Money, career choices and lessons from Leviticus

Rachel LaVictoire, 18, is a recipient of the prestigious Nemerov Writing and Thomas H. Elliott Merit scholarships at Washington University, where she is a freshman. She grew up in Atlanta, where she is an active member of Temple Emanu-El and the Marcus Jewish Community Center. Rachel will be contributing regular commentaries and d’var Torah reflections, which will be posted on the Jewish Light’s website, — some of which will also be included in the Jewish Light’s print editions.

By Rachel LaVictoire

Money is important. No one can deny that fact. We love it and we hate it, but ultimately, we need it.

And in college, it’s on everyone’s minds. Whether graduating in four years or one month, every student is thinking about how he or she might get that lifetime of financial security.

About a week ago, Forbes came out with a new list: “25 College Diplomas with the Highest Pay.” The graduates from the School of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon University earned an average of $84,400; engineers from Stanford: $74,700; and in third, New York University, College of Nursing: $70,200. These findings may impact some students’ career choices. It’s unfortunate, but it’s true—rarely are we, as college students, encouraged to learn for the sake of learning. It’s always about what we plan to do with what we’ve learned.

Even at a young age, my Papa Jack taught me about turning my personality into profit. He’d say things like, “You’re already good at arguing—you speak clearly and you’re well organized. Maybe you’ll be a lawyer.” Over the years, he’s nudged me towards quite a few other “stable” professions; and though I didn’t see it at the time, he was right in trying to do so. He wasn’t trying to redirect me, but rather to funnel my existing skill set into a salary.

Last week, a friend made a comment that brought me right back to those conversations with my Papa Jack. It was a Friday night, when he and I headed back to the dorms at Wash U. Through the course of small talk I mentioned I was studying psychology and business.

“Oh ya, add on the business. Good call. Although, I guess there’s like therapy,” he said.

I assumed he was talking to me, but it didn’t make sense; and when I asked him what he was talking about he said, “Well of course you have to add on the B-school major to make money, but then I realized that therapists also probably make a lot—people have a lot of problems.”

I told him that there’s more to a job than how much you make. He responded with, “Well right, but isn’t that why we’re all here? Because Wash U grads make a lot of money? If I could make the same amount of money after graduating from a more fun school, I would. I mean, anyone would.”

Though there’s certainly some truth to his argument, I tried to explain that it wasn’t all about the eventual salary. It’s about being surrounded by driven students, being a dork when you feel like it, and getting a fantastic education in whatever subject you choose. It’s not about the reward; it’s about the process.

This week, we read Behar-Bechukotai and finish the book of Leviticus, the book so disproportionately focused on law. And yet, after 25 chapters, it’s in this closing section that a new controversy arises. The parshah begins with G-d’s instructions on the sabbatical years and the year of Jubilee. That is, that every seventh year, the Israelites must allow the land to rest; and on the 50th year, after seven sabbatical years, there will be a Jubilee. 

Then, for the first time, G-d strikes a deal with the Israelites. He promises them, “You shall perform My statues, keep My ordinances and perform them then you will live on the land securely. And the land will then yield its fruit and you will eat it to satiety, and live upon it securely” (Leviticus 25:18-19). G-d had never before offered a reward for doing a mitzvah — it’s a commandment, and therefore doing it should not require reward. The Israelites were already bound to G-d through the covenant that G-d made with Abraham. They knew the importance of following mitzvot. Why, then, would G-d suddenly provide this incentive?

To answer this question, we look to Maimonides, a renowned Jewish scholar. His explanation, as found in the Mishnah, argues the following: “G-d gave us this Torah, it is a tree of life… Yet G-d also promised us in the Torah that if we observe it with joy… He will remove from us all things that may prevent us from fulfilling it, such as illness, war, hunger… so that we need not preoccupy ourselves all our days.” Therefore, Maimonides is saying that the reward is not actually a reward at all. G-d didn’t promise prosperous fields for the sake of incentives, but rather as a way to ease the worries of the Israelites. They can only focus on Torah if they aren’t worried about their next meal.

I feel that the same applies to the career dilemma. On the one hand, taking a job just for its salary won’t bring you happiness. On the other, you won’t be able to enjoy the job you love if you’re constantly stressed out by financial struggles. Unfortunately, G-d can’t really provide financial stability. We can’t actually call on Him to throw down some money so we can go “make it as an artist in Italy.” We can, however, ask for personal strength—we ask for help in recognizing our individual potential and using our G-d given personalities to make profits. We can ask G-d to help us—like He did the Israelites—to ease our everyday worries, so that we may pursue what we love.