What a difference a year makes. Last year, I wrote just before Pesach about Pesach hotels. The impact of my words was probably close to zero. The economic crash, however, proved far more effective than any words of mussar. As our Sages teach, "Greater is the removal of [Achashverosh's] ring than forty-eight prophets and seven prophetesses who prophesied to Israel . . . . For all of them did not return them to the good path, but the removal of the ring did return them to the good path" (Megillah 14a).
Conspicuous consumption might have been a topic last year. Today it does not rate high on the challenges of American Orthodoxy. Even among those who continue to enjoy financial security, lavish, highly visible expenditures have become decidedly uncool.
A few weeks ago, The New York Times ran an article on a number of people who were until very recently earning salaries of between $100,000-$200,000 annually and who are today working as pizza delivery boys andthe like for minimum wage plus tips. Reading these stories, I was struck by the quiet heroism of the people described. It would have been easy for them to curl up in a fetal position, spending the day in bed.
After all, their efforts are not likely to be sufficient to pay their mortgages or continue with even a fraction of their families' previous lifestyles.
It takes courage for them just to go out wearing a set of work clothes far removed from their previous well-tailored suits, knowing that everyone who sees them will make a series of assumptions far different from those made when they were dressed in classier apparel. I thought to myself while reading that I was not sufficiently sympathetic to the trials of the immigrants from the FSU over the last twenty years and what it was like for them to go from being respected doctors and engineers to being unable to find work even as lowly technicians in their former fields.
One interesting aspect of the Times profiles was how many of the subjects were described as waking early in the morning to pray and finding in their relationship with G-d the strength to go on doing what has to be done, without being consumed with self-pity. (The Times is not generally known for its pro-religion sentiment.) Actually, many of us are the beneficiaries of precisely such heroism, as descendants of the post-World War II immigrants. Arriving, in most cases, with no English, little education, nightmares of the horrors they had seen, and little support structure, they took whatever menial jobs they could find and even started families. We are not appreciative enough of what indomitable acts of faith their building of new lives constituted.
I DON'T EXPECT TO SEE in the religious media too many stories like those of the Times profiles. Our community is too small and insular to allow for such a ready sharing of personal details. But no doubt such quiet heroism is being demanded from many religious Jews today, as the plethora or articles on coping with financial stress and unemployment indicate..
A different form of heroism is required today from another group in our community: the remaining gvirim (very wealthy individuals). The heroism to which I refer is to keep giving generously, at a time when the need for tzedakkah dollars by both individuals and institutions has never been greater. The world-wide financial crash has cast tens of thousands of frum Jews below the poverty line, and placed even greater pressure on chesed organizations. Yeshivos, at all levels are increasingly financially strapped, even to the point of cutting the food served to bochurim.
At the same time, the donor class has been dramatically depleted. Some who were generous donors in the past are themselves today in need of communal support. The hardest hit industries – financial services and real estate – are precisely those in which Orthodox Jews were disproportionately found.
It may be hard for the average Joe to understand why it takes a form of heroism for someone who still has, let's say, $30,000,000, to keep giving generously, even if last year he had $60,000,000. He understands that someone who has lost $30,000,000 cannot be expected to give as much as the year before. But he has a hard time comprehending why it is so hard for him to give even as much as others with $30,000,000 did in the past. (I confess that my own speculations on this subject are, to say the least, not based on personal knowledge or even any discussions with those who fall into this category.)
For one thing, someone who has lost tens of millions of dollars over a few months does not view his remaining millions as he did in the past. A cloud of uncertainty hovers over that money as well. If thirty million dollars can disappear in six months, why not the next thirty million as well? And nothing he reads on the financial pages is likely to alleviate that uncertainty.
In addition, the loss of tens of millions of dollars is not only a financial blow, it is a psychological one. For those who don't have money, it may be hard to imagine the degree to which one's self-image can be based on the amount of one's money. But if we think about it, we will recognize that many of us have self-images based on what are pure gifts from Hashem. A person of great beauty will usually react more strongly to being scarred in an accident than someone who self-image has little to do with physical appearance. And another known for his superior intelligence will take the loss of memory harder. So it should not be surprising to hear reports of those broken by their financial reversals, even if they remain very rich by most standards.
Those who have kept giving with their past generosity – and there are many such heroes – deserve our admiration. In some cases, that giving is of an entirely different nature than in the past. For now, they are giving like the average avreich gives. Not with the assurance that they will never need the money being given or because there is nothing else that they could possibly imagine spending it on, but because Klal Yisrael requires it. Those gvirim who step up to the plate today are taking their avodas Hashem to an entirely new level.