Bear Stearns, Bava Metzia and Beyond

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Bear Stearns Building
29 Jul 2010

Two years ago, in the midst of the deepening global financial crisis, Andrew Neff – a leading Wall Street equity analyst at Bear Stearns – was directly affected when his company failed. While he could have stayed on with the acquiring firm, he used it as an opportunity to pull away from the business world and to spend time learning Torah in yeshivas. His story “From Bear Stearns to Bava Metzia” which was published on was widely circulated because it struck a chord among many for its clarity and honesty about how to bring God into your life when faced with major internal and external challenges.

Here is his follow up story two years later.

Two years ago I gave a talk at this dinner entitled “From Bear Stearns to Bava Metzia.” I was amazed and touched by the response to that talk. Rav Roberts thought it would be timely to give you an update, a postscript two years later.

Moreover, there were a number of questions that were raised along the way – and I’d like to address some of those questions.

Here is a quick update to that first talk: I am beyond Bear Stearns, but I am still working on Bava Metzia.

In that talk, which you can find linked above, I made five points, which addressed my perspective on the situation in the world at that time. Those points were:

  1. G-d runs the world
  2. Your prayers are answered so think carefully about what you pray for
  3. Think about your legacy
  4. Every benefit has a cost and every cost has a benefit
  5. Handling tests – it’s easier than you think.

All of these points are still valid but I have five additional points which address my perspective on my world over the last two years and which I would like to share with you tonight. Here are my five new points:

  1. The ‘E’ in “yeshiva” stands for “effort”
  2. Keep the change
  3. It will keep you up at night
  4. You make your own emunah
  5. Who is supporting whom?

1. The ‘E’ in “yeshiva” stands for “effort”

When I started to learn – quite frankly – I didn’t really know what these guys were doing. I did not know what “learning” was all about. After two years in yeshiva – mornings in Yeshiva Gedola of Teaneck with Benzi Cohen, Pinny Roth and Aron Mandel and midday in Telshe Yeshiva of Riverdale with Rav Elimelech Kohn – I have a much better idea. But it may be hard to explain it to you because there is a big difference between the yeshiva world and the secular world.

The best way to summarize it is that: the secular world is all about results and the yeshiva world is all about effort. In my 25 years on Wall Street, I was rewarded for results. Effort was important but only when it led to measurable results. If I worked really hard, but didn’t generate a deal, there was little reward in that world. If a deal walked in the door, there was a reward for the results. That is the way the secular world works.

The yeshiva world is different. There are some days when we get through a whole page of Gemara, or quite of few Rashis. But there are some days when I just review what I did the day before – to get a better idea of the concepts. I maybe get a line or two further. But I still feel even on those days that I accomplished something. It was all about the effort.

In a sense, it’s like exercise. If someone goes on a 10-mile run and ends up where he started, one could ask, ‘What did he really do? He’s back where he started.’ But – to the runner – it was a great day because it was all about the effort he put in.
Let me give a Torah perspective, which I heard from Rav Frand several years ago.

The Torah in parasha Shemini talks about the dedication of the Mishkan – the portable sanctuary that Bnai Yisrael used in their 40 years in the desert – and it focuses on the day in which the Mishkan was dedicated. But the parasha starts out “va-yehi bayom shemini” “And it was on the eighth day,” but that’s strange because this is opening day for the Mishkan. It should say, “bayom harishon” “it was on the first day” since it is talking about opening day. When they had the first game at the new Yankee Stadium, at the new Mets stadium they didn’t say, this is day 431 or whatever it was. It was opening day.
But the point is that in the world of Torah, all the preparation you do counts. All the effort counts. It’s not that we ignore outcomes and results, but G-d determines outcomes. We are the ones who determine how much effort we put in. So, the focus is on effort.

2. Keep the change

The biggest question I get – and I ask myself – is: how have I changed as a result of my two years in yeshiva?

The best way to put it is that it opened up a whole new world of concepts and ideas to me. But I will come back to that.

First, let me explain my ground rule. My ground rule was that I had to learn in Hebrew or, in many cases, Aramaic. I didn’t want to look at the English.

I had one exception to my rule: if I really didn’t understand a concept in the Gemara, then I could go home and look it up in English. But I had a revelation. Because whenever I didn’t understand something in Aramaic and I would go home and look it up in English … I wouldn’t understand it in English either. It wasn’t the language. It was the concept. So we would have another go at it. And we eventually would figure it out.

I’m not saying that using the English texts does not have a place. But it is a wonderful feeling to be able to look at the original text. Because when you are in the original texts, you get a sense of the personalities that the English doesn’t bring out.

One analogy that comes to mind is poetry or drama. For a scholar, they can see the patterns in the poem which say something in themselves. There are patterns in the Gemara.

It was not easy. It is still not always easy. There are days where I just don’t get the words or I don’t get the concepts. It can be frustrating.

But that’s no different from the work world where you have some good days and some bad days.

What I have learned is that when I have a frustrating day, just wait until tomorrow because it will be better the next day.
But the biggest change is how I organize my day. I used to fit learning in to my schedule. Now I fit my work into my learning.

3. It will keep you up at night

Another thing: I really look forward to learning.

I never took a snow day from yeshiva.

I look forward the “oh wow” that I am going to find in a Rashi. But I can’t get it on my own. Or the insight in the Gemara that shows us not how backward the Gemara is but how much our Rabbis understand about human nature. As Shlomo Hamelech says in Koheles, in terms of human behavior, there really is nothing new under the sun.

At one level it is like anything: it takes effort and persistence. No one enjoys throwing a basketball the first few times, or going for your first run. But you can develop a love for it.

However, I am not really comfortable with using basketball or running as an analogy because when I am learning I am connecting – through some intermediary steps – with Hashem.

Here’s one more thing. Learning is exciting. It’s invigorating. It’s enjoyable. I really enjoy sitting down and learning. Let me give you an example. Every year for Shavuot I usually go to a series of shiurim. But the problem is that I generally do not last the night because it is passive learning.

But this year was different. I sat down and learned with my son-in-law Adi over Shavuot. And we went all night. I didn’t have to struggle. I don’t mean to criticize going to a shiur, because it clearly has a place, but I find that my learning now is active.

So here’s the hardest message: Before I started to learn, I didn’t know what these boys were doing. Now that I am doing it, I find it hard to explain what I am doing – except that I feel like I am getting closer to G-d.

4. You make your own emunah

People often ask me: What do you get out of going to the yeshiva? What are the rewards? At one level, there are the intellectual rewards. But I can even make it more practical. I got two car seats, a child’s basketball hoop, a big plastic log cabin and a bike with training wheels.

My wife, my dog and I walk to yeshiva just about every day. I walk back home myself. Our children – and our two grandsons – are coming back from Israel for the summer and I had to find some car seats and some toys. I found all these things on my way home on someone’s curb. On the one hand, you could say it’s a wonderful coincidence that I found these things walking home. On the other hand, I view it as my personal relationship with G-d Who – as we say three times a day – “provides me with all my needs.”

Looking at it another way, when I talked about the situation I faced two years ago – where my company failed and I decided to go learn, skeptics said, “Well, that’s fine for you, you have the resources.” But it is not about the resources. There is no level of resources that is enough for some people How you view your resources does not depend on the amount but on how you look at it. There is no amount or situation that is enough unless you have the emunah – the faith and belief – that G-d will provide. And with the right degree of emunah, your resources will provide and things will work out.
But there is no planning or insurance or backup plan that will help unless you develop the emunah.

Emunah – faith – is not an easy thing to develop. You have to work on it every day, every minute and with every situation. You have to have the right partners. I am fortunate to have my wife, Nancy, as my partner. G-d is also my partner.

In Bereshis, we see these different perspectives, when Esav says, “Yesh li rav” “I have plenty,” while Yaakov says, “Yesh li kol” “I have everything.”

Moreover, in my situation, when I began to focus on going back to work, I had some specific requirements that I needed in a position. To some extent, it seemed those requirements seem to preclude the possibility of finding something. But something found me – and it met the requirements I set out for myself to enable me to continue my learning.

5. Who is supporting whom?

You probably think that you are supporting the yeshiva, but we have it backwards.

The yeshiva is supporting you.

In the Gemara of Sotah (35a), there is an incident involving Dovid Hamelech where Uzzah, his aide, was punished in conjunction with the transportation of the Ark of the Covenant. Uzzah was punished for thinking that the Ark would fall to the ground unless he rushed to hold it up.

There is a famous line, which – in essence – says that we should not think that we are carrying the Ark, but instead that the Ark is carrying us.

This community is the way it is because there is a yeshiva that has 45 boys learning every day. It is not the restaurants that make this community. This community’s superb rebbeim are the way they are because there is a yeshiva here.
In the real estate world, there is a concept that the first money that a partner gets back is not taxed – it is considered “return of capital.” In the same vein, you are not giving to the yeshiva. You are getting.

But many of us don’t like to have these big obligations outstanding, hanging over our heads.

Is there some way we can pay down this obligation?

Yes. You can do it with a check. (I’m sure that the Rosh Yeshiva would not object.) But you can do more.

Go learn.

Go learn at the Yeshiva Gedola of Teaneck. Go to your shul.

Go tomorrow morning. Or go tomorrow night. Ask Rabbi Roberts to find a chavrusa for you. Go for the daf yomi at every night. Go for Shabbos davening.

Go to the yeshiva. Carve the time out.

How are you going to find the time? I can’t give you the answer to that. You make your own emunah. So go test your emunah.

Go to the yeshiva. Go learn.

Thank you.

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