Striking a work-life balance
Va’era — Exodus 6:2-9:35
There was a time in my life when I was fascinated by the works of the great psychoanalytic thinkers. Chief among them was Sigmund Freud, and one remark of his has remained with me over the years: “Love and work are the cornerstones of our humanness.” He considered the ability to love and the ability to work the two criteria of mental health.
There was a lesser-known psychoanalyst, a disciple of Freud, whose writings also fascinated me. His name was Otto Rank, and he disagreed with his mentor in many ways. He left “love” out of the formula for the healthy personality. Instead, he inserted his concept of “the will.” For him, our ability to work productively and express our will creatively were the cornerstones of our humanness.
Much more recently, I have come to ponder the nature of spirituality. I have become convinced that the ability to engage in meaningful work and the capacity to exercise one’s will creatively are two essential components of spirituality.
In this week’s Torah portion, Va’era, we read about the first stages of the redemption of the children of Israel from bondage in Egypt. We learn that freedom from slavery does not come easily. A measure of spiritual preparedness must first be achieved.
Were the Jewish people spiritually ready for redemption? When we read last week’s parsha we were initially inclined to believe so. “Aaron repeated all the words that the Lord had spoken to Moses … and the people were convinced … they bowed low in homage” (Exodus 4:30-31).
This week, however, we learn that that level of spiritual readiness was short lived. “But when Moses told this to the Israelites, they would not listen to Moses, because their spirits were crushed [literally, ‘out of shortness of breath’] and their bondage cruel [literally, ‘out of difficult labor’]” (Exodus 6:9).
Two factors stood in their way: “Their spirits were crushed.” In Rank’s terms, their “will” was crippled. They could not dream, they could not plan, and they could not utilize their creativity. Such a person cannot transition from slavery to freedom.
Their “bondage was cruel.” Freud was correct that productive work was one of the “cornerstones of humanness.” Meaningful work nourishes the soul. But the work that the Jews were forced to do in Egypt was far from meaningful. Such work is poison for the soul, and a poisoned soul is not ready for redemption.
Pharaoh knew all too well how to thwart the initiative of his slaves, how to assure that they would take no effective steps to attain their freedom. “Let heavier work be laid upon the men; let them keep at it and not pay attention to deceitful promises” (Exodus 5:9).
Denied the access to their creative will and deprived of the rewards of meaningful work, the Jews were spiritually handicapped. They could not hear the words spoken to them by Moses — not because their hearing was impaired, but because they were spiritually deaf. Only with Divine assistance could Moses hope to advance his people to the point where they would be ready to hear the clarion call of incipient redemption.
There is a lesson here for all of us. We too are deaf to God’s redemptive messages. Our spiritual condition is woefully inadequate to prepare us to hear higher callings.
Nowadays, it is as if each of us has an “inner Pharaoh” whose malicious intent it is to entrap us into a lifestyle where we not only overwork, but where our work is unfulfilling and, therefore, spiritually unrewarding. There are obstacles to finding and defining a work-life balance that is meaningful. But we must use whatever tools are at our disposal to lift those cruel burdens and free our crushed spirits. Those tools include introspective reflection, contemplation of pertinent religious texts, conversation with like-minded friends, and dialogue with experienced spiritual mentors.
Rabbi Dr. Tzvi Hersh Weinreb is executive vice president emeritus of the Orthodox Union.