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Jewish World Review
Feb. 10, 2006
/ 12 Shevat, 5766
Is work really worth it?
Rabbi David Fohrman
The fourth in a series of five articles
We all work for a fair part of our lives. But there's something unsettling about this activity we call work.
This fact was made clear to me years ago by a teacher who took particular delight in tormenting us eager students with what might be charitably called healthy servings of philosophical cynicism. He once assigned a particularly difficult paper to my classmates and myself and then, before we started working on it, he posed the following challenge to us:
"It's going to take you many hours of work if you want to achieve an 'A' on this paper. he began. "But let's say you put in those hours of work, and you hand in a really top-notch draft. And let's say that in the end, I decide to give you that 'A'. What would happen next?"
We shrugged. It was an important class, and most of us really wanted that 'A'.
"You'd be ecstatic", he said. "You might jump up and down and run down the hall to call your mother. You'll tell your friends."
"But then what will happen?" he asked. For how long will you remain excited?
Soon, it's going to wear off; you'll get restless; you'll be ready for something new…"
"So ask yourself", he concluded, "maybe it's just not worth it. Why are you bothering to do this?"
In effect, our professor was asking us to make a simple profit-loss analysis: If you spend sixty hours working on a paper and you get only two or three hours of satisfaction from your grade afterwards well, why bother? It doesn't seem to add up.
Now, don't get me wrong. The professor was not trying to convince us that we should get lazy on our papers. What he was really trying to do was help us clarify our goals.
If we told ourselves that the goal of our work was the satisfaction we would receive in the end well, then, he would argue we were just fooling ourselves. That kind of satisfaction is very fleeting. It evaporates after a couple hours or a couple days.
Rather, he was suggesting, the work was only worth it is if we saw it as satisfying in and of itself. The process of writing that paper, of struggling to meet the challenge, had to be seen as its own reward. If we couldn't take pride in that process; if we couldn't see the process itself as valuable well then, we might as well just forget it.
A TROUBLING CONCLUSION
But the professor's point, while it might ring true, is unsettling. It's not so bad, maybe, when the only thing at stake is your college paper. But when you apply his logic outside the classroom, to life in the real world, things start to look a little depressing. For just about anything worthwhile we do in life requires work, and if we make a similar profit-loss analysis about the meaning of any work, we will reach similar conclusions.
In other words, say you're toiling away on an five-month project your boss assigns you, or that you are spending years writing a book. You invest seemingly countless hours in your labors. How much satisfaction will you possibly get at the end?
Enough to justify your weeks or months of toil?
A friend I know worked tirelessly writing a book for the better part of three years. When it was finally published, his wife threw him a surprise party and invited the neighborhood. He was thrilled with the feeling of completion. But his thrill faded after a matter of days. He was restless, and his recent success was no comfort. He related to me that in the years since finishing the work, he almost never went back to crack open the binding of the book he wrote. That chapter in his life was filed away. It was time to move on.
There's something depressing about this. All of life's successes seem to fade so quickly. No feeling of satisfaction or well-being ever lasts very long. Yes, you can take pride in the process. You can see the act of writing as its own reward. That's all very nice. But if what we did was truly worthwhile, why can't we hold onto the pleasure of actually achieving our goal, as well? Why must the satisfaction of success be so fleeting?
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The more successful you get, it seems to me, the more you are bothered by this problem. One of the most successful men in Jewish history was terribly troubled by this problem; he wrote an entire book recounting how he was haunted by it. That book, canonized as part of the Bible, is known as Ecclesiastes. In Ecclesiastes, King Solomon pours out his frustration at a world that won't let any mark of success stand for very long at all. The world is constantly in motion, constantly changing. Nothing not the fact of success, nor our pleasure in the face of it endures long enough to be ultimately satisfying.
I think the phenomenon that the Torah call the Sabbath is meant, in part, to address this problem. The Sabbath, in a way, is designed to provide an antidote to the "boredom of success". And this, perhaps, may provide a key to a puzzle we alluded to last week. The sages of the Midrash tell us that the Sabbath is "me'ein olam haba" a taste of the World to Come. The phrase rolls off our lips easily; it's something a lot of us have been taught since childhood. But what does it really mean? What fundamental similarity does olam haba, the World to Come, have with the phenomenon we know as the Sabbath?
We suggested briefly last week that the World to Come, the World of Being, is intimately connected with the idea of the Sabbath; that this world-beyond is somehow the native soil in which the Sabbath grows. The secret of this connection, I think, has much to do with the issues we've been talking about in the lines above. We'll try and put all this together when we come back for our final installment, next week.
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JWR contributor Rabbi David Fohrman directs the Hoffberger Foundation for Torah Studies, and is an adjunct professor at the Johns Hopkins University, where he teaches Biblical Themes. He has also authored several volumes of the ArtScroll Talmud.
To comment or ask a question, please
Big Creator, little Creator
Why would the All-Powerful need to rest?
Joe on the Plane and the Meaning of Sabbath
© 2006, Rabbi David Fohrman