:1)
Ramchal presents this idea with regard to the refinement of particular character traits, butthe same idea is ubiquitous in Jewish thought. We are taught to educate each child according to their way (Mishlei 22:6; see GR”A and Malbim there), to choose a career that matches our skills and interests (TB Brachos 43b; Chovos HaLevovos Shaar HaBitachon ch. 3), to recognize and develop our specific portion of the Torah (TB Avodah Zara 19a; Maalos HaTorah quoting Alshich; Sfas Emes Nitzavim 5640) and to find the particular mitzvah that is our specific gateway to eternity (Rambam, Commentary to Mishnah Makkos 3:16). Each of these teachings assumes that any one person at any one time must find their task and master it, to the exclusion of other worthy goals.
With regard to Torah study, beyond choosing topics of interest within a general area of study, Sefer Chassidim (308) taught that people must be mindful of their interests, skills and limitations in choosing which general area of Torah study, i.e. whether to focus on Tanach, Talmudics or practical Halacha. Rav Yaakov Emden went further, suggesting that while everyone has an obligation to study some Torah each day, not everyone is expected – or should (?!) – dedicate hours to such study.
Certainly a genuine set time for Torah study, meaning specific hours daily and nightly for real engagement to become knowledgeable in Torah to be able to discern and to teach its ways, this without a doubt can only be undertaken after a clear source of income has been identified. But this is not for everyone. For there are many regular people that either have not learned or are not so inclined to ongoing in-depth Torah study. They were created to be involved in commerce in order to provide for others who are serving G-d and completely dedicated to study. These individuals are not first asked when they ascend on high whether they fixed time for Torah study, as this is not expected of them. Indeed this simpleton who dedicates himself to Torah study may also bring tears to His Creator, for He would prefer that he not undertake this burden that is not suited to his nature and serves only to distract him from providing sustenance for those who are truly destined to study. (Siddur Bais Yaakov, Limmud Achar HaTefillah)
As believers in the uniqueness of our place and purpose within G-d’s creation, it behooves us to get to know ourselves such that we can identify our particular task in this world. This requires some effort, and would usually benefit from the input of friends, mentors and rebbeim. Done well, it yields a clarity of purpose that both liberates and strengthens. And it should be done early – before one embarks on their career path – and often, as life progresses.
Because beyond identifying our individual paths, there is also the question of defining today’s path. While our nature and strengths may remain fairly constant, our circumstances change constantly and our priorities must change along with them. For instance, an illness in the family, r”l, is a clear call to the man of the house to redirect within the family his time and energy that is normally dedicated to other, broader tasks. “This is what I need to do today.” Likewise, whatever the individual’s unique path, there will be multiple endeavors competing for his time and attention. Again, a clarity of purpose will be gained by a thoughtful weighing and prioritization of responsibilities.
This identification and prioritization of goals must be done with a keen awareness of both our strengths and weaknesses. It must ignore the temptation to look at what others are doing, as what comes easy for them may be difficult for you, and vice versa. They may find it easy to be “holding in learning” while successfully building their career, while for you this is challenging. Rest assured that there are other areas they need to work on that do not come as easily for them as they do for you. Perhaps, for example, you are more readily “present” for your spouse and children. Each of you has natural gifts which you can easily express, and natural challenges, which take hard work. Be ambitious but realistic about what you can accomplish in the latter category.
This is part of the process we know as cheshbon hanefesh, or – in the world at large – the creation of a Personal Mission Statement. Developing such a self-understanding, or mission statement, connects you – per Steven Covey – “with your own unique purpose and the profound satisfaction that comes from fulfilling it.”
Psychological Benefits of Cheshbon Hanefesh
Guilt and stress are two obvious and debilitating results of a lack of clarity in terms of individual responsibilities and priorities.
Guilt is the result of a sense of failure at meeting expectations. Such feelings are eliminated when expectations are appropriately modified according to individual qualities and circumstances. If I understand, for example, that in my current circumstance where I am working on building my career and my family I may not expected to “be holding in learning” as a kollel yungerman, or to function as a communal leader of note, I can focus on what I must do without fretting about what I must not.
Stress is likewise not as much the result of hard work, but rather the result of being pulled in different directions. Thus, hours of block time dedicated to working on a single project may leave us tired, but not nearly as stressed as an hour of multi-tasking, jockeying between different activities without giving full attention to one, always feeling that I really need to be doing something else.
The perceived need to do it all at all times is a huge stress builder. An individual’s many different areas of responsibility need to be listed, organized and prioritized in a type of budgeting process where the resources being budgeted are time and energy. Ideally one would actually engage in this process methodically, putting pen to paper and formulating an actual time and energy budget. For the many who shy away from formal processes such as these – for budgets of any kind – there is still much to be gained by dedicating thought to these issues. Clarity about what I should be doing and when, and sticking to that with confidence, substantially relieves stress.
It is certainly the case that even after organizing and prioritizing, there may remain more non-negotiable responsibilities than we have the time and energy to address. Nevertheless – as in a financial budget – approaching it with thought and planning leaves us in greater control of the situation, more aware of coming shortfalls or difficulties such that they can be addressed before spiraling out of control.
It is difficult to stick to any task without finding joy and satisfaction in it. My rebbe, Harav Yaakov Weinberg, zt”l, used to convey this by explaining our Sages’ comparison of Torah to water. He noted the (sometimes challenged) conventional wisdom of the time, that one should drink eight glasses of water per day to maintain good health. Yet, despite this common advice, and despite the fact that water is free and available, few people actually drink that much. Why? Water, he explained, is incomparably wonderful when you are thirsty, but if you are not thirsty it is a tasteless liquid that is difficult to drink. And as much as you are told it is important to drink it, and as available as it may be, it will be hard to drink if you aren’t thirsty for it. Similarly, knowing that it is important to learn Torah will not create a sustained commitment to doing that. One must be thirsty for it.
In simpler terms, one could say that all duties are hard to meet in a sustained manner if one does not get geshmak, a real sense of satisfaction, from the activity. The sense of duty only goes so far. It is very difficult, for example, to stick to an exercise regimen that does not involve a type of exercise or a social element that makes the regimen inherently enjoyable.
In our world of many obligations, it is critical for the individual to ensure that every obligation is approached with built-in geshmak. Truly, the sources cited earlier encouraging an individual to find their particular character trait, career, area of Torah or mitzvah were encouraging the pursuit of personal satisfaction in our life’s work. This encouragement of individual fulfillment and satisfaction is often ignored in favor of an imagined higher goal of self-discipline. Yet a job, a learning seder or a marriage characterized by a consistent sense of responsibility to keep things going, but absent a sense of joy or fulfillment in the discharge of that responsibility, will almost inevitably “dry up”, leading to burnout and/or a midlife crisis.
It is essential for every person to resist the heroic urge to forego their pursuit of personal satisfaction in favor of just getting the job done. This appears good and responsible in the short term, but ultimately it leaves a feeling of emptiness that will make sticking to the job, seder, or relationship difficult to sustain.
It is difficult to do anything challenging alone. Individuals need encouragement, support and company as they work to persevere in achieving any long term commitment. Whether sticking to a diet or exercise regimen, a job, a learning commitment, or a focus on better tefillah – it is “not good for man to be alone.” As Shlomo Hamelech (Koheles 4:9) taught, “Two are better than one … for if they shall falter, the one shall support his friend.”
Baalei batim are certainly in need of such support and friendship. So many people share these challenges and the higher goals behind them. Yet so often the individual feels utterly alone. Joining together with others – friends committed together to higher goals – makes all the difference.
This does not require adding yet another significant time commitment to our already burdened schedules. What it does require is recognition that whatever time we are already allotting to our obligations would be better spent in a framework that draws on community. For instance, it is worth having a fixed place for tefillah where one feels connected to the place, the people and the leadership.
A small investment of time with a group of like-minded friends could yield far greater benefits that would enhance the individual’s abilities and capacity. Much can be gained by being part of a chaburah to get together periodically (anywhere from weekly to monthly) – perhaps with a Rav or mentor – to discuss “real life,” its challenges, its opportunities and its joys; to speak through a question of hashkafa or of weighty current events. Exploring meaningful questions with peers who share your experience and your challenges makes you part of a support group of bnei aliyah, striving together for bigger and better things.
A Practical Suggestion Regarding The Transition
Moving out into the real world from the rarefied and pure atmosphere of the yeshiva can be quite a shock. Life gets much more complicated, between the inevitable layers of complexity added by growing familial responsibilities and the broadening of one’s horizons beyond the walls and the activities of the bais hamedrash. How can we best navigate the transition?
One cannot forget the simplest meaning of the verse (Mishlei 22:6) that instructs us to “educate the child according to his way, such that he will not deviate from it as he grows older.” Education must necessarily equip the student to face the challenges of the long road ahead.
The classic Lithuanian yeshiva system has chosen to accomplish this primarily by giving the student an intense immersion experience in a world of pure Torah commitment, with the hope that this experience will serve as the benchmark for the rest of his life. Thus, rather than introduce the “outside world” to the yeshiva, it instead maintains as pure an environment as possible. This approach has produced phenomenal results, spurring the dramatic rebirth of a Torah community to dimensions unanticipated and perhaps unprecedented.
Yet without a doubt part of the strength of this approach has also created the dilemmas faced by many a baal habayis years after having left the yeshiva. Is there any room in the world that nurtured his spirituality for his life as it appears now? Can he draw strength and guidance from that world for his current reality or is it limited to providing him with a wistful view of what life ought to be?
In trying to address this matter, several contributors in this issue suggest changes within the walls of the yeshiva. I am hesitant to embrace such suggestions for two basic reasons. First, the apparent broad – though imperfect – success of the classic Lithuanian yeshiva system should have us take pause before suggesting changes or additions that may lower the yeshiva environment’s intensity, affecting the immersion experience that, despite its flaws, has successfully rebuilt an amazing Torah community inside and outside the yeshiva’s walls. Second, any changes to the yeshiva are – and should be – exclusively in the hands and expertise of yeshiva heads. We must identify what is in our hands as rabbis and professionals functioning outside the walls of yeshiva to do to address this matter in our world outside the yeshiva.
I would thus suggest the following as an opportunity to help our yeshiva graduates navigate the transition to the world beyond the yeshiva, short and long term. Imagine if there was an annual, free-standing conference held at a neutral site, intended for young men leaving or recently having left the yeshiva. The conference could include practical seminars on career choice, as well as professional and business networking. In addition the conference could include discussions about issues such as those raised by this issue of Klal Perspectives. Roshei yeshiva and rabbonim would share their insights and guidance about how the attendees can realistically and properly set life goals. Accomplished baalei batim can speak as role models, encouraging this next cohort and sharing with them what has worked for them in facing the many challenges in their lives. All involved can help the participants understand how the road ahead is both incredibly rewarding and uniquely challenging.
Such an experience, including personalities from the world of the yeshiva they are leaving, together with others from the world they are entering, can perhaps help those transitioning to see how their new world can be positively informed by where they have come from.
I recently heard from a group of young men interested in creating such a framework. I think it is an idea worth exploring. I think that the editors, writers and readers of Klal Perspectives can help translate our discussion into action by dedicating efforts to helping develop such a program.
מי לד’ אלי?
This article was originally featured in the Spring 2015 edition of Klal Perspectives.
Rabbi Moshe Hauer is the rabbi of Congregation Bnai Jacob Shaarei Zion in Baltimore, Maryland and a member of the Editorial Board of Klal Perspectives.
 Several of our contributors discussed the value of setting specific goals and how to best go about doing so, including Rabbi Herschel Welcher, Rabbi Yisroel Reisman, Charlie Harary, Aaron Berger.
 The reader is cautioned that this comment of Rav Yaakov Emden not be taken as the last word on this important and sensitive Halachic subject. It is shared for the purpose of illustrating the opinion of a gadol b’Yisrael on the differing priorities that different people ought to have, even in an area as critical as Torah study.
 As discussed by Rabbi Welcher, Rabbi Reisman and Aaron Berger, as well as Rabbi Menachem Zupnick, Dr. Tzvi Pirutinsky and Alexandra Fleksher, the baal habayis has a unique challenge in reaching this clarity of purpose, as his values and training are primarily in Torah, while his opportunities tend to lie elsewhere.
 See articles by Rabbi Zupnick, Alexandra Fleksher, Aaron Berger and especially Rabbi Benzion Shafier.