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Defying Chazal is not Holy
Mishpacha's tragic story of destitution idealizes poverty over working
To the Editor, Mishpacha Magazine:
It was deeply upsetting to read the tragic true story, "Payback Time," about a destitute family with no funds to marry off their daughter, their adult son who has to go and beg for money in Europe, and the subsequent theft of the funds raised. But it is also disturbing that no mention is made of how all the terrible suffering and theft was a direct and obvious consequence of defying the directives of Chazal.
The protagonist describes his father as “one of the holy men of Jerusalem" whose life is all Torah - and whose family survives with the help of Bituach Leumi, food packages from Yad Eliezer, and other forms of charity. "Abba, a masmid, a chassid, an oved Hashem who ran from gemach to gemach just to survive everyday life with ten children…" But this is exactly what Chazal say one should not do! Chazal state explicitly (Yerushalmi Berachos 9:2, Sanhedrin 11:5, Bavli Pesachim 113a) that one should seek any kind of work, even a lowly profession, rather than require charity. It is not "holy" to learn Torah instead of doing that which the Torah requires us to do. Supporting one’s wife and children is not just a basic duty of a human being, it’s also a Torah obligation.
But it gets worse. When his adult son realizes that his father has no way to fulfill his meager commitment to make his daughter’s wedding and is about to suffer a nervous breakdown, he is not able to directly help either, since he has only a cheder/ yeshiva education with no secular studies and no ability to earn money. Thus, the father also ignored Chazal's directives (Kiddushin 82a) that a person must raise his children to know a trade i.e. to be financially self-sufficient (and while the Gemara records that R. Nehorai had a personal practice that was different, this does not change the stated obligation and the majority view).
His son therefore has to travel to go begging (which he describes as "earning money"). And then it is stolen by someone, whom we eventually discover to have been another young man from the same chassidus who was also on a schnorrering trip and thus was presumably also desperate for money. This is a tragically perfect vindication of Chazal, who stated that "Whoever does not teach his son a trade... it is as though he has taught him to steal" (Kiddushin 29a), and that "any Torah that is not accompanied by work, will end in neglect [of Torah] and will lead to sin" (Avos 2:2).
It would certainly be unfair to place all the blame on the shoulders of those who grew up in an entire culture that acts in such a way. But we should not praise people as being holy martyrs when they are suffering the consequences of defying Chazal and their basic obligations as husbands and fathers and members of society. And it is also harmful and dangerous to endorse such a way of life, since this particular way of defying both Chazal and basic personal/ societal obligations is causing severe problems on a communal scale, and if not addressed, will eventually cause catastrophe on a national scale.
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