Reprinted with permission from Love Your Neighbor And Yourself: A Jewish Approach to Modern Personal Ethics (The Jewish Publication Society).
In contemporary society, marriage and family are often balanced against the values of work. Judaism prizes work: “Six days shall you labor and do all your work” is as much of a commandment as “and the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God [on which] you shall not do any work.”
Jewish sources make it clear that work is important for the welfare of society as a whole, for its contribution to the psychological health and self-worth of the individual, and for the economic support it affords to oneself and to one’s family. For some people, though, the secular work ethic prevalent in contemporary society has made work the sole value, a virtual idol.
Judaism would have us recognize the idolatry inherent in a life devoted exclusively to work and would have us balance our commitments to work with serious time and energy spent on other important values, most especially those of family. Overzealous commitment to work does have a deleterious effect on one’s sexual and family relationships, and the Jewish tradition would have us remember that one’s family should take precedence over one’s job.
This is poignantly stated in the Rabbis’ comment on Numbers 32:16, where the tribes of Reuben and Gad ask to stay in the lands the Israelites had already conquered on the eastern bank of the Jordan River so that “we might build sheep pens for our flocks and cities for our children.” On this the Rabbis comment:
“They were more worried about their possessions than they were about their sons and daughters, for they mentioned their flocks before their children. Moses said to them: ‘Do not do that; what is primary should be primary and what is secondary, secondary. Build first cities for your children and afterwards pens for your flocks.'”
As both men and women in our society are increasingly taking on the responsibilities of careers, then, it is important to reaffirm that both men and women have critically important roles to play in providing marital companionship for each other and in raising their children.
Achieving a proper balance of work and family, of course, is not easy. Since most parents in our day do not live with an extended family nearby, the full burden of supporting themselves while simultaneously rearing children falls completely on them. Moreover–especially for men, but increasingly for women as well–American society defines “success” almost totally in terms of climbing the ladder at one’s job. Years from now, though, when we look back on our lives, most of us will not feel bad that we did not spend more time working; we will instead regret the time that we did not spend with our spouse and children, particularly when they were young and readily available for interaction.
All too often, it is not until children reach their teens or 20s that parents feel secure enough in their jobs to find the time to do things with their children; by that time, however, the children are interested in building their own independent lives and rarely have time or interest in doing things with Mom or Dad. Judaism’s long-term vision about what is really important in life, as embedded in the Rabbis’ commentary on the requests of the tribes of Reuben and Gad, should help us keep our priorities straight as young adults and as older spouses and parents as well.