We are all familiar with the general impact the weak economy has had on our lives or on the lives of those around us. What we may not appreciate is the way it has affected personal relationships, within our own community and throughout the world.
According to a recent survey, over seventy percent of Americans are experiencing large degrees of stress due to the economy. Those who are currently unemployed wonder when they’ll find work; the employed fret about their job security and possible cuts in salary and benefits. Both groups, in addition to the retired, are alarmed at what has happened to their investment portfolios.
Of course, such stress not only impacts individuals, it tears at families as well. In fact, few things can be as damaging to a marriage as economic stress. Such concern permeates all matters pertaining to married life, as anxiety and often quarrelling take their toll when there isn’t enough money to cover expenses. Extreme cases can even result in divorce.
(Ironically, Marketwatch.com recently reported that the extreme nature of the current crisis has actually caused fewer American couples to sever ties, with marriage being the cheaper alternative to divorce. Of course, this in no way undermines the challenges that struggling couples face.)
Economic tension goes far beyond husband and wife. Children are often greatly affected as well. And while they typically do not shoulder the same burdens as do their parents, children from financially strapped homes are often forced to endure much deprivation, sometimes from the very basic necessities of life.
Even when these basic needs are met, however, the fact that so many young men and women are unable to access some of the pseudo-necessities our youth have come to expect – fashionable clothing, the latest technology, etc. – has led to much friction and resentment against struggling parents. The relationship between economic duress and the “at-risk” phenomenon, while not our subject, has been well documented and is certainly of great concern as the recession continues to deepen.
While there is no simple solution, Chazal do offer a set of instructions that may help in assuaging at least some of the stress associated with economic downturns.
A man should always eat and drink less than his means allow, clothe himself in accordance with means, and honor his wife and children more than his means allow, for they are dependent upon him, and he is dependent upon “Him who spoke and the world came into being.” [Chullin 84b]
It would appear there are two messages contained within these words of Chazal.
First, our sages are telling us that under strained circumstances, it is imperative for heads of households to make the primary sacrifices.
Wives and children depend directly upon the home’s breadwinner to sustain them and provide for their needs. It is improper to satisfy one’s personal needs at the direct expense of one’s dependents. Satisfying the needs of others, to whatever degree possible, will go a long way in reducing familial discord.
But I believe that there is much more to this message. Chazal are telling us that husbands must also work to strengthen their personal emunah and bitachon, their conviction that Hashem will ultimately provide for their collective needs. And while he cannot impose that need for trust on his loved ones (“for they are dependent upon him”), he must develop it within himself, as the one who is “dependent upon ‘Him who spoke and the world came into being.’”
We see this same idea in an incident involving Avraham Avinu. Shortly after his arrival in Eretz Yisrael, Avraham was confronted with a devastating famine (Bereishis 12:10ff). The famine was so severe that he felt compelled to go to Egypt to purchase food. It was there that his wife Sarah was taken captive by Pharaoh and was only released through direct divine intervention.
In his commentary, Ramban (ibid. 12:10) makes the following astounding observation: “Know that our father Avraham unwittingly committed a great sin since he brought his righteous wife to a [potential] hazard of sin because of his fear that [the Egyptians] might kill him. He should have trusted in Hashem that He would save him, his wife, and all that was his.”