In this season of Passover and Easter, I’ve been thinking about work.
The Last Supper was a Passover Seder, which is a ritual meal that tells the story of the Exodus from Egypt. In many ways, Passover is like Thanksgiving, in that family gets together, and remembers a historical event. What is particular about Passover is the detail in which the story is told, how Moses led the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt. Participants in the Seder are exhorted to make a personal connection to those freed from slavery. There is a lot to connect to. This year I connected to my own experience of going from a 90 to a 50 hour work week.
Passover is all about freedom
The Exodus from Egypt is a seminal event in the history of the world, remembered by Jews, Christians, and Muslims who together account for over half the world’s population*. The Exodus, although less salient for the worlds 1.3 billion Atheists, has been highly influential on the secular world as well. Harriet Tubman, hero of the Underground Railroad was nicknamed Moses. So imagine my surprise when I found that a sizable portion of the Israelites wanted to return to slavery in Egypt. Why? Why after generations of slavery, when finally offered the chance at freedom, would anyone want to return to slavery?
The voices to return to slavery were particularly acute at times of uncertainty, when the Hebrews were trapped against the shores of the
Red Sea, or when Moses was absent for forty days and the people began to doubt whether he would return. There were two types of people who argued for a return to Egypt. The first were self-serving people like Dathan, who collaborated with the Egyptians and betrayed Moses to Pharaoh for personal gain. When later exiled by Pharaoh with the rest of the Jews, Dathan continued to advocate for a return to Egypt, presumably so he could regain his wealth and privileges. (Dathan was played by Edward G. Robinson in the movie The Ten Commandments.)
Most people who wanted to return to Egypt were not self-serving, but simply afraid of change and/or the uncertainty of the road ahead. The Dathans of the world prey on the fears and insecurities of other people. Dathan argued that servitude in Egypt would be better than death in the desert. I can’t help but notice the way that Dathan positioned slavery as mere servitude. I am reminded of the way some of my former managers would spin things to encourage me to work over the weekend.
Freedom from chronic overwork
Over the course of one year, I went from working 90 hours per week to working 50 hours per week. My job title never changed, but my boss did – seven times that year. Not one of my seven managers said “Greg, you are working too hard. Let me take this off your plate.” I needed to liberate myself in the midst of a chaotic and highly political environment. The details of that year are a story for another day, but what was key was a revelation that my devotion to the company was a modern form of idolatry. I realized that “doing what is best for the company” was an adoption of a company-first value system, and this Corporate Idolatry was at the expense of my family and my personal health. By reconnecting with people-first values, I was able to drastically cut back my working hours.
Idolatry was very much a part of the story of Exodus. Not only were the Hebrews enslaved, they worshipped the Egyptian gods. The story of Passover makes it clear that the Hebrews were not freed from slavery until they cried out to the one God for freedom. On a metaphorical level, Passover is the story of people who chose an uncertain future that carried the promise of freedom over the known path of slavery.
I made as much money working 50 hours as I did working 90 hours. In a sense, I was working those extra forty hours for free. I obsess about those 40 hours, in part because I think working for free is a form of slavery. Why did I do it for so many years? But that too is a post for another day. Today, I am thankful that I am free.
*For more information on the number of people in different religions, check out The Big Religion Chart, which lists the world Jewish population at 14 million, Christians at 2 billion, Muslims at 1.3 billion and Atheists at 1.1 billion.