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What do you do?

on Friday, September 9 2011. Posted by Rabbi Efrem Goldberg
A few summers ago, I had the pleasure of attending a wedding in which the only people I knew were the family of the bride.  At the meal, I found myself sitting at a table of people 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?  How often do we ask about someone else, 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.  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 he had not seen in a long time.  He greeted him with the popular Yiddish idiom, vus machstu, 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 machstu, and what do you do?

As we rapidly approach Rosh Hashana, let’s be ready to answer the question – what do you do?

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