Work-Torah balance


By Bill Dauster
Special to WJW

This week’s Torah portion is Ekev: Deuteronomy 7:12–11:25.

The Cambridge Dictionary defines “work-life balance” as “the amount of time you spend doing your job compared with the amount of time you spend with your family and doing things you enjoy.”

Here in the Washington area, people often struggle to carve out time apart from demanding jobs. A recent World Health Organization study found that working more than 55 hours a week is causing more and more people worldwide to suffer from heart disease and stroke.

This week’s Torah reading prompted the rabbis of the Talmud to think about a similar balance. For them — devoted students of the Torah — the question was how to balance time studying the Torah with time making a living in the world.

As much as they loved the Torah, the rabbis of the Talmud taught that one needs to balance studying the Torah with working in the world.

In this week’s Torah reading, Moses tells the Israelites: “You shall gather in your new grain and wine and oil.” In the Talmud, the sages closely examined this verse.

The sages note that because Joshua 1:8 says, “This Torah shall not depart from your mouths, and you shall contemplate in it day and night,” one might think that one is literally supposed to spend all of one’s days immersed in Torah study. Therefore, Rabbi Ishmael taught that Deuteronomy 11:14 says, “And you shall gather your grain, your wine and your oil,” to counsel that we need to lead a life at least partly in the world. Rabbi Ishmael taught that we must set aside time not only for Torah, but also for work.

Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai countered that if people are preoccupied with their work, what will become of their Torah study? Rabbi Shimon argued that one must dedicate oneself to Torah study alone.

Abaye then observed that, although there is room for both opinions, many have combined working for a living and learning Torah and succeeded. But many have devoted themselves exclusively to Torah study and failed.

Similarly, Rava implored the sages who attended his study hall not to come to study during the harvest season.

Rabbah bar bar Hana said in the name of Rabbi Judah, son of Rabbi El’ai, that earlier generations who made their Torah study central and their work secondary were successful. But later generations who made their work central and their Torah study secondary succeeded in neither their work nor their study.

The issue also appears in Pirkei Avot. There, Rabban Gamaliel, the son of Rabbi Judah the Prince, taught that it is excellent to combine the study of Torah with a worldly occupation, for toil in both keeps sin out of one’s mind. But Torah study that is not combined with a worldly occupation in the end comes to be neglected and becomes the cause of sin.

Speaking in the 1960s, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said: “We must learn how to labor in the affairs of the world with fear and trembling. While involved in public affairs, we must not cease to cultivate the secrets of religious privacy.”

From the verse in this week’s Torah reading to the rabbis of the Mishnah and Talmud to our own times, Judaism teaches that we need to seek balance in our lives.

Even with pursuits as important as Torah study, the rabbis taught that we need to pause to make a living. How much more so with pursuits as important as our jobs, we need to ensure that we carve out time to learn the lessons of the Torah.

Questions for discussion:
How do we balance the demands of work and Torah?
Does Torah inform our work?

On what do we place the most emphasis in our life?

Bill Dauster, a Senate, White House and campaign staffer since 1986, has written Wikipedia articles on the 54 Torah portions.


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