Making a Living – the Jewish Way


Years ago, one of our community’s most renowned philanthropists said to me, “If anyone ever proudly tells you about how they made their fortune – don’t believe them.  It’s all nonsense.” 


He proceeded to explain his remark by sharing with me a story about his own fortune. 


Once, at the pool, he was approached by a friend who was, as they say, “in the know,” and he gave him a tip on a stock.  Based on his knowledge of a certain company and market trends, the friend was confident that this company’s stock was going to rise by a few points.   He urged this investor to buy a large volume of shares, as he was certain to make a fortune. 


“Sounds great,” the man said.  “What’s the company’s symbol?” 


“ABCD,” the fellow replied. 


Later, the investor phoned his stock broker, and said, “I just got a great tip on a stock.  Buy me a million shares of BCDE.” 


“Why?!” the broker asked, perplexed.   


“I don’t know,” the investor replied.  “But I trust this guy.  He knows what he’s talking about.” 


The broker did as he was told.  The purchase of a million shares of this company’s stock caused a stir in the market.  In fact, the company’s CEO called up this investor to ask him if he might know something about the company that he didn’t know.  The CEO couldn’t understand  why somebody would invest so much in his company.  But this investment caused the price to go up, and this man made a huge fortune. 


A few days later, he met his friend again at the pool.  He gleefully went over to him to thank him for the tip, and share the news that he had made an enormous amount of money. 


“What?!” the friend asked.  “I don’t know what you’re talking about.  I was afraid to come here, because the stock actually went down a few cents.” 


It was then they figured out that the investor had made a mistake went he spoke to his broker.  And this mistake is what made him his fortune. 


The man told me the story to express his firm bitahon (trust) in Hashem, to demonstrate how ultimately, it is Gd who decides what we earn and what we lose.  We might think that our hard work, our ingenuity, our intelligence, our experience and our knowledge is what brings us success.  But the truth is that our livelihood depends exclusively on Hashem. 


Many in our community, and beyond, experienced something similar several years ago, during the COVID pandemic.  While there were, unfortunately, a large number of people who suffered considerable financial losses due to the lockdowns, there were others who, astonishingly, ended up making more money during the pandemic than they did before.  Their profits actually went up!   


When these things happen, they remind us a basic truth about parnasah (earning a livelihood): it is dependent exclusively on Gd.  Of course, we are enjoined to invest effort, to work hard, and to be fiscally responsible.  At the same time, however, as devoted Jews, we must never forget that the outcome does not depend on us.  Hashem ensures that we have precisely what we are meant to have, irrespective of anything we do or don’t do.  And so, even when mistakes are made, and even when an unprecedented pandemic shuts down the economy, people can earn lots of money – because when Hashem decides that a person should enjoy prosperity, He will find a way to make it happen no matter what that person does. 


The Farmer’s Septennial Miracle 


A Biblical source for this fundamental precept is the mitzvah of shemitah, about which we read this month, in the beginning of Parashat Behar. 


This mitzvah is, for good reason, considered the most difficult mitzvah in the Torah to observe.  It requires a farmer in the Land of Israel to cease all agricultural work for an entire year, every seven years.  Not only must he refrain from plowing and planting during the shemitah year, but he must also regard his fields as ownerless.  This means that anybody has the right to come into his fields at any time and take what they want (as long as they don’t hoard large quantities).  This would be akin to telling a storeowner to shut down his business for an entire year every seven years, and to keep the doors open throughout the year, allowing people to help themselves to the available merchandise, free of charge. 


The Rabbis applied to the farmers who faithfully observe this mitzvah the verse in Tehillim (103:20), “Gibboreh koah oseh devaro – Those mighty in strength, who fulfill His word.”  This verse is said about the heavenly angels, but the farmers who comply with the demands of shemitah are truly like angels, letting go of their agricultural enterprises for an entire year in humble subservience to the Torah. 


Several different explanations have been offered for why the Torah introduced this mitzvah.  Of particular interest to us in this context is the approach taken by the Keli Yakar (Rav Shlomo Efrayim Luntshitz, Prague, 1550-1619), who writes that the mitzvah of shemitah is intended to heighten one’s awareness of Gd’s Providence, to reinforce his belief that his livelihood depends entirely on Hashem.  In the ancient world, the Keli Yakar explains, farmers would work the land in three-year cycles, sowing and producing food for two years, and desisting on the third year, allowing the land an opportunity to “rest.”  The Torah therefore commands, “For six years you shall sow your field.”  The farmer is specifically instructed to continue tilling the land nonstop for six years, in direct opposition to accepted agricultural norms.  He is to let the land lie fallow every seven years, not every three years – a system which, naturally, should pose a grave risk to his entire enterprise.  But Gd would miraculously grant him blessing and prosperity, to show that financial success depends not on following conventional procedures, but on Gd’s blessing. 


Every seven years, the farmers in the Land of Israel were shown that they could be successful even when they do the “wrong” thing, when they follow what everyone would consider to be the very worst business practices.  They were shown that even when an investor mistakenly buys the wrong stock, or even under the direst market conditions, Gd is fully capable of showering us with His blessings. 


Lest anybody misunderstand, the Keli Yakar is absolutely not encouraging people not to work, to stay at home and wait for a miracle to provide them with the money they need.  Quite to the contrary, the Keli Yakar interprets the text as commanding the farmer to work for six years.  Ever since Adam’s sin in Gan Eden, we have an obligation of hishtadlut, to work to secure a living through natural means.  The Keli Yakar warns, however, against attributing the outcome to our efforts and ingenuity.  When we succeed, we must not pride ourselves for attaining success through our hard work and wisdom, and when things do not go the way we want, we mustn’t fall into depression or worry about the future.  We are to instead continually reaffirm our belief and understanding that we always have precisely what Gd determined we should have, no more and no less, such that there is no reason to take pride in our wealth, or blame ourselves for our financial struggles.  Under all circumstances, we need to place our faith solely in Gd. 


Quantitative Blessing & Qualitative Blessing 


This mitzvah also provides us with another lesson regarding the Torah’s perspective on making a living. 


In presenting this command, the Torah anticipates the people asking how they will survive by following the Torah’s plan (25:20).  Gd responds by promising, “I shall bestow My blessing upon you during the sixth year, and it shall produce the grain for three years” (25:21).  


The conventional understanding of this verse is that Gd would increase the agricultural output during the sixth year, such that the grain will suffice for three years, until the seeds sown during the eighth year produce food.  Beyond the standard annual output, the ground will, miraculously, produce an additional two years’ worth. 


The Keli Yakar, however, explains this verse differently.  He notes that the Torah here speaks of the ground producing “HAtevu’ah” – “THE grain,” using the definitive article “the.”  This implies that the Torah says not that the ground will produce three years’ worth of grain, but rather that “the grain” – meaning, the ground’s normal output after the sixth year – will suffice for three years.  This quantity of food, which would normally sustain the people for just one year, will miraculously sustain them for three years. 


The Keli Yakar here conveys a vitally important insight into financial blessing, distinguishing between what we might call “quantitative blessing” and “qualitative blessing.” 


“Quantitative blessing” is the more obvious form of blessing.  If a businessman normally earns $1 million in profits annually, and one year his profits are $1.5 million, he has, of course, received a great blessing, with a significant increase in his income.   


However, Gd’s blessings also come in a different way – qualitatively.  Sometimes, the same amount of money goes further than it did previously.  Prices might go down.  Or, he might find that, for whatever reason, he doesn’t have the same expenses he had in the past.  Perhaps fewer things break, resulting in lower maintenance costs.  We can all attest that at certain times we need less money than at other times.  This, too, is part of Gd’s blessing, which we must recognize and feel grateful for. 


More generally, Gd’s blessing of parnasah comes in different ways.  Neither our tax returns nor our portfolio tells the whole story.  Gd’s providence is often hidden, challenging us to muster our unwavering faith, and trust that we are constantly under His care. 


Living with this faith makes our lives so much calmer and more pleasant, as it saves us from unnecessary worry and anxiety.  When we trust that Gd can provide us with our needs under any circumstances, and that He cares for us even when we do not see how, we can enjoy peace of mind of serenity at all times, regardless of our income, and regardless of what is or isn’t in our bank accounts – because we know with certainty that our loving Father is looking out for us, throughout our lives.