Distractions from 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 December 25, 2015

But the King of Egypt said to them: "Moses and Aaron, why do you distract the people from their tasks? Get to your labors!" (Exodus 5:4)

Moses and Aaron asked Pharoah to let the Israelites go a distance of three days into the wilderness to worship God, and Pharoah would hear none of it. He may have been worried that they would not come back, and he would thus lose many slaves. The concern he voices here, though, is that the work would not be done.

Work is an honored part of life in the Jewish tradition. We often think of the Sabbath when we think of Judaism’s contributions to civilization, and well it may be, but the Torah is at least as insistent on the value of work as it is on the value of the Sabbath, for in the Decalogue and elsewhere it commands work: "Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh is a Sabbath of the Lord your God: you shall not do any work – you, your son or daughter, your male or female slave, or your cattle, or the stranger who is within your settlements" (Exodus 20:10; see also Exodus 23:12). The Rabbis later proclaim, "Great is work, for it honors the workmen" (B. Nedarim 49b). Thus even though they very much also honored study of the Torah, they said this: "An excellent thing is the study of the Torah combined with some worldly occupation, for the labor demanded by them both makes sin to be forgotten. All study of the Torah without work must in the end be futile and become the cause of sin" (M. Ethics of the Fathers 2:2). Furthermore, the Rabbis taught: "A man is responsible to teach his son a trade, and whoever does not teach his son a trade, teaches him to steal" (T. Kiddushin 1:11; cf. B. Kiddushin 29a). Even if a man provides his wife with a hundred servants, she must do some work herself because "idleness leads to lewdness, and it also leads to mental instability" (M. Ketubbot 5:5). The latter was very much in evidence in men as well during the recent recession, where men who had defined themselves through their jobs for decades suddenly lost their jobs and found themselves at wit’s end, with serious doubts about who they were as men and what worth they had.

And yet the Jewish tradition puts a limit on work each week in mandating our desisting from work on Shabbat. I once heard Rabbi Ed Feinstein insightfully say that "The Sabbath is the antidote to American civilization," for as Americans we are prone to make our work an idol to which we bow down 24/7. We see our work as defining our identity and our value, and we work many more hours per week than our European counterparts or anyone else in the world, for that matter. As recent studies show, we even refuse to take vacation time allotted in our jobs for fear that we would lose them if we took some time off and/or that the work would not get done. New mothers and, especially, new fathers pass up maternity or paternity leave for the same reasons.

It is thus remarkable that young adult Jews created Reboot, an effort to get people to turn off their electronics from sunset Friday to sunset Saturday to reboot themselves, to get a sense of who they are apart from the tethers their cell phones provide to everyone who makes demands on them. It is, of course, wonderful and genuinely Jewish to use that time to observe Shabbat in a traditionally Jewish and meaningful way, but even if one is not going to do that, it is important to desist from work one day out of seven to remind oneself that there are values in life other than work. For example, studies show that the primary reason that people do not get the exercise that they should is because they are afraid of taking off time from their work. Another poignant example is this: congregational rabbis often tell me that they have yet to hear from someone who is dying that they wish that they had spent more time at their work; what they hear instead, especially from men, is that they wish that they had spent more time with their family.

So let us learn from the Jewish tradition the value of work and help people out of work learn the skills to get a job, if they do not have them, and to find work once they do. But let us also learn that Pharoah was not right in worrying exclusively about whether the work will be done. There are other values in life that deserve our attention, including family, recreation, and contributing to society in other meaningful ways. And let the worship of God, which the Israelites wanted to leave their jobs to do, be a source of ultimate meaning in life and a way of giving us the perspective to know how to balance our work with the other important relationships and activities in life.

Shabbat shalom.

For more on this theme, see Elliot N. Dorff, Love Your Neighbor and Yourself: A Jewish Approach to Modern Personal Ethics (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 2003), Chapter Three, esp. pp. 109-111.