Many people attempt to satisfy their need for self-fulfillment through their jobs, and look to their jobs to provide them with psychological nourishment and self-esteem. Often, a job is the essential way a person defines himself and his significance in the world. The loss of a job to such a person is exquisitely painful on an existential level.
But while a job can be a way of contributing great things to the community and the world, I caution against using one’s career as the principal way of defining oneself, of placing too much demand on a career—any career—when no career was ever intended to provide that kind of psychic nourishment and ego-gratification.
As Torah Jews, we have more fundamental ways of defining ourselves, and better arenas into which to invest our emotional energy.
Even when one’s priorities are in place, losing a job is an unpleasant experience. During difficult economic times, especially, the loss of a job can be devastating, because most of us perceive—viscerally—our jobs as the source of our income.
Yet the loss of a job can be a motivation for, and means of, clarifying the role that God plays in our lives. It can motivate a person to reach greater heights of connection with God and to attain greater degrees of clarity regarding priorities and purpose.
As Torah Jews, we know that wealth comes from God. But too often we unconsciously attribute success to our own efforts, as if it is in our hands to acquire. The source of this confusion is understandable: We are commanded by the Torah to work, and to work hard, in pursuit of our livelihood. The pursuit of parnassah demands one of the largest chunks of our waking hours. We invest so much time and effort in the process of earning a living that our immersion in this activity is bound to inspire within us a sense that our own efforts are decisive in the acquisition of that wealth. We pay lip-service to the notion—and, intellectually, we might even believe it—that wealth comes from God. But, in our guts, we “know” —and that intuitive knowledge has been confirmed by thousands of hours of commuting, teleconferencing, e-mailing, selling, meeting, and working—that we make the money.
Ideally, then, the winning formula is this: act as if it’s all in your hands, but recognize, thoroughly and deeply, that all of it comes from God.
Some thoughts to consider:
1: Don’t squander the opportunity—learn the lesson He’s trying to teach you
God decrees wealth. It comes from Him, not from a job. Affirm the truth of this, and watch Him provide for you in the most unlikely of ways, and from the most unlikely of sources.
Learn the lesson that this experience is teaching you. Don’t miss or squander the opportunity, or He’ll send other enhanced “teaching opportunities.”
2: Put the troubles in perspective
Everyone has to negotiate trials and troubles in life. No one escapes. There are different types of currency in which those troubles can arrive or be paid off. My grandmother, a”h, a Holocaust survivor, used to dismiss troubles—not insignificant ones—with the characterization that they were, after all, “lebedickeh tzaros” —i.e., problems associated with living. Those were okay in her book, after what she had experienced in life. The loss of a job, while an acutely painful form of suffering, still belongs to the “problems-associated-with-living” category. There are other problems that are much more absolute and irrevocable, and, of the various currencies in which the “bill” of suffering must be paid, the loss of a job and a bit of financial concerns might still be one of the best options around.
Imagine that a “bill” —a decree of suffering—had come due in some other form of currency—one involving health, or life, or something else equally permanent and painful. Then imagine that you could pay off the debt in another “currency” —say, through the loss of a job. Not a bad trade-off at all. Practice saying the phrase, and appreciating the concept, of “lebedickeh tzaros.”
3: Lifestyle changes
The loss of a job can be a wake-up call to turn inward and re-evaluate some lifestyle decisions. Have we been living too high? Is the style to which we have become accustomed consistent with Torah values and sensibilities? Are all those amenities really necessary? “Keeping up with the Siegelschiffers” may be the unspoken albeit all-important principle in many Orthodox communities, but it runs contrary to a good many Torah principles.
A profound observer of human nature, comedian Sam Levenson used to say that “the greatest gift you can give a child is the lack of something.” We neglect that aspect of our children’s upbringing at our own peril.
Our Orthodox lifestyle has become too expensive, and there are definite steps we could take to ratchet down the cost of that lifestyle. We have come to confuse luxuries for necessities, and we keep upping the ante. We say all the right things, of course, and piously make a big show of rejecting philosophies that worship gashmiyut (materialism), but we still manage to sneak it all in anyway under the disguise of ruchniyut (spiritualism). Pesach in Cancun, with the strains of the Calypso music wafting in through the portholes, is pure “hiddur mitzvah”!
As a community, we live too extravagantly for our own good. People mistakenly think that once they have given their 10 percent, or even 20 percent, to tzedakah, they are free to decide how to spend their disposable income. They assume there are no halachot that govern that process once the tzedakah requirement has been satisfied. That’s not true. Besides the fact that it is not at all clear that one can give no more than 20 percent of their income to tzedakah (“I would love to give more, but what can I do?? The halachah doesn’t allow me for fear that I will become poor myself and become a burden on the community! So I’ll spend a fortune by going to Cancun, which is much more in accord with halachic guidelines and hashkafic sensibilities!”), there are definite Torah guidelines—rooted in the letter of Torah Law as well as in its spirit—that forbid immodest, ostentatious living.
The transient nature of a job—and its inability to nurture or define us—should make us focus on what our priorities ought to be. Many people pour their hearts and souls into their jobs, thinking that they are building for the future. All that work ought to properly be poured into activities that really do build one’s future.
Hearses don’t come with luggage racks. If you’ve lost your job, use this opportunity to recover perspective regarding what matters and what doesn’t.
4: Don’t forget what it feels like
When you’re back on top, remember to help others. Don’t conveniently forget what you experienced and end up squandering the glorious opportunity you were given to understand the pain and fear with which unemployed people live. Use your newly acquired first-hand knowledge of the pain, frustration, and fear that comes with the territory of losing a job to motivate you to help others—with compassion and dignity.
Every person has to deal with problems in his or her life; no one navigates through an entire life free of challenges and suffering. What distinguishes a person, however, is how he or she negotiates those troubles. Success is defined, then, not by the absence of troubles, but rather by one’s ability to face them with dignity.
If you’ve been dealt a tough hand, confront the situation directly and glean the authentic Torah lessons that are to be learned from this situation. Accept it as a wake-up call, as an opportunity and invitation to shake free of your complacency, to redefine yourself, and to pursue and achieve a deeper, truer, more powerful appreciation of Torah values and observance. Make the appropriate changes in your lifestyle and in yourself. Use the experience of adversity to tap into deeper reservoirs of resilience, resolve, talent, courage, and creativity than you were using before, and broaden your definition of yourself and the limits of what you can do when the situation requires. Identify ever more clearly that wealth and all berachot come from God, and ask Him to help you. With your enhanced appreciation of His role in your life, with a greater mastery of yourself and your kochot, with a newly refined, scaled-down, more modest lifestyle, with an enhanced observance of Torah and a newfound commitment to a life more fully focused on Torah values, you will surely be more worthy of a greater level of manifest Providence than you enjoyed previously, and He will send you a great job or provide for you in other, heretofore unforeseen and unexpected ways.
Rabbi Cary A. Friedman is associate editor of OU Press. This article originally appeared in Jewish Action.