Whose Calling?

Is there a sense that navigates your professional destiny?

Do you feel like you are supposed to be working where you are?

Wait! Before you answer, think about the question. Is the word “supposed to” an appropriate way to think about your job? It implies that there is a right answer and a wrong answer. Is that the way to examine your choice of career or place of employment?

In contemporary society, it is prevalent to approach one’s vocational choices with an air of supposition. There are several paths, and some – or one – are more correct for an individual to follow. This is sometimes termed a sense of calling. One can see himself as possessing talents and abilities that can be viewed as a road map to follow toward professional selection and development. For a religious individual, this calling can take on a spiritual directive. If someone observes capabilities that he has, it might be a Divine indication that they are to be developed and manifested in his profession.

Often this is most highlighted for those that select a career focused on developing the spiritual, emotional, or psychological health of others. Rabbis, educators, and mental health professionals might have felt a sense of calling that motivated them to make their vocational choice and a similar feeling that propels their daily profession. Their occupation is a way of fulfilling the mission that they see within themselves and their lives. Religious professionals can feel that they were chosen to pursue a path of Divine service of facilitating the growth of others. Their dedication to a vocation of that directly helps people might be seen as a fulfillment of a surmised Divine injunction.

Paying attention to an internal or G-dly calling to a professional mission can engender clarity and fulfillment. If the question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” is difficult, a helpful solution might be: “What Hashem helps me see I should be.” Also, a calling to pursue a specific profession can fill one’s life with purpose that transcends the nitty gritty of one’s job. If the curse to Adam was that by the sweat of his brow he eat his bread, the blessing that might seem to counteract it is a vocation this is spiritually fulfilling.

Conversely, a rigorous philosophy of calling and mission can sometimes be coopted, by constituents, employers, or oneself. Professionals might remain in their posts even if they are underpaid, undervalued, or treated unsuitably. Sometimes the shout of a religious calling drowns out pragmatic, personal, and professional protests. Rabbis, educators, and therapists can freeze in their employment situation and weather a long storm because they intuit that their Divine mission demands it.

General career advisers might suggest that one’s vocation develop a talent or interest he has. It is prevalent for religious people to rephrase that as, “Hashem wants me to choose a vocation that draws on talents that I see within myself.”

Since a sense of calling and mission might be both positive and negative, it is significant to explore more about this powerful force. An intriguing source regarding this powerful sense is found in a comment by Rav Moshe Feinstein (Darash Moshe, Parshas Vayakhel), one of the leading halachic decisors of contemporary Orthodoxy. At first glance, Rav Moshe seems to state that a Divine calling is a significant method to determine or evaluate one’s professional choices and goals. Further examination might indicate that his words do not necessarily support that and give you pause to think about if a sense of calling is a valid way to determine a vocation altogether.

The Torah terms Betzalel as the one who G-d had already chosen by name as the architect of the tabernacle. Yet, Rav Moshe Feinstein observes that there is no earlier verse that details that G-d appointed Betzalel to be the architect. It appears curious that the Torah describes Betzalel as the one who G-d had selected earlier, when no prior verse describes that process. Rav Moshe suggests that G-d did not directly designate Betzalel as the foreman. Rather, Betzalel noticed the unique capability he had as an architect par excellence, and realized that his Divine gift was for a purpose. He saw his talents as a gift from G-d and intuited that he was to be the one to spearhead the building of the tabernacle. Rav Moshe elaborates and expounds that if a person notices that he is gifted with an outstanding trait or blessing, it is important for him to acknowledge that as Divinely granted, and use it in the service of Hashem. For example, if one sees that he is exceedingly financially successful, he should intuit that as a Divine injunction to spread his largesse with needy individuals and institutions. If one notices that he is a talented teacher, he should use that endowment to teach Torah.

Rav Moshe’s comments seemingly fall in line with a philosophy of mission and calling to determine a profession. Yet, if you examine his perspective more carefully, Rav Moshe’s directive seems to be limited. Rav Moshe does not mean that one should necessarily use a sense of calling to determine his vocation. There are at least four distinctions between Rav Moshe’s discussion of heeding a Divine message about one’s talents and using that as a contemporary determinant for one’s profession.

  • Rav Moshe’s comments merely mean that one who sees that he has the potential to make a positive impact on the world should not leave those capabilities latent. Rav Moshe does not state that that one who notices particular talents should necessarily use those to indicate his choice of vocation or profession. One might bifurcate his calling and his daily occupation. Perhaps he should avail himself of non-vocational opportunities to maximize and utilize his abilities.
  • A sense of calling can be perceived as a Divine hint for what one should do professionally. Are unsavory work situations, such as overly taxing congregants or disagreeable conditions in a workplace a Divine calling the other way? When internal talents and external situations do not align, on which promenade does one stroll?
  • A sense of calling might mean that a person should not shy away from opportunities that encounter him squarely in the face. If one is blessed financially, he should not turn away those that reach out to him. If one is granted the ability to teach, he should fill a need that arises. Rav Moshe comments center on a clear injunction that Betzalel heard. He saw the need for the tabernacle to be constructed, and he saw that he had the credentials to fulfill that task. There was an unequivocal need and an overwhelming talented individual – the perfect shidduch. Betzalel did not need to create his niche in order to fill it. Does a philosophy of calling demand one to proactively search out opportunities that utilize the talents he has?
  • Some contemporary social scientists differentiate between two groups of people, specialists and multipotentialites. Specialists notice abilities that they have and they can excel at and develop them through life. Multipotentialites can shine in several different areas and have multiple potentials. Although it is can be a blessing, sometimes their life and professional goals can be harder to determine. It can be helpful to see these two categories as extremes, with most of humanity falling between the two. The majority of people have different areas at which they can succeed, fulfill themselves, and be very gainfully employed. If most of us rate somewhat high on the multipotentialite scale, which of those talents is a Divine calling pointing to?


A feeling that a sense of calling exists might assist one’s occupational choice and foster a feeling of fulfillment in a job. One might see his profession as being Divinely selected and ordained. This sense can be especially true for those that are in the spiritual or emotional helping professions. Yet, it might be helpful to think about if there is an audible calling that designates which occupation you should have. If you aren’t Betzalel, it might be a hard call to make.

I Caught the Cold

Sometimes it’s easier to avoid the warmth.

On an exceptionally rainy and cold winter morning, Rav Yehoshua Trunk of Kutna, a great 19th century Russo-Polish rabbinic scholar, was intensely studying with his students. Suddenly, he closed his Gemara and invited them to accompany him on a stroll. The students looked at one another quizzically. Gradually, they followed him to the outskirts of the city and walked toward the intercity road. As they neared the way, they saw a peddler laboring intensely in the mud just created by the heavy, icy rain. His cart was full of merchandise and his lone horse was powerless to free the cart and pull it to the road. The peddler was concerned that his meager investment would perish as it was exposed to the elements. He also worried that his only horse would collapse from the exertion. He forlornly looked heavenward and cried for help. Rav Yehoshua motioned to his students and they joined together to wrench the cart free of the muck and to the road.

The very grateful peddler, unaware of the identity of his helpers, assumed that he had the Providence and good fortune to encounter a skilled group of haulers. He asked them about remuneration. Rav Yehoshua responded that each of the men were to be paid a kopeck (the former Polish/ Russian version of a penny). The man then turned to Rav Yehoshua, who he presumed was the foreman, and asked him how much he wanted. Rav Yehoshua responded that he should be paid three kopecks. The man promptly compensated, and expressed his unceasing thanks as he made his way on the road to peddle.

The next day, Rav Yehoshua and his students heard vigorous pounding on the door in the middle of their studies. They opened the door and saw the peddler that they had helped yesterday, distraught. He apologized profusely for taking advantage of them. He bemoaned that he had the audacity to make use of the time and effort of a leading Torah luminary and his students for his own service.

Rav Yehoshua swiftly comforted the man. He gently explained to the peddler that he did not gratuitously make use of Torah scholars. They had an ad hoc business arrangement and he had paid for their services properly and fairly.

As I read this story recently in a Hebrew book, I began wondering about the legal permissibility for Rav Yehoshua and his students to leave their Torah study to help that unfortunate peddler. Torah study is a serious matter and is not permitted to be interrupted. Maimonides codifies the absolute significance of Torah study (Laws of Torah Study, Chapter 3, 3 -4):

There is no commandment among all the commandments that has a weight equal to Torah study. Rather, Torah study is equal to all the commandments, because study brings to deeds. Therefore, study takes precedence over deeds in every regard.

If one has the opportunity to do some [other] mitzvah or to learn Torah, and the mitzvah could be done by someone else, he should not interrupt his learning. Otherwise, he should do the mitzvah, and return to his studies.

How did Rav Yehoshua divert his attention from Torah study and direct his students to follow? I began to reason that Rav Yehoshua and his students were covered by the latter clause in the Rambam. There were probably few groups of people that could have banded together to help the poor vendor. Therefore, assisting him fell under the caveat that if the mitzvah cannot be done by anyone else, one may interrupt Torah study to perform it.

Afterward, I began chiding myself. I could have basked longer in the shine of the story and imbibed its statement about the majesty of assisting others. Instead, my mind raced to contemplate the legalistic justification of Rav Yehosuha and his students. My internal give and take was rational, logical, and contained an appropriate question. Yet, I noticed how quickly my “go to place” was to probe and understand the Halachic validity of the story.

I reminded myself of the Jewish joke that explains the difference between two similar terms used for hapless or pesky individuals, schlemiel, schlimazel, and nudnik. The pithy explanation is that the schlemiel is the one who spills the soup, the schlimazel is the one who the soup spills on…and the nudnik is the one who asks what type of soup it was.

I felt a tinge of being a nudnik. I moved away from a beautiful example of kindness, selflessness, and thoughtfulness to the realm of the legal. This seems to have been in contrast to Rav Yehoshua of Kutna in the story. Rav Yehoshua was not a prophet. He probably did not know that a specific merchant needed his help. His deep perception and attentiveness to the needs of others led him to believe that people would probably be in great need of assistance in the rain. On the other hand, my initial thought was to focus on the rational and legal exploration of the story.

Relegating the human experience to analysis and exploration in an official way is sometimes an easy route. When we examine something legally and analytically, it allows us to observe it as an outsider. It side-swipes the messiness of being human. This can prevent the exchange or experience from touching us. That might even be the reason that we run to do it. Legal analysis is complex, but is it safe. We don’t need to feel, explore, or be in touch with the world of emotions of ourselves, or of others.

I then observed that I was not alone in seeking safety in the non-human part of the story. The Hebrew book that I was studying had an epilogue: When a contemporary Torah scholar heard this story, he was perplexed. The Talmud states (Bava Metzia 32a) that since it is a mitzvah to assist one’s neighbor load or unload a struggling animal, one may not take payment for that actions. The scholar was bothered how Rav Yehoshua and his students allowed themselves to be paid for their good deed. The scholar’s reaction contained a different question than mine, but was still focused on the legalistic nature of the story. That scholar himself might have marveled at the beauty of Rav Yehoshua’s benevolence. Yet, the brief analysis in the book and its juxtaposition to the story left me with an impression of analysis instead of feeling and scrutiny instead of humanity.

In contrast, our Sages observe that the first description the Torah gives of Moshe (Moses) in Egypt was that he observed the suffering of his nation in slavery and was tormented. Moshe was sheltered in the protection of Pharaoh’s court, but went to see and experience the anguish of his nation. Importantly, the Torah describes that it was the first thing that Moshe did when he matured. Moshe’s joining the distress of his people was both a result and a statement of his maturity. Moshe’s extraordinary empathy is closely related to his success as the most renowned and revered teacher in Jewish history.

The contemporary educational system sometimes places great emphasis on analysis and legal understanding. The skills, techniques, and knowledge that one learns are invaluable in further study, and in life. Yet, they are one part of an important scholastic corpus. One’s struggle with the complexity of the human experience, both his own, and those of others, is important to keep in mind. Focus on legalisms and rationality can sometimes leave one, or his neighbors, struggling helplessly in the cold.

A Deep Sense of Sheim

Do roses always smell as sweet?

“I am so tired I can’t even keep my kids’ names straight!” How often do you experience something like that? Mixing up names can be very frustrating. You might see it as an indication of our own fatigue, stress, or lack of presence of mind. You might also attribute it to diminishing memory.

In some of the most famous lines in Romeo and Juliet, Juliet proclaims:

What’s in a name? that which we call a rose

By any other name would smell as sweet;

So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call’d,

Retain that dear perfection which he owes

Without that title.

Her words run deep and most correctly apply when there is forethought into changing one’s own name, or the name of a loved one. Yet, when one inadvertently misnames another, the sound might not be as pleasant.

New research, published this past October, indicates that misnaming has little to do with our state of tiredness or memory retention. It seems to be a common phenomenon based on the way our brains process information. It might also indicate something about how we access that information when we are under time pressure or are distracted.

A fundamental aspect of cognition is that our brains chunk information, or group it together. We try to create orderly file systems in order to process, make sense of, and retain the overwhelming amount of information that we encounter. That is part of the reason that mnemonics work so well to help us remember things. When learning the order of operation for grade school math, “Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally” makes more sense to us as a group of words than “Parentheses Exponents Multiplication Division Addition Subtraction” or even “PEMDAS.” Therefore, we can group that sentence as one, so it is more easily accessible and processed in our memories (which might be part of the reason I still remember it from elementary school).

The recent study suggests that our brains do a similar thing with names. We group people’s names in virtual file folders. We might place all children in the “children” folder. Sometimes, perhaps when we are short on time or lack focus, we access the folder, and grab the wrong file, such as a different child’s name. This same phenomenon can happen with coworkers’ names. Since coworkers are often grouped in the same folder, it is easy to access one file or name instead of another.

It seldom happens that the folders get mixed up. It is not as prevalent for someone to mistake a family member for a coworker’s name or vice versa. What if you find that you do? It might indicate that that coworker is in a “family” folder, so his name is able to be accessed instead of your family member’s. Why might this happen?

There might be other aspects of our psyche that are involved in our cognitions and categorizations, in addition to those research findings. Misnaming might indicate something about ourselves and the person we are addressing. For example, someone might be grouped in multiple areas of memory. A close friend might be categorized as a “friend” and as “family.” You might sometimes think of him as a friend. On occasion, you might use your sibling’s name for him, too. That can indicate that he is somewhat of a brother to you, as well. What if you often misname your sister with you friend’s name? That might hint to you that you have some aspects of a closer relationship with your friend than with your sister.

In addition, there might be fluidity in your mind from category to category. In large families, one might chunk “older kids” and “younger kids” in two groups. It might be that it is most common to misname older kids for one another or younger kids for one another. What about the child that is in the middle? He might sometimes be misnamed for an older sibling, and sometimes for a younger one. It might depend on his behavior or the situation and his parent’s frame of mind at that moment. Is mom seeing him as one of the younger kids or the older ones at that second?

In a broader sense, sometimes misnaming might indicate the lack of uniqueness that a person has to you at that instant. If a parent interchanges names, it might partially indicate that he loves all the children he interchanges names with equally, or that he feels that way at that time. On the other hand, it might demonstrate that he is seeing them more prominently with the identifying factor as “children” rather than as individuals.

What if you switch spouse and children, bosses and parents, or rabbis and friends? Those inadvertent switches might indicate something to you about the way you are processing that relationship at that moment. It does not have to mean that you are equating them. It could mean that there is some commonality that your mind is processing at that specific time.

The representation that a misnomer has to the user, and the one who is being misnamed, might differ based on the situation. When Juliet tells Romeo that she loves him for who he is, not for his name, she is using it as a mechanism to draw closer. On the other hand, inadvertent misnaming might create distance, or just be humorous or irrelevant to both parties.

The subjective value we give to names may wax and wane in communal and religious significance, as well. Our Sages greatly laud the Jewish people for not altering their Jewish names during their two centuries of brutal Egyptian labor and bondage, which we begin to read about this week. That intransigence was seen as a demonstration of extreme fortitude. The Jews preserved their national identity despite their being subjected to work that could have shattered their morale.  (It is interesting to note that the entire Book of Exodus is also commonly called Shemos – lit. “Names.” That is also the plural form of the word sheim – name used in this title.) At the same time, Rav Moshe Feinstein (Igros Moshe O. C. 4, 66) observes that in post-Exodus Judaism there have been many renowned Jews that have solely used secular names. He posits that the supreme importance that our Sages attributed to the preservation of distinct names was when there were few other characteristics that defined Jews. After the Torah was given, Judaism had its own legal system and codes, and maintaining distinct names paled in importance. Likewise, the significance of names or misnaming may depend on situational factors.

Thinking about your misnaming might provide insight into yourself and your relationships. What might be true for you at one time might not be how you are feeling at another time. Alternatively, it might ring so true that you prefer not to notice it. That might depend on if you are willing to looking beyond the name. Will that help life’s roses smell even sweeter?