A few summers ago, I had the pleasure of attending a wedding in which I hardly knew anyone present other than the family of the bride. At the meal, I found myself sitting at a table full of people, most of whom I had never met. In an attempt to be friendly to the man seated next to me, I asked him, “What do you do?” He sat up in his chair, turned to me and said, “What do I do, or how do I earn a living? I earn a living as a plumber. What I do, what I am most proud of, is that I learn Torah every morning before davening, and I spend time with my family every evening after work.” His answer remains etched in my memory as he taught me a profound lesson that day in that short, but poignant answer to my simple social question.
How often is our first question to someone we meet, what do you do? When inquiring about someone else, how often is our first question, what does he or she do? How often do we define our own self-worth by our profession or if we aren’t working by what takes up the bulk of our time? For too many of us our identity is entirely wrapped up and monopolized by our profession or by what takes up most of our day. We mistake earning a living for actually living. If we are not working, we still often mistakenly identify with the details that take up the greatest quantity of our time, not quality of our time.
We need to challenge ourselves to create a meaningful list of goals outside of how we earn a living. Will our list include making a million dollars, or making a difference? Will it include finishing a stamp collection or finishing shas? Will it include spending money on a nicer car and nicer home or spending time with our spouses and children?
The Netziv, Rav Naftoli Tzvi Yehuda Berlin, was once visited by a student whom he had not seen in a long time. He greeted the student with the popular Yiddish idiom, “vus machs tu,” which is used in the vernacular as how are you, but literally translates as what do you do? The student answered, “I am well Rebbe, Baruch Hashem I am healthy and earn an excellent living.” They sat and made small talk and after a little while the Netziv again asked so “vus machs tu?” Again, the talmid answered, “thank God I am well and grateful I am very successful financially.” They spent the next hour in discussion and again the Netziv, a third time asked, “nu, vus machs tu?” The student finally turned to his Rebbe and said, “forgive me Rebbe, but this is the third time you asked me the same question and I have already told you all is well, I am healthy and parnossa is great.”
The Netziv turned to him and said, “maybe you didn’t understand the question. You answered that you have good health and an excellent livelihood. That’s what Hashem does for you; I asked ‘vus machs tu’, and what do YOU do?”
If we are fortunate, we serve in professions that are more than just ways to earn money, but rather are ways to find meaning. But even so, our profession should not define us or our lives. It must not prevent us from spending the time and doing the things that matter most. Paul Tsongas, the former Senator from Massachusetts wrote, “No man ever said on his deathbed I wish I had spent more time in the office.”
Every seventh year, the farmer is asked by the Torah leave his land fallow. He or she many not plant or harvest and instead must forfeit income for a year. The Kli Yakar explains that the mitzvah of shemita is essentially an exercise in emunah, an opportunity to work on our faith and to remember what is truly important in our lives. For six years we work diligently, we conquer the world, manipulate nature, and fill our day by literally or metaphorically plowing, planting and collecting the fruit of our labor. It is easy to see our lives as synonymous with how we earn a living. Every seventh year we are instructed to take a break from working and to remember what truly matters in our lives.
We are not farmers and though this year is a shemita year, I imagine most of us are not taking sabbaticals from our jobs. Nevertheless, shemita presents an excellent opportunity to challenge ourselves to answer, vus machs tu, and what do YOU do?