Most of us have to work for a living. Even if we enjoy most of what we do, it’s rare to find someone who feels every moment of their job is a joy. After all, if they’re paying you to do it, my brother and husband would joke with me, “there’s a reason they call it work.”
However, sometimes things happen at work that just aren’t OK or comfortable. Long ago, I worked at an hourly job at a university doing educational administration. It was a mind-boggling number of obligations, managing hundreds of short courses, from instructor attendance lists and access codes to editing course descriptions, proofreading course catalogues and scheduling classrooms. I even set up chairs and tables myself for some courses. It was not my favourite job.
When Passover came along, I had to request time off to clean and cook at home, as I was expecting family to visit. It was not a standard holiday at this university and, although I was asking for time off without pay, the dean questioned me in detail about why it was necessary to grant this to me.
I needed the job. I’d finished my graduate degree but my husband hadn’t finished his yet. We needed the income. I tried to politely field the questions. I knew she was just curious and likely hadn’t ever had the opportunity to ask a Jewish person these kinds of things before. She took pride in wishing me happy holidays – by name – even when she got the Jewish holidays wrong or shared the greetings at the wrong times of year. Even so, she was in a position of power as my boss and I had no option but to answer her if I wanted to keep my job.
The weird part about this encounter is that it doesn’t only happen to religious minorities working for a majority culture boss. I’ve experienced similar questioning as a freelancer working for Jewish organizations, too – everyone wants to know what your observance level is, whether they know your family, if you have a plan for the holidays. Perhaps it’s meant to be friendly and supportive but it can also feel uncomfortable or intrusive. If one answers truthfully, sometimes the outcome doesn’t align with whatever the boss’s preferences would be.
If you work in a large organization with a human resources department, maybe there’s help there, but, most of the time, bringing it up elsewhere can result in more trouble than it’s worth. If diversity and inclusion at your organization don’t recognize “Jewish” as one of the categories, you may have singled yourself out for even more difficulties later on.
The commitments we make Jewishly vary, and everyone chooses their own boundaries. However, these promises we make, to ourselves and our families, are in some ways vows that we must honour and reconcile with our work lives.
This made me think about the talmudic tractate of Nedarim (Vows), which I just finished studying. Much of the tractate is spent trying to help people understand why rabbis think vows of any kind are just a bad idea. Culturally, too, this tractate seems to recognize a time when someone could announce that “all vegetables are forbidden to me” and suddenly this very poorly thought out vow becomes real and must be observed. Hence, the rabbis spent a lot of time suggesting that people just avoid taking vows altogether: better to skip making serious promises you can’t keep. That said, eventually, the Kol Nidre prayer was developed for erev Yom Kippur – it is a blanket prayer releasing us from all the vows we could not keep over the past year.
Rabbi Elliot Goldberg taught an interesting perspective in an online siyyum (celebration at the end of the tractate) on My Jewish Learning. Goldberg points out an example from Nedarim 8a that, even if one is committed to doing mitzvot (commandments), making a vow to do more is motivating: “Rather, it teaches us this: it is permitted for a man to motivate himself to fulfil the mitzvot in this manner, although the oath is not technically valid.” For example, if someone decides that, this year, it would be good to attend services or to donate more to charity, these are not technically vows, but more like New Year’s resolutions. We’re already supposed to do these things, but if we voice a commitment to doing them, it is motivating.
What does this have to do with our uncomfortable moments at work? Sometimes, even knowing that a situation will be awkward, we decide to do it anyway. It would have been easier for me to work right through Passover instead of going through the question-and-answer situation with the university dean. Instead though, this hard encounter motivated me even more to take the time off to clean, cook and spend time with visiting relatives.
Sometimes, finding a way to cope with a difficult situation at work can result in a deeper personal commitment to one’s own beliefs and values. In my case, even though I was very happy to leave that job, I believe that my year working in the Short Course program made a difference. When I left, colleagues told me that they’d learned from me and respected what I’d offered the department.
Our household finances often dictate our work lives – we all have to pay the bills and eat. Yet, sometimes Jewish law, provincial or federal law also affect our finances and ability to make our way in the wider world. We shouldn’t make vows, but promising ourselves to try harder next time to do what’s right just might be motivating in situations that don’t make those choices easy.
Joanne Seiff has written 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. Check her out on Instagram @yrnspinner or at joanneseiff.blogspot.com.