This Pesach, Matzav treated us to an editorial whinning about how expensive Pesach is (Pesach poundcake is a killer). Two Pesachs prior, the Yated treated us to a letter complaining that Pesach has left families in the red (how do you afford those afikoman gifts and chol hamoed trips?). And each Pesach since I started penning my thoughts on these issues, I (with the help of some fantastic commenters) have put forward a number of money saving tips for consideration because I believe that man cannot serve to masters: Hashem and Mastercard.
This week I received this comment which I'd like to just address head on:
I've read the comments to the "letter writer" on Matzav and the comments here and there is a world of difference in the basic outlook. The comments on Matzav are religious in outlook - tefillah, Moshiach - and also very compassionate. Many commenters say they are in exactly the same situation and they totally understand. The comments on Orthonomics are highly practical and rather disdainful of people who put frum values ahead of balancing the budget. In fact, none of you really seem to understand the religious way of thinking. I have often read on this blog criticism of lack of birth control in the religious community - why do they have so many children? When I have commented that birth control will never be accepted in the frum world, I have read comments like "why not?" The point I'm making is that people who are religiously motivated and people who are motivated by practical concerns will never be able to understand each other. Oh, the reason frum people will not accept birth control is not because of community pressure - it's because first, frum people believe it is a commandment from the Torah to have children, second, they LOVE children, and third, they are willing to live at a very minimal level to sustain a Torah life. Visit Lakewood and see how most families there live. You will see that they truly believe in a Torah life, and while these are not your interpretations of what the Torah requires, they are admirably consistent. They are not motivated solely or even primarily by community pressure. They are motivated by BELIEF.
Note the title of my post, "Moshiach will pay the creditors." Way back when I was a student trying to wrap my head around the ins and outs of going concerns and bankruptcy chapters, budgeting and leveraging, I discovered these very issues were present right in my own community. I think the first time that it hit me was when I was sitting with a lovely Rebbitzen, small business owner, and friend who had just had a wedding like I'd never seen before, which was shortly followed by a much more intimate bar mitzvah. The wedding was a first wedding for this very large family and one of the largest I've attended to date. There was not a detail missing in the festivities from a formal vort, to the jewelry, to the edible flowers on the salad. I can only make an educated guess about the cost of the wedding, but I'm nearly certain I could put a child through (public) law school or med school including a generous allowance for living costs for the cost of the wedding. Somehow as we were chatting, I found out that they had yet to pay for the wedding. This might have been the first time I realized that people really did borrow against their homes to pay for things they wanted. I would not take out a credit card for another five years, so I was still in the dark that I could actually write myself a check for cash to take the vacation I so deserved.
Once my eyes were opened they were opened wide, I learned a lot quickly. A little later I was privy to a conversation between someone else and her daughter in which some rather large credit card debts were mentioned (they were adding to them because they "needed" new dresses for all the kids for a simcha and I believe the discussion was if they had enough credit for the purchase). I had just been signed to my first real job and couldn't comprehend how anyone could *pay* for such debt, especially given the demographic and career choice, and just blurted out, "how will you pay that off?" The reply: "When Moshiach comes, he will pay [off the credit card]." It would have been funny, except there wasn't a hint of humor. She later explained something to the effect that unless a frum Jew was wealthy, they would juggle debt.
A lot of what I have learned and write about comes from published words, conversations, and observations. But, I've also had my fair share of runs-ins with people who can't pay their bills or simply stiff you. E.g., I took on some work for a family that who does all of the same things my commenter mentioned. Every conversation has has a "religious outlook." Tefillah, bitachon, emunah, mashiach; it is all in the conversation. The problem? The work is done, but you get a message not to cash the check because something else came up. And the next check bounces from here to there and back again and the "practical" person ends up on the phone with a local posek trying to figure out what courses of action would be permissible to now collect the funds.
I don't separate the practical from the religious or frum. To me they are completely intertwined, and I see this in the Torah I've learned and from the Rabbonim I've consulted on "practical" issues. The commenter writes "[I/we are] disdainful of people who put frum values ahead of balancing the budget." To me balancing the budget IS a "frum" value.
Derech Eretz kadma l'Torah is a fundamental concept. I think that being able to pay your bills as agreed upon would fit right under the banner of derech eretz kadma l'Torah. Putting yourself in a position where you are engaging in a life of debt means that eventually something will give. Creditors will not be paid. Food and services that you consumed and made a beracha over will not be paid. Pledges that you made will go unfilled. Lawyers, dentists, and schools will go unpaid. Unfortunately there are businesses (grocery stores no less) with massive receivables on their books. Schools and shuls experience the same phenomena. Years ago I met a wonderful couple visiting from a certain neighborhood known for its piety. The family had a business within the community and when he found out I was an accountant, he wanted to share with me a trick he learned on how to 'clean out' as much as he could from the bank accounts of people who wrote him bad checks. Let's just say I didn't learn this trick in business school. I'm a very simple person. I still like to assume that when someone writes a check that it will cash.
Operating in a constant state of red invites ethical challenges. This is not to say that people who live with great wealth don't fall to the yetzer hara (think Enron), but supporting a lifestyle that is not commensurate with income is an invitation to the yetzer hara. I've seen it with my own two eyes.
To close I want to say one last thing: while many of my commentators feel strongly that families should not have "more children than they can afford," (there are VIN and Matzav commentators who say the same thing!), I have a liking for large families. I think that having a growing, expanding, and alive community is our lifeblood. I think it is well worth while to forgo plenty of extras to have more children. The issue that we have is defining the extras and we have made everything a requirement in the name of frumkeit so that we don't even know what "minimal" is. When camp become minimal and dental work to fix rotting teeth becomes extra, you have a problem. And that problem isn't particularly related to family size, but priorities.