All My Life’s A Cycle

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31 Dec 2008

In the midst of the current financial crisis, we hear constantly about the “cycle” and where we are in the cycle. The frightening aspect to this crisis is that we don’t know what type of cycle it is and where we are in it.

Jewish life is rife with cycles. And it is these cycles that make us strong. They provide us with a stable foundation and an impetus to move forward.

When we look at our lives as Jews, they represent a series of concentric circles.

But cycles are not useful in and of themselves.

The movie “Groundhog Day” was about cycles – but the cycles were pointless because the Bill Murray character always ended up where he started.

What is powerful about cycles in the Jewish concept is that it is not about going back to where you started but it is about renewal. It is about using your new day, week, month to start over and to grow from that point.

The classic case is the laws of family purity. It is based on cycle – a woman’s cycle – and its beauty is the renewal and freshness the cycle engenders. Your relationship hopefully does not return to where it was a month ago – but builds to a new level.

The ability to change, however, does not translate to change until you focus on who is the engine of change. You are the engine of change.

In Pirkei Avot – the fourth chapter, the first mishnah – Ben Zoma poses and answers four questions: Who is wise? The person who learns from other people. Who is rich? The person who is happy with what he has. Who is strong? The person who controls himself. Who is honored? The person who honors others.

These are all nice aphorisms on their own, but what is it that ties them together?

They are tied together by the controlling party, and it is YOU who controls each of these characteristics. Only you can make yourself wise, rich, strong, honored. It can only come from you. And, similarly, change can only come from you. You are the agent of change. Not the media, not your buddies, not your siblings. Only you.

That is easier said than done, surrounded and immersed as we are by others and their views.

There is a story about a Reb Zushia. He said: I wanted to change the world, but no one listened. I wanted to change my country, but no one listened. I wanted to change my city, my town, but no one listened. I wanted to change my family but no one listened. Then I focused on changing myself. And when I changed, my family began to respond and change. And my town, my state, my country. And the world changed because I changed myself.

But, again, it is easier said than done because of the countervailing force of peer pressure and worrying about what people might think.

Let me suggest two ideas through two stories: the first is about having the right perspective and the second is about overcoming resistance to change.

First, a story about how I started to wear a kippah at work. I didn’t always wear a kippah at work. I used to come into the office and slide the kippah off into my pocket as I was heading in to the office. But one day I forgot to slip it off. And it was a day where – coincidentally – [and coincidentally there are no coincidences] I was giving a presentation to my company. During the course of the presentation, I happened to reach back and I realized I had left my kippah on my head. What should I do now? I couldn’t take it off then because that would imply I was embarrassed. So I left it on. When I sat down – and had my back to the audience. I couldn’t take it off because that would mean it was only an accident and I was embarrassed. After the meeting – no one said anything about the kippah – I went up to my office. Now what should I do? If I took it off, it meant I was embarrassed. So I left it on the rest of the day. The next morning – I woke up – now what should I do? If I didn’t wear it, it meant it was an accident the day before. So I wore it that day – and every day since then.

I’m not trying to give you advice as to what you should do in this situation, but I realized for me that I was more concerned about what people thought than what G-d thought. Once I saw it in those terms, it became easier.

A second story. More real-time.

Many of you may have heard or read a talk I gave in July 2008 – From Bear Stearns To Bava Metzia – at the Yeshiva Gedolah of Teaneck dinner – it detailed my decision – in the face of the collapse of my company, Bear Stearns – to go to learn in a yeshiva. After 25 years on Wall Street as an award-winning securities analyst, I decided to take time off. I have been spending mornings in one yeshiva and afternoons in a different one – learning prayer, Talmud, Torah, Jewish law. Although my children are “frum from birth,” I did not grow up religious and I felt that there were some gaps in my Jewish education. I always said I would deal with them…when I had time. I never made the time, but fortunately – in my view – G-d made the time for me.

The hardest part of these change has not been the learning itself but dealing with the reactions of those around me. My family – in particular, my wife Nancy – has been very supportive.

But I can sense the questions from my friends and colleagues. That’s great, they say, but what do you plan to do after.

Now there will be an “after,” but I am still working on it. Whatever it is, it will be different. I spent 25 years on Wall Street. I put in my time being available 24/6 – and it is enough. I want to do something different.

I don’t know what it is and I don’t have a plan.

I used to have a plan, but I learned that G-d runs the world, and so had to adjust my plan to His plan.

The world is different today. We have to recognize that. If you are looking for a job, take a different approach. Take a look at your spending. Don’t worry about what others will think. Focus on what G-d wants.

Developing a new path is a challenge. So here are five action items that I put together to help develop that new path:

  1. Tone down the simchas.
  2. Support your local yeshivas, kollels and day schools.
  3. Become a better listener.
  4. Think different.
  5. Pray for what you want and for what you need.

Let me go through these five points.

1 – Tone down the simchas.

This will not make me popular with caterers. But we need leaders who are bold enough to tone down their simchas. It doesn’t have to be an endless smorgasbord – followed by a six-course meal and with a 10-piece band. The simcha is from within us. It can be done much more simply. But this is where it is up to the leaders of this community to take a stand. People need emotional cover. So take a stand. Do it low-key. Tone down the Kiddush. Blended scotch instead of single malt. If you do it – and it takes courage – others will follow.

Because it’s not our money. G-d gave us the money and He tests us to use it responsibly. Our sages ask: why are there poor people? Because if G-d wants people to have money, He could certainly give it to them. We learn that poor people are here as a test for the people who have money.

With all due respect, your rebbeim can not take the lead on this issue, because everyone expects them to say this. It has to come from the lay leadership. And it will take courage.

But, as I once heard: when you do the right thing and people are watching: that is called “courage.” When you do the right thing, and no one is watching: that is called “character.”

2 – Support yeshivas, kollels and day schools. And other causes.

We are in difficult times. But this is the time where we have to focus on the basics, on the core elements. And this is where the yeshivas, the kollels, the day schools fit in. They are the backbone of our communities. They are the R&D, the future. They develop our children and our young men – and our old men – into mensches. You don’t become a mensch from watching TV. There is nothing on CSI or Family Guy or any of the other shows that develops us into mensches. There is very little on the internet that encourages our children or us to behave better.

3 – Become a better listener.

We are in difficult times. People are losing their jobs, their livelihoods. It is very frightening. We can’t always help our friends get the next job, but we can listen to them.

The shiva process – after the death of a loved one – is not about making the mourner feel better. Only time and perspective will help. You can’t – and shouldn’t – try to make them feel better. Feeling pain is important for this process.

But you can be a listener. The talking helps. While the loss is clearly a different level of magnitude, the loss of a job, a career – and the associated financial losses – are also a loss. We can help by being a good listener. How are you doing? And wait for an answer. You can’t solve their problems and we all have problems of our own. But that is the beauty of the shiva process – we can help by being there. Be there for your friends.

4 – Think different.

As a securities analyst, I followed Apple Computer. Now this is not a financial commentary, but I became a big fan of Steve Jobs because of his perspective. I realize that Steve Jobs is not a religious Jew – he is not Jewish and he may not even be religious – but as we see from various points in the Talmud and in current Jewish history, we can learn from everyone. He is one of my heroes. I have many heroes: Rashi, Rambam, David Ben-Gurion, my rebbes – but also Steve Jobs.

This may be hard to recall, but Steve Jobs was faced with the almost-certain demise of Apple Computer when they brought him back as the CEO the second time around. Market share was insignificant, cash was low, products were shoddy. There was no way out. So he had to “Think Different.”

Here is the pitch at the time that characterizes what he did to get to where they are today – and it applies to us today.

Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes.

The ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo.

You can praise them, disagree with them, quote them, disbelieve them, glorify or vilify them. About the only thing you can’t do is ignore them. Because they change things.

They invent. They imagine. They heal. They explore. They create. They inspire. They push the human race forward.

Maybe they have to be crazy.

How else can you stare at an empty canvas and see a work of art? Or sit in silence and hear a song that’s never been written? Or gaze at a red planet and see a laboratory on wheels?

Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.

We are in a more challenging world today. So we have to think differently. G-d is giving us a new set of challenges. But G-d only gives us challenges that we can handle.

Think different about your situation. Your work situation, your financial situation, your learning. Find a creative solution – because it’s out there, but you are the only one who can figure it out.

5. Focus on prayer.

As we see from the Torah, G-d is a great writer. But G-d is also a great listener. Non-judgmental. But why pray? If we lost our job, or if we lost money, isn’t that part of G-d’s plan? Weren’t we supposed to lose the money? Moreover, G-d – who is omnipotent, who is infinite – certainly doesn’t need our prayers.

We pray for ourselves. We pray for change and to change ourselves. We can pray to become strong, rich, honored, wise – but we will only get it when we change ourselves.

And finally, G-d is a great listener – available 24/7 – and He hears our prayers. He helps us to realize that we are in the midst of the cycle – maybe at the top of the cycle or at the bottom. When we are at the top, we need to focus on perspective. And when we are at the bottom, we can realize that things can change for the better.

Let me close with this thought: cycles make us strong because they renew us and give us a chance to change. But change can only come from within us. G-d gives us the cycles so that we have constant opportunities for renewal and change. We can change our day, our week, our month, our year. But we can change. And when we change ourselves, we change our families, our communities, our world.

After getting his MBA at Harvard Business School, Andrew Neff worked on Wall Street for 25 years as a securities analyst following technology sector, where he was an Institutional Investor All-Star for 16 years and a Wall Street Journal All-Star for nine years. He now learns in yeshivas in Teaneck, NJ and Riverdale, NY. His previous pieces on were From Bear Stearns to Bava Metzia (July 2008) and You DO Have A Prayer (September 2008)

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.