"Rabbi Achai ben Yoshiya says: When a man eats of his own labour his mind is at ease. Even when he is dependent upon his father or mother of children, his mind is not at ease, needless to day when he is dependent on strangers." (Avos d'Rabbi Nasan 31:1)It goes without saying that the Torah and halacha have no problem with a man working for a living to support himself and his family. From ample examples in both Tanach and Talmud we see that many great figures in our history did exactly that. Statements supporting the idea that work is an essential duty of a Jewish man's life are legion throughout the literature of our Sages. Yet today a significant part of the Torah-observant community seems to think that such a position is either irrelevant or, worse, heretical. For the labour is something that takes away from the only acceptable daily occupation a Jewish man can have: constant Torah study. Therefore it is forbidden or, at best, a distasteful last resort.
The problem with such an attitude is that it leads to a lifestyle at odds with reality. In the world around us good and services such as food, electricity, housing and education cost money. While the phrase "God will provide" might be fluent on some people's lips the bottom line is that He does not pay one's bills directly and on the due date. As a result the same group that insists that all its men can do is learn has become financially dependent on the rest of the Jewish community for its upkeep to an ever increasing degree. To make matters worse it has dealt with this dependency by villifying it, treating those who keep this lifestyle going as "second class" since, after all, they provide the money through working for a living.
How interesting it is then to read Rav Yitzchak Aderlstein's piece reviewing the recent AJOP conference and a "bombshell" dropped by Rav Benzion Twerski:
R Twerski observed that people sense the apologetical attitude towards parnasah that is common in the yeshivah world. Involvement in material concern is but a tool to facilitate more learning. It is a bedieved. He urged a thorough investigation of what the seforim actually write about the value of involvement in Olam ha-Zeh, and the avodah it entails. It is the only way that we are going to feel any real value in our involvement in the physical world. Whether it is our involvement in the workplace or doing carpool – “It can’t be an excuse. It has to be real.This is a bombshell? This is radical?
The problem with "learn don't earn" is that the children eat the produce of the parents but produce none themselves. Having consumed the financial well-being of the previous generation they then look at the next generation with empty hands and shake their heads sadly. How much pressure and misery is there in parts of the Chareidi community where children go hungry because their fathers are too "pious" to take the responsibility of providing for themselves? How many mothers are at their wits' end because they not only have to look after their children but also have the burden of earning next week's rent cheque?
Yes there are some in the kollel community who are there because they are the future of Israel's Torah. There are some who will be the teachers and leaders of the Torah world. Bu how many are there because they were inculcated with the idea that working wasn't for them for the same reasons a ham sandwich isn't?
Perhaps Rav Twerski's statement is a radical shot across the bow for the Chareidi community. For the rest of us it is a simple statement of reality.