Yitro: On defining people by how they earn a living


Exodus 18:1-20:23

Isaiah 6:1-7:6; 9:5-6

Often the first question we ask when we meet a person is, "What do you do?" People feel comfortable identifying themselves by their work. We respond, "I am a dentist," or "I am a teacher," without giving a thought to the logic of defining ourselves by our work.

Personal advertisements in a newspaper often enough use the job title to stand for the person: "Artist and MBA wants…" "Nice Jewish doctor seeks…"

We also describe other people according to their professions. We feel so comfortable with that definition that we often answer with a job title when someone asks, "What is she?"

Perhaps this way of looking at others means something innocent, that this person belongs to the set of all dentists, truck drivers, or what have you.

But perhaps it is less than innocent. It suggests that, by knowing the job title, we would know what we need to about the person — as if job title includes the most precious information about a person, as if by working we earn not only our money but also our value and our identity.

In other ways, we also value ourselves according to productivity. I know this from my own painful experience. When I had no job, I understood unemployment as a challenge to my sense of worth. I felt embarrassed, waiting in line at the unemployment office, wondering, "What if someone I know should see me here?"

Intellectually and religiously, I rejected the equation that productivity equals value; emotionally, I fought against it; but it did not go away. Many people act out the equation with morbid precision when they retire, and shortly thereafter, quietly die.

This equation shows up, thinly disguised, in the field of medical ethics, as a criterion in assessing the "quality of life" of a patient, whenever a care giver or medical ethicist asks, "What do we predict about whether this patient can take his place as a productive member of society?"

I believe that the institution of Shabbat, as presented in this week's Torah reading, constitutes a profound rejection of the notion that the worth and purpose of a person should depend on productivity.

The only ritual in the Decalogue, Shabbat requires us to desist from productivity. Not only we adults, but our servants, our children, even our animals, must refrain from productive activity (Exodus 20:8-11). We must not own, or become, those slaves who cannot stop working. For perhaps 25 hours a week, we cannot turn to what we do to justify our existence; during that period, at least, we must accept our inherent value. We must not do, but be.

Two observations about the presentation of Shabbat in the Decalogue:

First, much as we need therapy for our over-programmed lives, the Shabbat does not appear as mere therapy. The Torah emphatically does not advise us, saying, "Each of you would enjoy life better if you kept a day free from productivity." It does not say, "All of you would form a more cohesive community if you had the same day off."

Perhaps the Shabbat does achieve both of these therapeutic ends for those who keep it. The Torah commands that we refrain from productive activity on the Shabbat and demands that we make the Shabbat holy. Perhaps we need the respite from work and the chance for holiness of Shabbat so desperately that a mere suggestion would not suffice.

Second, the Torah, in this passage, relates the institution of Shabbat back to the six days of creation. I understand this to mean that our need for some sort of Shabbat appears built-in to our very natures. Physically, we can go without Shabbat, but I suspect that something in our souls experiences the lack of Shabbat as a dislocation.

I wonder if, when we do not take a Shabbat, we risk becoming people who cannot rest, who feel the constant pressure of trying to produce something of such quality that it would justify our existence. If we have value because we are human beings, we have that value all the time. If we have value because of our job titles, hardly any job title could be fancy enough to make us matter. If we have value because of what we do, hardly anything we do could be that important. And if we identify other people by their work, we diminish them and we diminish ourselves.

Keep a good Shabbat.