I had a humbling experience recently upon opening up the Letters to the Editor of Mishpacha. On successive weeks, the pages were filled with discussion of a Lifelines story narrated by a father who refused to allow his son and a group of friends to rent a large van and travel wherever their hearts might lead them over summer bein hazemanim. Not one of the letters made mention of the fact that I had recently written a column touching on the subject, except that my column began with a letter from a rosh yeshiva in Lakewood to his parent body begging them not to allow their sons to take such trips (unlike the mashgiach in the Lifelines story who advised the father not to go to war with his son over the issue.)
From this I learned that what is written in the form of a fictional story or a first-person narrative is far more likely to touch readers directly than the musings of weekly columnists. And for that I'm grateful. It is always good to be protected from any illusions about one's importance.
With that insight in mind, I feel somewhat less embarrassed than I might otherwise to participate in the discussion already joined by my colleagues Yisroel Besser and Eytan Kobre about the character Mako in Dov Haller's superb serial Rappaport 55. I have also noted over the years that the actions of Haller's fictional characters are often the subject of debate and discussion in the Letters to the Editor.
I agree with Eytan and Yisroel that for Mako to have left yeshiva when a friend offered him a job would have been a "tragedy" for him personally. Not because there is any likelihood that he would grow to be a gadol in Torah. But because he is on the verge of making a breakthrough in his Gemara learning to the point where it will be a major part of his life going forward. And that connection to Torah learning is essential for his life as a Jew and for the family that he will, imy"H, one day build.
He might say one day to his Rosh Yeshiva what a bochur in Rabbi Yosef Elefant's shiur in the Mirrer once said to him tongue in cheek: "Thanks a lot, Rebbi. You just ruined the rest of my life by making me realize what Torah is and how precious it is. I'll never be happy again because I'll always know I should be learning more."
One of the blessings of our affluent times is that virtually every young man has the opportunity to spend at least his teenage years and beyond engrossed in learning. And if he does not connect at one age, he may well do so at some point later. Second and third chances are the rule, not the exception.
Many years ago, I learned in a kollel that shared premises with a yeshiva for American bochurim for whom the first achievement of the year was to be awake and in the beis medrash by noon, and that often did not happen until well over half the year had passed.
And yet at some point in the year, something would click for many of these boys, and some of them went on to become serious avreichim. Such yeshivos abound, and so do such stories of success. I can't say that I know of any of those young men who are now on track to becoming gedolim, but I can well imagine them as successful rebbes, whose own early struggles may make them better-suited to work with other struggling teenagers.
The poverty of Eastern Europe made such second chances much rarer. Most boys were working or apprenticed out by their early teens. In the famous story of the Netziv overhearing his parents discussing apprenticing him to a shoemaker, he was probably no more than nine years old. If memory serves, he married the daughter of Rabbi Itzele of Volozhin when he was thirteen, and there must have been some years of intense study preceding his being chosen by one of the gedolei hador. Those with great potential were identified early on, and usually married at around bar mitzvah age – e.g., Rabbi Akiva Eiger – to a girl whose father could ensure his ability to learn without financial stress for many years.
Those who learned in yeshivos past bar mitzvah age were a small elite. In the great yeshivos of pre-War Europe, it was common for bochurim to be known by the name of their hometowns, since it could be fairly assumed that no more than one bochur from that town or city would be found in the yeshiva.
Opportunities for late bloomers are a luxury of our times. But we should not assume it was ever thus.
WHILE I BELIEVE that it would be a personal tragedy for a bochur to leave yeshiva just as he is poised to make a breakthrough in the quality of his learning and his love of learning, that does not mean that I would call it a "personal tragedy" every time an avreich leaves kollel to get training or to start a business or to take a job. Nor do I think that it is always preferable that an avreich learn in kollel until thirty – the average age, I'm told, for avreichim to leave BMG – than that he take one of the aforementioned paths at 26 or 27.
That evaluation can only be made by each avreich individually, hopefully in consultation with a mentor who knows him and his family circumstances well. The number of factors involved is so large as to preclude any one-answer-fits-all response. But one factor that would surely rank very high on the list is how much pressure the kollel wife is under from her role as principal breadwinner and how well she is able to fulfill her traditional function of ikares ha'bayis while taking on the new role.
It is not even clear to me that the avreich who goes out to work or to study for a profession at 27 will learn less Torah over the course of his lifetime than if he does so at thirty. Let us say that at 27 he still has enough of a financial cushion to study for a relatively well-paying profession. At thirty, however, the financial crunch is such that he must basically take whatever job comes up. Greater financial security can make it easier to learn for several hours a day than would be the case if the same person were under severe financial stress. That is particularly true when financial stress leads to problems of shalom bayis – and Chazal do tell us that financial stress is the primary cause of arguments between spouses.
(Let me be clear. I'm arguing that there is any necessary correlation between one's financial situation and the number of hours spent learning. We can all think of plenty of examples of those who are financially comfortable and spend little time learning, and of those who live extremely simple lifestyles and still devote hours every day to intense learning.)
Financial stress or even the lack of a clear plan for the husband to eventually earn a living can lead to many different types of tragedies. For one thing, the lack of a plan makes many young couples vulnerable to con men offering returns on their chasanah gelt literally too good to be true. Of suckers and con men there is never a shortage, but economic desperation helps plow the field for the latter.
Desperation can cause people not only to do stupid things but also to compromise their core Torah values. That category would include abuse of government programs, or taking out loans or a mortgage that one has no realistic means of paying back and signing vulnerable friends or relatives as guarantors.
I can still remember hearing at a convention of Agudath Israel a video of Rav Avraham HaKohen Pam, zt"l, in his last years speaking passionately against any attempt to justify dishonesty or fraud in the name of Torah learning. And that subject was close to the heart of Rav Elya Svei, zt'l, as well, and, ybdlch"t, the Novominsker Rebbe. Torah learning cannot be built by contravening the Torah's commandments.
For some kollel couples there is no decision to be made about when the husband should leave – unless it is whether it is time to become a maggid shiur in a community outside the tri-state area. As long as the husband feels himself to be still learning with real bren (passion), and the wife is fully committed to helping him do so, there is nothing to decide.
But for most couples, there comes a point where they acknowledge that the full-time learning cannot continue forever, and the only question is when and under what circumstances the husband will begin the transition from full-time learning.
For that decision the counsel of a respected Torah figure with whom the avreich has a personal relationship can be crucial. And that makes ensuring that avreichim have such mentors a crucial communal and institutional desideratum.