With Yesh Atid’s tremendous showing in the recent elections, the subject of integration of the Haredi community into larger Israeli society will surely dominate the upcoming coalition deliberations.
Beyond the party’s demand for the drafting of ultra-Orthodox young people into national service, Yesh Atid is insisting on their conscription into the work force to alleviate the economic burden that middle class Israelis have been bearing the brunt of. Haredi leaders are already taking defensive positions and suggesting that the newbie Lapid has to temper his expectations. They are warning that there is a limit to how far the Haredi parties will compromise.
While the politicians of Shas and United Torah Judaism are worried about the damage that Yesh Atid’s policies might cause the world of Torah, there is an alternative approach that can embrace this political reality as a blessing for Torah. Rabbi Yosef Chaim of Baghdad, known as the Ben Ish Chai, notes that the Talmud records the ages of two of its greatest sages, Rabbi Akiva and Rabban Yochanan Ben Zakai. Each lived for 120 years, just as Moses did.
The Talmud further notes that their years were divided into thirds – 40 years of work, 40 years of study, and 40 years of teaching. The first 40 years of Rabbi Akiva’s life he toiled as a shepherd, while Rabban Yochanan Ben Zakai spent his first four decades engrossed in business and commerce. The Ben Ish Chai wonders about the significance of these long years, which could otherwise have been spent in Torah study. Wouldn’t it have been preferable for these two great sages to have spent those years in study?
The Ben Ish Chai’s answer? Absolutely not. In fact, he suggests that these 40 years of gainful employment increased the quality of Rabbi Akiva’s and Rabban Yochanan Ben Zakai’s subsequent Torah study a hundredfold. In a long passage praising the value of working for a living, Rabbi Yosef Chaim explains that the initiative bound up in the mundane act of producing a livelihood tests one’s mettle and refines one’s character.
The effort of making a living trains one to exert oneself with diligence, industry, and vigor. With the experience gained from the workplace, one can apply oneself to Torah study with greater energy and meticulousness. The Ben Ish Chai warns that those who eschew the challenge that making a living provides will lose out on all the advantages that meeting that challenge cultivates (Od Yosef Chai on VaYikra).
So, far from threatening the world of Torah, Yesh Atid’s policies just might have the potential to raise not only the GDP, but also the level of Torah learning in Israel to new heights!