Balancing Family and Work

Headshot of Elliot Dorff
Headshot of Elliot Dorff
Rabbi Elliot Dorff, PhD

Sol & Anne Distinguished Professor in Philosophy, Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies
University Rector, American Jewish University

Rabbi Elliot Dorff, PhD is AJU’s Rector and Sol & Anne Dorff Distinguished Service Professor in Philosophy. He is Chair of the Conservative Movement's Committee on Jewish Law and Standards and served on the editorial committee of Etz Hayim, the new Torah commentary for the Conservative Movement. He has chaired four scholarly organizations: the Academy of Jewish Philosophy, the Jewish Law Association, the Society of Jewish Ethics, and the Academy of Judaic, Christian, and Islamic Studies. He was elected Honorary President of the Jewish Law Association for the term of 2012-2016.  In Spring 1993, he served on the Ethics Committee of Hillary Rodham Clinton's Health Care Task Force. In March 1997 and May 1999, he testified on behalf of the Jewish tradition on the subjects of human cloning and stem cell research before the President's National Bioethics Advisory Commission. In 1999 and 2000 he was part of the Surgeon General’s commission to draft a Call to Action for Responsible Sexual Behavior; and from 2000 to 2002 he served on the National Human Resources Protections Advisory Commission, charged with reviewing and revising the federal guidelines for protecting human subjects in research projects. Rabbi Dorff is also a member of an advisory committee for the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History on the social, ethical, and religious implications of their exhibits. He is also a member of the Ethics Advisory Committee for the state of California on stem cell research.

He has been an officer of the FaithTrust Institute, a national organization that produces seminars and educational materials to help people avoid or extricate themselves from domestic violence.  For eight years he was also been a member of the Board of Directors of the Jewish Federation Council of Los Angeles, chairing its committee on serving the vulnerable.  In Los Angeles, he is a Past President of Jewish Family Services and a member of the Ethics committee at U.C.L.A. Medical Center. He serves as Co-Chair of the Priest-Rabbi Dialogue of the Los Angeles Archdiocese and the Board of Rabbis of Southern California.  

posted on July 14, 2018

This Shabbat’s Torah reading includes Chapter 32 of the Book of Numbers, in which the men of the tribes of Gad and Reuven ask Moses to give them the land east of the Jordan River rather than the land west of it that the Israelites were going to invade and occupy.  When Moses gets angry with them for abandoning the common effort to conquer the land of Canaan, they agree to fight for the land with the other tribes but would still like to settle in trans-Jordan:

We will build here sheepfolds for our flocks and towns for our children.  And we will hasten as shock-troops in the van of the Israelites until we have established them in their home, while our dependents [women and children] stay in the fortified towns [east of the Jordan River] because of the inhabitants of the land….  (Numbers 32:16-17)

When Moses agrees to this plan, he subtly but very importantly teaches them a lessonabout proper priorities: “Build towns for your children and sheepfolds for your flocks, but do what you have promised” (Numbers 32:24).

As Rashi points out (in his comment on verse 16), by stating that they would “build here sheepfolds for our flocks and towns for our children,” in that order, they indicated that:

They were more concerned with their assets than their sons and daughters, for they put their flocks before their children.  Moses said to them: “Do not do things that way, but rather make the important primary and the less important secondary: build first cities for your children and afterward sheepfolds for your flocks.

Moses and Rashi lived centuries before our own time, but even then there was a need to remind people that family comes first.  If that was true in the 13th century B.C.E., the era of Moses, and the 11th century C.E., the time of Rashi, all the more so is it important for us today.  After all, today in the United States, one’s “net worth” is measured in monetary assets, and Americans spend more time at work each week than people in any other Western society.  They even skip vacation time given them in their contracts.  Modern forms of communication, for all their blessings, have enabled work to invade home life and even vacations.  In the meantime, even if we intend the opposite, we show by the amount of time and attention we give our families that they are indeed our second, not our first, priority.  Work is surely important, not only to earn a living but also to give one a sense of self-worth and to contribute to the productive functioning of society.  But, as Moses taught the men of the tribes of Gad and Reuven, family really needs to come first in our priorities.

Along these lines, many of my rabbinic colleagues who serve congregations have told me this: When people are dying (especially men), they never say that “I wish I had spent more time at my job.”  They regularly say, instead, “I wish that I had spent more time with my family, especially when they were young and really wanted to interact with me.”   This reminds me of the poignant song, “Cat in the Cradle,” by Harry Chapin

(Cat Stevens).  Both the lyrics of that song and what my colleagues report about how people evaluate their lives toward their end should reinforce for us now what the rabbis are saying about prioritizing family over work. 

Another way to see this concerns Shabbat.  In the Decalogue, the Torah proclaims:

Observe the Sabbath day and keep it holy, as the Lord your God has commanded you. Six days shall you labor and do all your work, but on the seventh day is a Sabbath of the Lord your god; you shall not do any work – you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your ox or your donkey, or any of your cattle, or the stranger in your settlements, so that your male and female slave may rest as you do.  Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt and the Lord your God freed you from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day. (Deuteronomy 5:12-15)   

So work is clearly important: we should spend six days out of every seven doing it.  On the seventh, though, we need to cease our labor (the literal meaning of the Hebrew work “Shabbat” is to desist, stop).  We Americans, who are enslaved to our work in ways different from, but just as constricting as our ancestors were in ancient Egypt, desperately need to set limits to our work so that we can refresh ourselves and renew our family life.  As Rabbi Edward Feinstein so aptly puts it, “The Sabbath is the antidote to American civilization.”  Hopefully, during the Sabbath we can renew ourselves spiritually, in part by renewing and reinvigorating our ties to our family and our community.  

So a simple change in order in what Moses says to the men of Gad and Reuven in today’s Torah reading teaches us a lesson even more important now than it was in his time: family needs to come before work in our priorities.  That needs not only to be thought and said, but lived out in how we spend each of our days. The Sabbath, though, can be especially helpful in making this order of priorities real, for then we take one day out of seven to set aside our work altogether and devote time to what is even more important, our family and our community.

Shabbat Shalom.