How wonderful to gather this evening marking not just the Jewish new year, Rosh Hashanah, but the waning hours of Labor Day as well. So I can say Shanah tovah! And happy labor day! Which makes me think about this Labor Day joke I was going to tell you, but, well, it wasn’t really working for me…
All jokes aside, the melding of Rosh Hashanah and Labor Day is a potent time to talk about our souls, our work, and what the two have to do with each other. This time is made even more special because tonight coincides with the beginning of what is called a Shmita year. In Judaism, every seven days we are supposed to take a day off from work, which we call Shabbat. So too, every seven years, the land which we work through agriculture is also supposed to rest. This is called a Shmita year.
To move through Jewish time is to realize that we are more than our work, we are more than our productivity, we are more than what we do or change or build or invent or design or heal or accompany or grow or write. And the world and its creatures don’t exist simply to be useful to us. There is a deep enoughness that we are supposed to remember, and to reconnect to, and embody, when we move through Jewish time.
One true lesson we are supposed to learn from Shmita, and from Shabbat, is to trust abundance. Even if we stop working for a day, or a year, it will be okay. There will be enough. You are enough. There is a time for work, and a time for rest, a time to strive, and a time to play.
When we move through American time, however, this becomes a very hard message to believe in. The primary abundance in life seems to be meetings – if anyone wants a few I’m sure the people around you could lend you some free of charge. There’s even a book out that captures the strange mania of our work culture – it is titled, “Thank You for Being Late.” We scavenge for those Shabbat moments when someone is late or cancels on us, and we can relax into five unexpected minutes of uncalendered time with what I can only assume is the closest feeling to receiving grace that we encounter in these days. Just to be clear – I love meeting with you, and it brings me the greatest joy to spend time together. But I think for all of us, sometimes quality time gets squished by the sheer amount of quantity time.
This wasn’t always the vision of what it would look like to work in America. Labor Day commemorates the hard-won achievements of the labor movement which brought us many benefits, including the cultural conception of a reasonable work-week as consisting of 40 hours per week. Prior to this, people working in factories or shipyards and other such production-focused jobs were being pressed into service up to hundred hours a week. Children too often labored in dangerous, difficult jobs for long hours. The labor movement over time helped us see that allowing this exploitation was wrong on ethical grounds.
Over the past century, technology has improved to assist us in many of the same jobs that once employed people in such brutal ways. The advancement of technology brought the famous economist John Maynard Keynes to predict in 1930 that we in the 21st century would only need to work fifteen hours a week, creating the equivalent of a five-day weekend, to which this three-day weekend seems rather skimpy.
Keynes wrote, “For the first time since his creation man will be faced with his real, his permanent problem, how to occupy the leisure.” I’ve heard from some folks who have retired recently or are contemplating it, this actually does feel like a problem – when people ask, “What will you do?” the background of that question is a culture that prioritizes action, labor, tasks, events, meetings, in a word – work. Some of us retire only to return to full employment, part time work, or to schedule our leisure activities as if they were work.
Despite the best efforts of the labor movement, and despite the very real advances in technology, we are shockingly far away from the working masses only logging 15 hours a week. What could have gone so wrong in Keynes’ prediction?
In 2019, Derek Thompson writing for The Atlantic, suggested that “The economists of the early 20th century did not foresee that work might evolve from a means of material production to a means of identity production. They failed to anticipate [not only] that, for [many people], work would remain a necessity; but [also that] for the college-educated elite, it would morph into a kind of religion, promising identity, transcendence, and community. Call it workism. … What is workism? It is the belief that work is not only necessary to economic production, but also the centerpiece of one’s identity and life’s purpose; and the belief that any policy to promote human welfare must always encourage more work.”
In prior eras, the wealthiest folks pursued leisure. But Derek Thompson notes that although “Today’s rich American[s …] can afford vastly more downtime … they …[use] their wealth to buy the strangest of prizes: more work!”, and so our culture as a whole moves excessive work ever more to the center of what’s normal, expected, and praised. Who are we if not our work? By the way, this holds true for students as well – in recent decades more and more homework has been assigned at earlier and earlier ages, all as extracurriculars have skyrocketed. Who are we if not our busyness?
So here’s why I am talking about work, the economy, and American culture on Rosh Hashanah – because when work morphs into a kind of religion, we need the grounding in our religious tradition to return it to its rightful place. And this isn’t just a matter of spiritual care, but literally a matter of life and death. A study released earlier this year found that working more than 55 hours a week increases the risk of death from heart disease and strokes. In other words, people can and are working themselves to death.
On Rosh Hashanah, a time to account for the way we are living our lives, we ask: How are we to make sense of this? How are we to engage with our labor – both paid, and the unpaid labor of raising children or maintaining a home? How might Judaism help me see a bigger picture of what it means to work?
Work has an interesting place within the Jewish tradition. There are quite a range of perspectives that, taken together, help us learn how to wrestle more wisely with our own relationships to work.
The book of Proverbs has a lot to say about work. Proverbs are all about everyday wisdom. When you think about certain religious attitudes like those of the industrious Puritans, Proverbs echoes in the background. We get jewels like this: A slacker is a brother to one who destroys. (Proverbs 18:9). If you aren’t working hard, you are ruining not just yourself but everything else too. Work is a distraction from sloth that results in evil. That’s a pretty extreme focus on the centrality of work. As another text tells us in more pleasant terms, “When you eat the fruit of your own labors you shall be happy and contented” (Psalms 128:2).
However, Ecclesiastes undermines this perspective with great drama: He says, Woe is me. I hated life, because the work that is done under the sun was awful. All of it is meaningless, a chasing after the wind… (Ecclesiastes 2:17). People live, people die, we build, time will destroy everything we’ve worked for, so why do we get so invested in it?
So here we have two perspectives, one that insists that work is necessary and good, and one that insists we lessen our attachment to it.
A third way of thinking begins with Shabbat – a day of rest. We rest, because God rested. I imagine God must have stopped to smell the beautiful roses blooming for the first time in history, and so we too devote time simply to smelling the roses. But on the six days prior to Shabbat, God worked creating everything, including the roses that smell so good. It is nothing less than living in the image of God to work part of the week, as long as we also take our proper rest. This third approach nicely balances work and not-work in our lives.
We used to talk about work-life balance, but I once got the advice to change the term to work-life integration. It isn’t always so obvious when our Shabbat is – sometimes we can establish boundaries, and sometimes we cannot or choose not to distinguish when we are “on” or “off” of work. We get pulled into a dynamic that is captured well by the rabbinic teaching, “You are not required to finish the work, but you can’t desist either” (Pirkei Avot 2:16). How often do we feel we are on the treadmill, always finding a new assignment and never reaching that fabled quiet season where things actually slow down and you can feel that rare sense of completion. Thus far, we have encouragement of working ever harder, the question of is it really meaningful at the end of the day, and an attempt to balance our jobs with other meaningful ways of being in the world, even if sometimes it all gets muddled together.
The Torah’s central concern regarding work comes out most clearly in laws that protect from exploitation and oppression, all of which in some fashion look back on the Israelites’ experience enslaved in Egypt. There, labor was abuse. So in the society that the Torah imagines, the one we are still trying to achieve, protections around work conditions are a basic necessity for justice. Work can never be more important than the dignity of the worker.
Later in the Talmud, our ancient sages teach that although we must honor the place of work in our lives, the ultimate purpose of our being here is to engage in spiritual pursuits, what they described as studying Torah.
When work promises identity, transcendence, and community, it is taking up too much space, an idolatry of sorts. And of course meaningful work is a blessing. But as Professor Jamila Michener, whose research focuses on poverty, says (in an interview with Ezra Klein), “Our society has so much room for deservingness and hard work, and so little room for human dignity, weakness, and frailty. I’d like to see that balance shift.”
Workism leaves no room for us to be fully human – because sometimes we work hard in paying jobs, but sometimes we don’t – because we want to parent or need to be caregivers or take time to notice and create beauty. Sometimes we work long hours, but sometimes we can’t – because of an illness or disability, or we’ve been laid off or furloughed. Sometimes we work when we should be resting, because we care so much and everything is urgent.
But it is all too easy to sacrifice ourselves on the altar of our desks (to quote one of Derek Thompson’s phrases), burning out, disengaging, struggling to care and feeling disappointed in ourselves that we aren’t who we know we could be if we honored the rhythms of our own bodies and minds. On the eve of this new Jewish year, a Shmita year, one dedicated to deep rest and renewal, may we too dedicate ourselves to the countercultural and essential claim that we are more than what we do, and that no matter how much or little we are employed or productive, we are enough.
As Rachel Naomi Remen writes in Kitchen Table Wisdom: “We are all here for a single purpose: to grow in wisdom and to learn to love better. We can do this through losing as well as through winning, by having and by not having, by succeeding or by failing.” And I’d add, we can grow in wisdom and learn to live better through work and also through rest, through productivity and through play. That sweetness of being, beyond all doing, is the very spark of God within.