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"I Gave Up Hundreds of Thousands of Dollars to Learn Torah"

What made a successful businessman abandon the race for money and turn into a yeshiva student? Yair Pardun was on the way to becoming an American millionaire — until the day he discovered Judaism. He is currently studying at Ashrei Ha’Ish yeshiva in Jerusalem and is not ready to give up the book of Talmud in his hands for all the money in the world. A surprisingly interview

I Gave Up Hundreds of Thousands of Dollars to Learn Torah

"My fantasy was to be a millionaire,” Yair Pardun admits in a slightly apologetic tone. "I wanted to be a millionaire, a businessman who had made it big-time."

In contrast to all the dreamers, Pardun took his aspirations seriously, and didn’t waste time. Immediately after completing his army service, he packed up a few things, and with only a few hundred dollars in his pocket, came to New York.

Pardun, 29, of Moshav Shazur in the north, tried to fulfill the American dream in the field of sales, and soon discovered that he was a sales wizard. He worked from morning to night, and the American public was busy buying from him. His boss, who recognized the young business genius’s potential, offered him a partnership in the business, and from there the road to success was rapid. At the age of only 24, while his friends in Israel were stretched out on the campus lawn, Yair was the owner of a successful company generating hundreds of thousands of dollars and he was covering the grounds in New York, Illinois and Colorado.

It sounds like you realized the American dream.

"Yes. You could say that. At first it was amazing. I enjoyed every minute of it. I was bursting with energy from morning to morning. As the business grew, I flew from state to state, and during the Christian holidays, which was the busiest time of the year, I didn’t sleep nights in a row. In the village where I grew up, I was taught the value of work, which really helped me. By the age of 6, I went to work in the chicken coop and collected eggs at my Grandma’s, so intense activity never intimidated me."

What about enjoying leisure time and entertainment?

"I always liked fine dining, shopping trips of brand name clothes and gadgets. Usually I invested my money wisely. I enjoyed “action” and high energy activities, and wasn’t that interested in spending money. My work was fun and addictive. Today I understand that I kept doing the endless work to turn off the inner voices clamoring that something was wrong."

Yair Pardun (Photo: Ishay Solberg)

"When the money became running numbers on a computer screen, I became apathetic"

“In the US, I realized for the first time that there was something special about Jews as a people. "Here in Israel we do not see the difference, but there one clearly sees a huge gap. The Jews have more good qualities than other nations. General and emotional intelligence which effects those around them and the ability to read the person in front of them with clarity. I found out that non-Jews are aware of the phenomenon even more than me — and they admire the Jews for their abilities. Everyone knows that there is something about the Jews that no other nation has, and they talk about it freely. Jews hold key positions in the U.S. Only us Jews, for some reason, do not see that we are special and try to be like everyone else.

“These insights made me start to wonder who I am and why Jews are different."

What was the turning point of your life?

"It happened at the age of 26. After five years of business activity, I got to the point where I had achieved everything I wanted. The company functioned on automatic. There were employees, team leaders and regional directors. I reached the top of the pyramid — and had nothing left to do but sit and take in the money."

It sounds like most people’s dream.

"That’s what I thought. But I became apathetic. I sat at home and stared at the walls. The money has become numbers running on a computer screen, but with no meaning or significance. I tried to repress my feeling of emptiness but it kept floating up. From a young age, my surroundings had taught me that financial success is the peak of aspirations and admiration. So how could it be that I had reached the top and feel such colossal emptiness? I do not wish on anyone to get to this place in which a person realizes that everything he toiled for and dreamed about turns out to be worthless."

"Success had become my biggest enemy"

"I realized that I was a slave. That I was living to satisfy my drives. I had no real peace of mind. There is a cycle of supplying one’s desires that a person has to fulfill. It does not matter if a person lives on a thousand or a hundred thousand per month. It is not a question of money. Anyone who is addicted to materialism finds himself in this cycle. One bright day I reached the point where I had all I could ask for materialistically, but I realized that I had nothing. I asked myself: "You got everything you wanted — what now? Set up another business? Earn more money? Well and good, but that’s all? This is the goal of my life?"

"I thought something was wrong with me, so I tried to escape back to work. I thought that if I ramp up the intensity level, I would get back to myself and wouldn’t feel this emptiness. I continued to throw myself into work, restaurants and entertainment. I continued to pretend and lie to myself. But this time it was even worse. All attempts to ‘drown’ myself in material abundance only increased the emptiness. In addition, I began to notice how people were treating me. When people see that you have money, they respect, admire and fawn on you. The more I noticed how much people wanted to be friends with me — the more it broke me. Inwardly, I knew it was all a lie."

Did the money change you?

"Without doubt the years of Americanization caused me to lose who I was, and lose my innocence. Everything was all about numbers, money, tasks and goals. I lost my connection to myself. This is exactly where Western culture leads you: live a life of superficiality. Get assets, wealth and power. Dress spiffy and drive a prestigious car. Who cares that you’re dead inside?”

How did you find Judaism?

"When I saw that my condition wasn’t improving, I reached the conclusion that apparently America is to blame. I decided to move all my businesses to Israel, and in a few months I found myself living in Tel Aviv, surrounded by childhood friends and my family. The difficult feelings went away and it seemed that I was on the right track. But soon I saw I was wrong. The emptiness came back big time. I understood that America wasn’t to blame and that the solution wasn’t something superficial but something deep inside. I decided to be open to new things I wasn’t acquainted with before. And so I began to roam the Net until I came across a lecture on Judaism. While watching it — something inside me came to life. I was fascinated. And so I continued on, I watched another lecture and another. I could not stop."

Which lectures did you see?

"I saw loads of them. Every lecture that I found, and every rabbi who appears on the Internet. When I realized I had found sublime wisdom, I spent the next period investigating the world of Judaism. I sat at home for a few months and only watched lectures all day by rabbis on the Internet. I saw hundreds, maybe thousands. I didn’t want to lose even a blip. I investigated everything and saw that all the rabbis were in agreement on the same goal."

The power of prayer: "I asked to stop smoking - and suddenly cigarettes disgusted me"

The lectures helped him realize that he was closer to G-d than he thought. The fact that he was a believing Jew helped him. "My understanding became more mature and more hand’s on. I understood that G-d wants us to be close to Him, that we should pray to him and we should make requests of Him.

“So I decided to make a test. What did I have to lose? At that time I suffered a lot from smoking. I was hooked and smoked a cigarette every half hour. I tried to quit many times and each time I went back to it. I hated knowing that I wasn’t in control of this addiction.

“So I decided to ask for help from G-d. I didn’t know how to ask my request so I simply said it from the heart: ‘Please, Creator of the world — make me disgusted with smoking!’ For a few days I smoked as usual. Then something happened that I can not explain. Naturally, and without me doing anything — I began to dislike cigarettes. I forced myself to keep smoking, and every cigarette that I lit made me feel bad. Nausea and horrible feelings, so that within a short time I couldn’t smoke even if I wanted to. It was nothing short of miraculous. To this day, if I only smell a cigarette I get nauseous.

“This was the first time I was exposed to the power of prayer. The power of asking. I understood the famous phrase 'One who tries to become pure, will be helped." It strengthened me and then I started to ask in my prayers for every little thing. To integrate G-d in everything. I continued to pray and saw Divine Providence with my own eyes. It simply worked."

"You can learn Torah in a university. In a yeshiva, you learn to be a mensch"

"The penny dropped for me on the day that I realized I wanted to start a family. I wanted to get married but I realized that my character was far from sterling, and with the "toolbox" that I received from the secular world — I had no chance of surviving in a marital relationship. I didn’t want to marry and divorce as countless people I knew. An internal voice told me that in order to get the full power of the Torah and fix my character in preparation for family life — I have to go to a yeshiva.

“The understanding that there is a Creator of the world gave me an amazing feeling. For a secular person who lived a life of emptiness for most of his life, it felt like I had won the lottery. I realized that not only must there be a Creator but He gave us a way and a Torah to follow so we’ll have the best life. It was clear to me that since this is the case, I have to check it out in depth.

I consulted with a rabbi concerning a place where I can be seriously exposed to the world of Torah. He recommended several yeshivas for those who want to find out about Judaism. One of them seemed the right place — Ashrei Ha-Ish yeshiva of Rabbi Yosef Zvi Ben-Porat, who appears on the Hidabroot Channel. I had watched his lectures and they amazed me. I heard thousands of lectures during these months, but something about Rabbi Ben-Porat captivated me. I felt he was a person I could gain from and learn from. The next day I packed a bag and went to Jerusalem. Since then I'm in a yeshiva."

And what happened to your businesses?

"When I started studying at the yeshiva, I realized that my business was holding me back. I knew I needed to change and business symbolized for me the old Yair. It was a very difficult dilemma. On the one hand, if I chose the path of Torah, I would pay a heavy price. On the other hand, I could stay with half a foot in the old world to keep my options open and have financial backing, but then I couldn’t fully concentrate in my yeshiva studies.

I decided to give up the business. I told my partner ‘I’m leaving it all to you.’ it was very hard for him, because we were a team. He tried to convince me but I was determined. I was upset over every passing day and month that I didn’t have the opportunity to learn Torah in a yeshiva."

Weren’t you worried about the economic consequences?

"It wasn’t an easy decision, of course. I was torn — but I realized that if I want the truth to the end, I have to pay the price, however high it would be. You can not dance at two weddings at the same time. Or you go straight or you stay crooked. And in my previous world — I was crooked. I also believed that, just as G-d gave me success in the past, He would take care of me in the future."

How was life in the yeshiva?

"It feels like my home. I arrived at a place where everyone was like me. We are all adults who turned around their lives. People who seek the truth and want to make themselves better people. The rabbi always tells us: ‘You can study Torah at university too. In a yeshiva you study Torah to be a mensch.’ And I truthfully underwent a dramatic change in my character and my behavior. Since I began studying Torah, I saw that I had more control over who I am. I understand that the purpose of the Torah is to get you to be a wholesome, better person. Today, I just don’t understand how I lived without studying Torah."

Do you have a tip for those who want to get closer to our Creator?

"First of all — pray. Just try and you will see that G-d is with us and listens to us. You can talk about anything that is bothering you and can ask whatever request you want. Additionally, you should look at all the good in your life. Each person who looks at all the good that G-d gives him — will behave differently. Once you understand that G-d keeps you alive at every moment, nourishes you and loves you — it is inevitable that you will want to do for Him in return, to love Him and be close to Him."

You don’t long any more for luxurious restaurants and big money?

"I'm not willing to give up the joy I have today studying Torah for all the money in the world."