It was Freud who said our lives are shaped by labour and love, the work we do and the people we love. Work is an inevitable and often ennobling activity. Work gives us purpose and our jobs often refine and define us, but is employment the essence of being human and is the love of labour more important that the labour of love?
I asked myself this question during this past week as I reflected on the parasha (Torah reading) and on an article from the NY Times entitled: “Why are young People Pretending to Love Work?”
The parasha focuses on a nation-building work project, the construction of the Mishkan or portable house of prayer and worship by the people of Israel shortly after leaving Egypt. Not one, but four Torah portions are dedicated to this building project. It was a labour of love built out of the voluntary gifts of the people with the expertise of a group of dedicated artisans (chiefly Betzalel and Ohliav) and under the leadership of Moshe. It brought the fragmented Israelite families together, it unified the rag-tag refugees and ex-slaves. There’s nothing quite like a partnership project, a shared dream, to bring disparate parties into one. This is energy well-spent, a work of purpose and meaning, the type of employment the Torah extols when it tells us ‘Six days (of the week) you shall toil’.
But all work and no play can make us dull and even desperate. That’s why – “on the seventh day you shall rest and refresh”. Which takes me to the NY Times article which addresses a new phenomenon among millennials called performative work alcoholism. It refers to the ‘hustle culture’ and its obsession with a relentless non-stop work rapture. It extols the virtue of taking your work with you everywhere, working ridiculously long hours and sacrificing relationships and lifestyle for success. Elon Musk is a prime example of this ethos. In November last year he tweeted that “nobody ever changed the world on 40 hours a week”. The correct number of hours “varies per person” he continued, but is “about 80 sustained, peaking about 100 at times…” Musk added the well-known maxim that if you love what you do it (mostly) doesn’t feel like work.
Now while I agree that if you’re lucky enough to enjoy what you do, it gives more pleasure than pain, I worry about the “loksh” or message we’re sending the young workers of our generation.
The truth is that even the most glamorous job will have its down-time, its frustrations and bland, routine drudgery. And the truth is also that long hours and the accompanying sleep-deprivation improve neither productivity nor creativity. There’s also the point that those venerating work are often those at the top not doing the actual work.
Erin Griffins who wrote the NY Times article suggests that with participation in organised religion failing especially among millennials, the concept of productivity has taken on an almost spiritual dimension, the idea that work is an end in itself. It’s cultist and many large companies like Google and Facebook have created ‘fun’ work environments with cool gyms and café’s. Who wants to go home when the work place is so salubrious?
One of the most chilling observations is that of Yahoo’s Marissa Mayer when she says that working 130 hours a week is possible “if you’re strategic about when you sleep, when you shower, and how often you go to the bathroom”. Work is critical for our wellbeing but so are family, relationships, community and watching movies or playing sports. It’s about balance but even more it’s about perspective – as the old adage reminds us: “Do you live to work or work to live?” Centuries ago our rabbis recognised this when they quipped “without bread there is no Torah, without Torah there is no bread” (Avot 3:21).
Torah or the need for meaning runs deeper than any other need. If one of the most serious challenges facing religion and indeed facing our Australian Jewish community today is how to transmit the meaningfulness of our tradition to our millennials, I for one believe in our youth and the passion of our millennials. A snap shot from a large AGZ 2018 study of Australian teens shows that while a majority (52%) of them don’t identify with a religion, 74% of them do have a positive attitude towards different religions and only a quarter of them have no belief at all in God or a transcendent being.
The Torah’s focus on the building of the Mishkan is a reminder about where you choose to direct your energy. This was not just building for the sake of a building but it was about building for the sake of a soul. It was about finding a place for God and spirituality in one’s heart. And all of this ceaseless activity abruptly stopped when it came to Shabbat. Shabbat was an opportunity to take a breath, to reflect not just on what you’re living from but what you’re living for.
The workaholics creed is “Hustle harder” and “Don’t stop when you’re tired”. Its hashtag is #thankgoditsmonday, T.G.I.M. Our creed has always been “Strive harder” and “Pause when you’re tired”. Even as a confirmed workaholic, I say with pride – #thankgoditsshabbas. T.G.I.S!
So take time out this Friday and chill out at Caulfield Shule with a musical Friday Night Fever from 6pm onwards.