"The Thing You're Doing Is Not Right
Work to make room for others
This post is dedicated to my niece Maayan who is celebrating her Bat Mitzvah this weekend!
In the first full year of the pandemic, when most of my work was still virtual, I found the line blurred rapidly between work and leisure. At night especially, it was hard to actually stop working. I say this not as a brag but as an admission of feeling complicit to a system that rewards people for how hard they work and not how well they work. This push to work constantly is a particularly toxic aspect of the American work culture.
This popped into my head as I read this fascinating piece. Riffing on the idea of the slow food movement, “slow productivity” is the idea that:
The central goal is to keep an individual worker’s volume at a sustainable level. A natural fear is that by reducing the amount of work each employee tackles at any given time, it might reduce the total amount of work an organization is able to complete, making it less competitive.If you instead enable the individual to work more sequentially, focusing on a small number of things at a time, waiting until she is done before bringing on new obligations, the rate at which she completes tasks might actually increase.
While we might think of this as a modern concept, it too has roots in Jewish tradition. In this week’s portion, Yitro, both Moses’ father in law and the name of the portion gives Moses some advice when he sees how he’s adjudicating matters with his people. Exodus 18:17-18 tells us:
The thing you are doing is not right; you will surely wear yourself out, and these people as well. For the task is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone.
You can’t keep working like this, Moses. You’ll burn out and so will the people. You can’t take all this work on yourself. It is excellent practical advice that we can all heed. Yet, it goes even deeper than than for there is an effect far beyond the practical that overworking also causes.
In the words of Gersonides:
It'll get to a point where your closeness with God will be affected in such a way that God will not desire to connect with you.
You signal to the world what you prioritize with the way you work. In this framework, the Ralbag is saying that Moses is hinting to God that he is not prioritizing his relationship with the Divine. Whether you’re a theist or not, this is important wisdom.
When you choose to work the way you do, what are you not making time for? It could be yourself. It could be a partner, family member, or friends. There is so much that drives us to work so hard: betterment of the self, the world, or our community.
This drive though can get so extreme that it causes us to miss out on the world around us. It reminds me of the old adage, do you live to work or work to live? It’s noteworthy in the Torah that an outsider gives this advice to Moses, one of the great leaders of our tradition. Sometimes we’re so in it that we can’t notice what’s right in front of us. Find your Yitro. Make sure that whatever it is that you’re working on, you’re also making room for moments of awe, wonder, and potential divinity.
Shabbat Shalom and Happy Weekend
Rabbi Levi ben Gershon-The Ralbag, 14th Century France.