Review of Orchos Chaim: Ben Torah for Life

By Rabbi Aaron Lopiansky
Eshel Publications
New York, 2018
231 pages

Rabbi Aaron Lopiansky’s Ben Torah for Life is a theoretical and practical guide for kollel graduates to orient themselves away from a life in yeshivah to that in the work world. This is a groundbreaking work. It is the first book in the English language—perhaps in any language—to attempt to diminish the dissonance between the years that one spends in yeshivah and kollel and the subsequent years in which one is in a secular workplace. Some readers of this review may think that this sefer is geared toward a different stream of Orthodoxy than the one with which they identify. I beg the reader not to commit this error. People from a variety of hashkafot—indeed, anyone who strives to a life enlightened by Torah study and values—can and will benefit immensely from this sefer.

There are many very helpful books geared for working frum men and women. In fact I reviewed such a book recently in these pages.1 What distinguishes Rabbi Lopiansky’s work is that it presents life as a gestalt. This perspective is not new. In a famous letter,2 Rav Yitzchok Hutner explained to a talmid who was leaving yeshivah that the correct perspective was not to view one’s sacred and one’s mundane pursuits as leading a “double life” but as leading a “broad life.” He used one’s home as an analogy. A person who lives in two apartments leads a double life, but one who lives in an apartment with many rooms leads a broad life.

Ben Torah for Life omits references to the ancient dichotomies of weltanschauung. You will not find here comparative analyses of the various approaches: “Torah Only” versus “Torah im Derech Eretz” versus “Torah Umadda.” This enhances the book because those arcane discussions have always been more the province of scholars in their ivory towers than that of actual wage earners out in the workforce.

Rabbi Lopiansky instead sets out a model elegant in its simplicity: The time spent in yeshivah is a period in which a young man takes on the role of Shevet Levi—“a stratum of undiluted and uncompromised spirituality with a minimum of interaction with the material world.” These years are “the stratum [that] becomes the core of our being.” The subsequent years in the work world are years in which one must find his role as one of the other shevatim—“to know our mission in life and to realize it.” Such missions must be solidly within the framework of osek b’yishuvo shel olam—“the constructive  building and enhancement of the world.”

Accordingly, one of the several questions one must ask oneself in determining an occupation is: “Is it something that adds value to the world? There is nothing prohibited about a windfall or making a quick profit on a deal if it is above board and legal. But if this is the entirety of one’s livelihood, it requires some rethinking.”3

Our interface with the world around us is a core concern in Ben Torah for Life:

The core mission of Klal Yisroel is to be an ohr lagoyim and to help reveal the Shechinah in this world. This mission is not just an embellishment; it is the essence of what Klal Yisroel is meant to be.4 By acting as the Rambam5 prescribes day-in day-out at his workplace, the working person who behaves with integrity has the potential to bring the Shechinah into this world every moment of his work-day.

The Yerushalmi [Bava Metzia 8a] makes this very point concerning Shimon ben Shetach:

Shimon ben Shetach labored with flax. His student told him, “Rebbe, stop. I will buy you a donkey and you won’t have to work so hard.” He went and bought him a donkey from a flax-comber. The owner had hung a diamond on it [and had forgotton about it]. The student came to Rabbi Shimon and told him, “From now on, you need not work.” He asked him why. He told him, “Because I bought the donkey from a comber and he put a diamond on it.” Rabbi Shimon asked, “Does the owner know about it?” He replied, “No.” He told him, “If so, then I am returning it.” [He argued:] “But did not Rabbi Huna Bivi, son of Gozlon, say that one need not return [an idol worshipper’s] lost object?” He replied,  “Do you think that Shimon ben Shetach is a robber? Shimon ben Shetach wants to hear ‘Blessed be the God of the Jews’ more than any treasure in this world!”6

Ben Torah for Life is an essential resource for young men devoted to a Torah life and ready to engage with the world.

Rabbi Lopiansky expands at length on this mission and perspective. This, in and of itself, would be enough to make the book an extraordinary contribution. Time and again, Rabbi Lopiansky stresses the importance of behavior that is designed to elicit “Blessed be the God of the Jews.”

Rabbi Lopiansky provides guidance both for those individuals who are successful in their endeavors and for those who have been affected by the vicissitudes of life. His observations are astute.

A lack of assets is much harder to deal with when a person is working than when he is in kollel. During the kollel years, he sees financial hardship as mesirus nefesh for learning. His “possession” is his learning, and the financial hardship is the price he pays for it. A kollel person also receives public recognition for his achievements as well as his sacrifices; he need not be embarrassed to ask for a discount.

The working man has no such positive feedback. His poverty is “inexcusable” and it looks and feels like nothing other than failure.

His suggestions and advice are no less keen.

Much of the book is a gold mine of realistic, practical and uplifting advice, both on the challenges of the workplace to our spirituality and avodat Hashem, and on enhancing our spirituality and avodat Hashem in the workplace. An example, from an area of perennial challenge, is davening:

Somehow we have come to think of kavanah as “thoughts or emotions projected into our tefillah.” Thus, we expect that tefillah b’kavanah includes a mussar shmuess worth of thoughts, or a Kabalahsefer worth of meditations all flashing through our minds as we say the words. The truth is that kavanah simple means “focus.” We need to focus consciously on the word[s] we’re saying. Looking inside the siddur and focusing on the words that you’re saying is kavanah. Yes, everyone’s mind wanders, but if we gently refocus ourselves on the words we are saying, then we are davening b’kavanah. Many of us know what almost all the words mean, and there is no need to translate them back to ourselves.

This kavanah (which is the correct definition) may not turn the davening into an emotional kumzits, but it will make it into an experience that in the course of time engenders a profound change within a person.

The sefer ends with an addendum on va’adim and appendices of classic, primary sources that touch on diverse, major issues regarding the interface of Torah and avodat Hashem with the challenges beyond the walls of the beit midrash. These discussions alone are worth the price of admission. Ben Torah for Life is an essential resource for young men devoted to a Torah life and ready to engage
with the world.

1. I reviewed Making It Work: A Practical Guide to Halacha in the Workplace by Rabbi Ari Wasserman (New York, 2016) in the summer 2017 issue of this magazine. Rabbi Lopiansky references this book several times in Ben Torah for Life.
2. Pachad Yitzhok, Iggerot U’Michtavim, Letter 94.
3. In a footnote, Rabbi Lopiansky references a comment of the Chatam Sofer, in which he explained the untimely death of a young man whose bein adam laMakom status was beyond reproach: “He jacked up the price of housing to such a degree that many poor people were forced to leave their homes, and their cries went up to the heavens.” Elsewhere, Rabbi Lopiansky references an extraordinary statement by Rabbi Michoel Ber Weissmandl explaining why proportionately fewer German Jews were killed in the Holocaust than Eastern European Jews: “. . . because our brethren in Germany were much more honest in their business dealings with their gentile neighbors throughout the years . . . ”
4. In a footnote, Rabbi Lopiansky cites some of the commentaries to Yeshayahu 42:6, where the concept of “ohr lagoyim” appears in Tanach.
5. Cited previously by Rabbi Lopiansky, Hilchot Yesodei HaTorah 5:11.
6. There are slightly different versions of this passage and its translation. My own translation is slightly different as well: Rabbi Shimon ben Shetach dealt in linen. His students said to him: “Rebbe, desist from this trade. We will buy you a donkey [to make an easier living as a donkey driver] and you will not have to toil so much.” They went and purchased a donkey from a bandit. The students subsequently found a precious stone dangling from it. They went back to Rabbi Shimon ben Shetach and said to him: “From now on you need not exert yourself.” He asked: “How so?” The students responded: “We purchased a donkey for you from a bandit and a precious stone was dangling from it.” Rabbi Shimon ben Shetach asked: “Did the donkey’s seller know that the stone was there?” They answered: “No.” He then said to them: “Go return it.” The students remonstrated with Rabbi Shimon ben Shetach: “Although theft from an idolater is prohibited, is one not permitted to keep an object that an idolater has lost?” He responded: “What do you think, that Shimon ben Shetach is a barbarian? More than all the wealth of the world, Shimon ben Shetach desires to hear [the non-Jew say]: “Berich Eloko d’Yehudo’ei” (“Blessed is the God of the Jews”).

Rabbi Yosef Gavriel Bechhofer is a rav and dayan in Monsey, New York. He recently published the fourth edition of The Contemporary Eruv: Eruvin in Modern Metropolitan Areas (New York, 2020). He is a frequent contributor to these pages.  

This article was featured in the Fall 2020 issue of Jewish Action.
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