Talmudic advice on life, work
If you listen to lifestyle advice, finding one’s work-life balance has never been harder. Indeed, work obsesses many of us 24/7. We’re always struggling to find time for family, household and leisure activities. Like every generation, we think we’ve invented a new problem.
It only takes a little while studying Jewish texts to respond to this with a “Don’t be ridiculous!” Yes, our technology makes our work lives faster and more omnipresent, but, in Jewish tradition, we’ve been discussing and debating how to balance these issues for thousands of years.
When I started thinking about this, I remembered how many detailed tips are available to us by studying Midrash and Talmud. There are discussions about how much sleep we need. Depending on their profession, there are views about how many times a week men are obligated to be intimate with their wives. There is advice on how to raise your (Jewish) children and how to take care of your livestock.
By the way, in case you raise livestock (for work or fun) or have pets, you should always feed them first, before you eat. Is that irrelevant? Not in my household, where we conscientiously feed our dogs first every morning and evening, before breakfast and dinner. (It cuts down on begging at the table, too.)
A few weeks ago, a new start-up that works on networking and advice for people in university alumni communities asked me to participate in a career path interview. It was done entirely online. I was happy to do it, because it struck me as a useful exercise. New university graduates might be able to learn from older peers, and gain useful information and connections. I responded to the questions without hesitation.
Although I listed plenty of professional qualifications, I focused on how important it was to be flexible, evolving and intellectually curious as your life changes. In my experience, things like getting married, having health issues or kids, or moving affect your career path enormously. I figured this was not news to anyone, but that it was advice worth offering to 20-somethings or career changers.
To my surprise, someone at the start-up contacted me and asked if they could feature me in a “career journeys” email. At first, I thought, “Sure, why not?” I even wondered if it might bring in more writing or editing jobs. Then I read their draft.
Their draft email sandwiched my photo and quote in between two male professionals, a medical physician/specialist and a virtual reality DJ. The quote they chose for me highlighted that moving for my husband’s academic career forced me reinvent myself to find paying work and to stay competitive.
I was the only woman featured, and the only professional whose married status was mentioned first. I felt angry. Why were my peers’ work credentials front and centre but, for me, it was about marital status and career sacrifice for a partner?
I asked them to cut me from their interview or significantly revise what they posted. I pointed out why. They responded quickly, apologized, and let me revise the text so that it featured what I brought, as a professional, to the conversation rather than my gender or family status. In the end, my quote read: “You do not need to know ‘what you want to be when you grow up’ when you are 18 or 21. We need to be flexible, evolving and intellectually curious.”
So far, at least, I have heard nothing as a result of the e-newsletter’s publication but, at least, I’m not embarrassed by it.
Twenty years ago, this past June, our wedding program featured a quote from Bava Metsia 59a. It came from what Rav Papa said to Abaye: “If your wife is short, bend down and listen to your wife, and whisper in her ear.” If you’ve ever met me (and my partner) in person, you know that I am certainly short … and the key to keeping a healthy balance is in these discussions, too. If we want to maintain good work lives and, more importantly, healthy, happy overall lives, we need to listen to one another, and value what we each bring to the table.
Sometimes, it’s hard work to maintain a marriage, raise kids, or even feed the dogs promptly before we eat. The technology aspect of the work-life balance makes us think that it’s all new, but something was always the newest thing in every generation. Rather, look at it another way. We aren’t alone. Network backwards. We’re lucky to be bolstered by thousands of years of good Jewish advice. Just like our ancestors, we’re free to sift through it and take what works best for us.
Joanne Seiff writes regularly for CBC Manitoba and various Jewish publications. She is the author of three books, including From the Outside In: Jewish Post Columns 2015-2016, a collection of essays available for digital download or as a paperback from Amazon. See more about her at joanneseiff.blogspot.com.