The Missing Dowry

We have no inkling of the lofty thoughts that were behind each act of Yaakov Avinu and every word he uttered during his dealings with Lavan. What we do know is that Yaakov Avinu made it possible for his descendants to serve Hashem even in the marketplace. He paved the way for a Jew in commerce, surrounded by individuals whose existence is the antithesis of Torah life, to still be able to think of Hashem and bond with Him even in the most trying circumstances.

After the petirah of the Zlotchover Maggid, zy”a, his son Harav Moshel’e — later to be known as the Rebbe of Zhvil — initially refused to become a Rebbe. Instead, he opened a store. While his wife took care of the day-to-day operations of the business, from time to time he would come in to help her out.

Rav Moshe managed to conceal his lofty spiritual level in a cloak of simplicity, and it was only during Kiddush on Friday nights that his true greatness was revealed. For at these moments he seemed to be more angel than man. A neighbor saw and heard his recital of Kiddush and became envious of the level of dveikus he was witnessing. The neighbor, who desperately wished to merit making such a Kiddush, decided to carefully observe Rav Moshe’s actions all week and discover the key to such avodah.

The neighbor did so for a full week, all the while trying to raise his own level of spirituality. He noticed nothing out of the ordinary all week. On Friday night, the neighbor felt nothing more than usual at his own Kiddush, but once again saw the same dveikus when Rav Moshe made Kiddush.

The neighbor decided to spend another week carefully observing Rav Moshe’s every move. On Friday, he found Rav Moshe helping out in the store. When the local count and countess came into the store, it was Rav Moshe who spent time speaking with them and dealing with their purchases.

The neighbor was certain that this week the Kiddush — recited only hours after leaving the store — would have to be on a lesser level. After his own Kiddush, which left much to be desired, the neighbor made his way to Rav Moshe’s home.

To his shock, Rav Moshe’s recital was precisely the same as on all the other weeks. The puzzled neighbor could not refrain from asking Rav Moshe how this was possible.

“When I was in the store,” Rav Moshe explained, “I was thinking about the Kiddush of Shabbos. When you made Kiddush, you were thinking about the count and countess in my store…”

Those who spend their days in the hallowed walls of a beis medrash do not have a monopoly on holiness. Those who face — and do their best to overcome — the challenges and spiritual tests of the workplace can reach extremely lofty levels of dveikus to Hashem.

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It is not only what Yaakov Avinu did and said that is an eternal lesson for us; it is also what he did not do.

When Yaakov Avinu spoke to Rochel and Leah about leaving Charan, they mentioned in their response that in place of giving his daughters a dowry when they married, as was the widely accepted custom, their father, Lavan, actually sold them by demanding that Yaakov Avinu work in exchange for being allowed to marry them.

The Chofetz Chaim points out that we do not find that Yaakov Avinu ever asked Lavan about his failure to provide dowries, a fact that should be a lesson to those who insist on substantial amounts of support from prospective in-laws.

For instance, a bachur stubbornly insists on a set sum, explaining that he must do so in order that he should have what to live on the first few years after his marriage. He is already over 20 years old and expects that he will live off a generous dowry until the age of 30. But he hopes to live until the age of 80! In regard to these latter 50 years, he has bitachon that Hashem will supply his livelihood.

Is it not amusing, the Chofetz Chaim says, that this individual trusts Hashem for half a century, but does not have bitachon regarding a few years?

When the Chofetz Chaim was only 16, many prestigious shidduchim were suggested to him. Some of these prospective matches involved the daughters of wealthy men from distinguished families, and included generous dowries of thousands of rubles. However, his stepfather wanted him to marry his daughter from a previous marriage, and in order to save his mother’s marriage, the Chofetz Chaim insisted on abiding by her husband’s wishes, giving up on a dowry in the process.

In his later years, while discussing shidduchim, he told of a friend of his who had been considered an iluy — a Talmudic prodigy — in his youth. In contrast to the Chofetz Chaim, he received a dowry of 10 thousand rubles and a promise of lifetime support. He was also given a gold watch and other luxurious gifts. After his wedding, he joined his father-in-law’s lumber business. In the end, he grew distant from the Torah and lost his money. Stripped clean of both Torah and wealth, he became a nonentity.

“Yet,” concluded the Chofetz Chaim, “I entered into a marriage that was not distinguished by great wealth. People did not think it a matter of good fortune for me. Still, thanks to my wife, I have become somewhat of a man.”