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The Grasshopper Delusion
A Lakewood Kollel Fantasy
Last week, the Voice of Lakewood, in its “Shared Accounts” section where people discuss parnasa issues, printed a letter suggesting that people in kollel should work for a few hours daily in order to have financial stability. This week, the newspaper apologized for printing such a letter. Accompanying the apology was the following article:
The Grasshopper in the Room: How Do Yungerleit Manage?
Last week's letter writer M.F. put forth what appears to be a serious problem and suggested an obvious solution (excuse me if I am oversimplifying or misinterpreting his words, but this was the message): Since even working people are struggling to make it financially, kollel yungerleit, who don't make the same income as their working peers, must not be making it. They must be unable to afford tuition!
The solution, in his eyes? That kollel yungerleit should be encouraged to take on a side job, even at the inevitable expense of reduced concentration during seder. Not doing so, he claims, is ignoring the "elephant in the room" and "missing the broader picture," because these kollel yungerleit will have to leave kollel earlier if they don't take on this practice. Additionally, he writes that this message is so important that if nothing comes out of Shared Accounts but for it, the entire column will be deemed worthwhile.
Powerful words, indeed. But are they true? Numbers don't lie, right? How could a yungerman balance a budget with a smaller income than the "baal habayis"?
I think that if this matter is cleared up once and for all, it might be helpful for both the yungerleit and others who can't understand how they manage.
On pen and paper this argument is rock solid. But just as numbers don't lie, so too is it impossible to argue with the facts. And the facts are that the overwhelming majority of yungerleit are managing. Speak to the administrator of your child's school and ask him if yungerleit pay tuition. Better yet, walk into the Yoshon, Beis Shalom, Princeton, or any other BMG beis midrash or kollel around town, and ask the first yungerman you meet if he has ever defaulted on his payments. Then ask the second yungerman, and then the third. Ask him how he does it, and he might shrug and chuckle. He might not be able to explain it.
So how indeed do they do it? First, yeshivaleit tend to spend less than others. There's a reason why a shabby jacket or a punched-up car is called yeshivish.... Kollel yungerleit go on less vacations and buy less jewelry. It's not necessarily easy. But it's mesiras nefesh for Torah. And it's something that they and their wives are proud of.
But there's something else, what a friend of mine calls the "Grasshopper Effect." We are all familiar with the story of the grasshopper that came to Rav Chaim's window to help him understand a halachah he was horeving over. Natural? No. But it was Hashem's way of helping those who do what He desires most. And not only Rav Chaim was zocheh to that siyata d'Shmaya. Every yungerman merits it to some degree, sometimes in more obvious ways than others.
The Grasshopper Effect plays out in so many ways. It starts of course with a wife who works extremely hard to support him, and sometimes parents/in-laws who assist financially. But that is just the beginning. Often a Rich Uncle helps out. Discounts, second-hand items, hand-me-downs. Cars that last far longer than their natural life expectancies. There are unexpected grants, sometimes a yerushah suddenly appears... the list of grasshoppers that bnei Torah witness is endless.
And it makes sense. The supreme importance of limud haTorah is recorded extensively and explicitly throughout the Torah. From the Mishnah and until the Gedolim of our generation, we have been taught of the greatness of this cause.
Don't you think that Hashem is creative enough, resourceful enough, and determined enough to ensure that the goal that He tells us about so clearly in His Torah should be met?
One outstanding case in point is a philanthropist from Monsey who supported Mosdos Breslov for much of his adult life, until one fine day he decided, for no apparent reason, to spearhead a radical and audacious plan to raise the kollel checks in BMG. That this "happened to take place" at the same time that inflation soared historically is a clear indication of Hashem's grasshopper for thousands of yungerleit.
Truth be told, there are those who leave kollel because they cannot afford it any longer. We don't know Hashem's cheshbonos as to whom He enables to remain in this lofty position and whom not. Those who are able to do it are grateful for the zechus.
A notion as critical as the one the letter writer wrote, that bnei Torah should be encouraged to engage in a side occupation to help sustain themselves, should be discussed and decided upon not by some armchair da'as Torah sending an email to the local paper. Nor should a paper which caters to thousands of kollel yungerleit and their families be printing such letters. Such decisions should be left to the Gedolim.
And as far as we know, they have already decided upon it. Many decades ago, when Rav Aharon put forth his vision of creating a kollel for yungerleit who will do nothing but learn Torah l'shmah, he was ridiculed and scorned. "It is unsustainable!" he was told.
On pen and paper it is unsustainable, but history has shown otherwise. Over the last 60 years, the idea of single-minded devotion to Torah has been tried and proven to be a most uplifting, sublime, and ideal way of life. And ever since then, all of our Gedolim have unequivocally backed this ideal as well.
The yungerman is our most precious treasure. Instead of trying to solve their imagined budgeting issues with ideas that undermine, and have a greater possibility of making them leave kollel than staying there, an idea that has been spurned by our Gedolim, we should try to have a part in their avodas hakodesh. Let us encourage them and their families. Let us work on ways to help them, either through tuition reform and other such great causes. Doing so will allow us to be Hashem's shaliach to ensure that His treasured Adirei HaTorah can flourish with peace of mind. •
Some comments in response:
I think it’s great when people strive for a simpler, less materialistic lifestyle. But here in Israel, charedim in kollel do not have less vacations and buy less jewelry and drive a punched-up car. They have no vacations and buy no jewelry and drive no car.
The grasshopper story with Rav Chaim Kanievsky is not actually true. We have a video interview with Rebbetzin Kanievsky where she says what really happened, and the message is the exact opposite of the one given here. It's not that the locust flew in on his windowsill exactly when he needed to see one. What actually happened was that he needed to see one and it didn’t magically appear. And because in any case he wasn’t expecting any such miracle, he did the normal hishtadlus, which in this case meant trying to get a science book. And after this was unsuccessful, some time later, a locust flew in to his home - as happens on occasion in Israel, especially in homes which don't have air conditioning and have the windows open.
To say that a person in kollel receives supernatural help and then immediately state that this “starts of course with a wife who works extremely hard to support him” is both nonsensical and offensive. A wife who is working extremely hard is not supernatural assistance. Give credit to her, not to God!
If people in kollel can rely on supernatural assistance, whether it’s miraculously long-lived cars or surprise grants and yerushos or other things from an “endless list” of grasshoppers, then why do other people need to support them?
If this is all part of Hashem being resourceful and determined enough to easily ensure the fulfillment of a goal since the times of the Mishnah, then why didn’t Chazal say that everyone should learn Torah full-time and raise their children to do the same, and rely on supernatural help? Why did Rav Aharon Kotler have to innovate it?
Anyway, next time someone comes collecting for kollel, just give them this article and tell them that they’ll be fine. Perhaps someone can also communicate this to the MKs of UTJ, and explain that they likewise do not need to extort the government for billions of shekels to support the kollel system. They just need to wait for the grasshoppers to magically appear.
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