Rabbi Aaron Miller
This week’s Torah portion is Vayakhel-Pekudei: Exodus 35:1-34:35.
The rabbinate, like most jobs, has its busy seasons, and after a particularly hectic quarter, I finally had a slow couple of days. I had spent those busy months imagining the relief when my schedule was not so full. But as I crossed off my last task of the day, I did not feel rested or relieved. I felt anxious, like something was not quite right, that I should be busier.
What a letdown.
This week’s Torah portion might be our people’s busiest. We have spent nearly 10 chapters of Torah gearing up to build the Mishkan. Also known as the Tabernacle, the Mishkan was where our ancestors gathered to witness God’s presence. These 10 chapters, with their seemingly endless lists of building materials, read like a sacred instruction manual. This week, though, we stop planning and get to work.
Our parshah begins: “These are the things that Adonai has commanded you do.” Finally, it’s time to start doing. Ready… set…
…Stop? The parshah continues: “On six days work may be done, but on the seventh day you shall have a sabbath of complete rest.”
At long last, we are commanded to get to work. So why are we then immediately commanded to rest?
Our sages teach that there is no task so important, not even the building of the Mishkan, that you should devote all your time to it. You can work six days a week, but not seven. Your work can take most of your time, but never all of it.
Our rabbis were wise enough to know that, if left to our own devices, work might become the center of our lives. Derek Thompson, staff writer for The Atlantic, describes how holy “-ism’s,” Judaism, Catholicism, Buddhism, etc., have been replaced by another –ism — workism. Studies show how, starting in the 1980s, high performing employees are not rewarded with higher income as much as they are with higher hours. For the first time in history, the fruits of success tend to be more work.
Adherents to workism serve capricious gods. If work is going well, then life can feel more or less good. But work does not always go well. Companies downsize. A new boss can upend your team. A gossiping colleague can keep you from a promotion. A difficult client can ruin your vacation. In the end, the gods of the ancient pantheon and our new ethos of workism are not all that different: You matter only when you are serving another’s agenda, and if you let them, they will get everything out of you they can. If you put work first, everything else will come last. Then, as I learned after my work’s particularly hectic season was over, when that big deep breath finally does come, it can feel more like heresy than relief.
I have written many, many eulogies over the past 12 years, and let me share one thing that almost everyone’s life story has in common: Whether you are a managing partner or a paralegal, the chief of medicine or a nurse working the night shift, your career will comprise a few sentences of your eulogy. Maybe a paragraph or two. By interrupting our work, the parshah asks, what will the rest of your eulogy say?
Let’s answer this question wisely. We can work hard, but our work does not, and cannot, always come first. Even if we are building the house of God, our work can ask for much of our time, but not all of it. Our lives will always be more than what we do, and the moment we put work back in its rightful place is when we discover how rich and full the rest of life can be.
Rabbi Aaron Miller is rabbi of Washington Hebrew Congregation.