Helping the Chronically Overworked Find Life Balance

Should Working Seven Days a Week Carry the Death Penalty?

Chapter 10: The People-First Life Part 14

According to the Torah, the basis for traditional Jewish law, the penalty for working on the Sabbath is death by stoning. Is this just another example of the grumpy, jealous God of the Old-Testament, or is there something we can learn today?

I don’t think it is a coincidence that the Sabbath was first introduced in the Bible when the Israelites were slaves in Egypt. (Moses asked that the Israelites be given a day off.)  As slaves, they did not have control over their time, and needed to do what the taskmaster asked them to.

And we can never forget that in Egypt the Israelites worshipped the idols of the Egyptians. It is amazing to me how often the Israelites tried to go back to Egypt. In fact, the Israelites made it all the way to the border of the Promised Land, chickened out, and tried to go back to Egypt. As a result wandered for 40 years in the desert. The story of the death penalty for working on the Sabbath took place during the time in the desert.

I see the Shabbat Laws in the context of cultural change. The Israelites were a people who would not change.

The draconian nature of the punishment for working seven days a week highlights both the difficulty of getting people to stop working, as well as the importance of a time to recharge for human health and welfare.

In addition, I know from firsthand experience how addictive the always-on experience can be. And from from a business standpoint, there is a competitive advantage, at least in the short run, of being open seven days a week. The death penalty solves both of these issues – it levels the playing field for all businesses, and for all people.

But punishment alone is tough sell for changing behavior. Jewish Laws and customs also describe the Sabbath as a taste of the World to Come (Heaven). Shabbat is a day of contemplation and life-affirming activities. For example, Jews are commanded to have a festive meal, take a nap, and have sexual intercourse.

Let me get this straight, once a week I am commanded to eat well, get extra sleep, and have sex?  Throw in watching a college basketball game and it really is heaven for me.

So the lesson for recovering corporate idolators is this: combine some hard and fast rules to limit work, and plan some fun activities in it’s place.

For me, a day without work means no email, no writing, and no social media. I’ll be honest, it is hard for me, even today. I try, and most weeks I succeed. Living in the post-idolatry world does not mean never making a mistake, or a problem free life, but it does mean a deliberate effort to steer towards the family.

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What Can We Learn About Layoffs From the Story Of Abraham In The Bible?

Chapter 7: Secure Your Identity

In the last post, Janet solidified her identity as a people-first person (as opposed to a company-first person) only after she was laid off from her job.  The company culture was difficult, and put a high premium on putting the company first.  The story of Abraham in the Bible also starts with a journey.  Abraham leaves a society of idol worshippers, starting a journey into the wilderness. Abraham leaves at God’s command, which on the surface seems like very different circumstances than a layoff.  Hold that thought while we return to Abraham’s backstory, which is captured in the Talmud, a collection of stories and commentary that fills in the gaps in the Torah (aka the Five Books of Moses in the Old Testament.)

I shared the Talmud story of Abraham smashing the idols in his father’s shop at the start of Chapter 2.  These clay statues played a central role in Sumarian life.  To challenge idolatry was to challenge a foundational element of the culture, and by extension the power of King Nimrod. When Abraham was brought to court to explain, he did not back away from his central message.  “If you are so wise, King Nimrod, why do you worship gods made by human hands, and why do you call yourself a god when one day you will die like all men made of flesh and blood?”[i]  (You can read the whole story here.)

Nimrod proceeds to jail Abraham for a year without food and water, and then to throw him into a fiery furnace, both of which Abraham survived through divine intervention.  Let’s for the sake of argument, say that this is an allegory and not literally true.  How then, did Abraham survive, in an era thousands of years ago when the rule of the king was absolute, and “dead bodies floated along the Euphrates.?”[ii]  In my opinion, it is because Abraham was teaching a set of values that gained a following.  Rather than create a martyr, maybe Nimrod sent Abraham and his followers into exile.  It was only later reported that Abraham left of his own accord, to  “spend more time with his family.”

What does this say about Abraham’s identity?

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[i] The Classic Tales: 4000 Years of Jewish Lore by Ellen Frankel. Jason Aronson Inc (1993) P 54-56.

[ii] The Gifts Of The Jews by Thomas Cahill Anchor Books (1998) p. 93

The Search For Universal Values I: The Ten Commandments

Chapter 2: Idolatry Then & Now

The Search For Universal Values I: The Ten Commandments

20% of the Ten Commandments Concern Idolatry

In the last post, I argued that a culture of idolatry is built on relative values, which is in contrast to the idea of a single creator who taught a single set of universal, absolute values that do not change with circumstance.  “The Search For Universal Values I: The Ten Commandments” is the first in a series of posts to define a set of universal values.

According to Thomas Cahil, in his books The Gift of the Jews, the Ten Commandments are a great place to start when looking for a universal set of values.  The last eight “commandments “reflect a tendency that is already there,” a set of ideas that at a high level are fairly uncontroversial.   But what about the first two commandments?  I don’t think it’s a coincidence that twenty percent of the Ten Commandments concern idolatry. (In fact as a marketer, 20% of anything will get my attention.)

The first commandment affirms the supremacy and unity of God, and the second forbids the worship of other gods.  But one need not be a believer to benefit from a universal set of values.  From a humanist standpoint, the first commandment (I am the Lord your God) can be interpreted as “Follow this set of universal values”.  The second commandment (You shall worship no other God but me) can be interpreted as “Accept no substitutes.”

Value systems matter – they impact how we make decisions, and what we do in life.  And the first two commandments together argue that there is a single set of values that does not change with circumstance. This stands in stark contrast to the sensibilities of the Ancient world, with many gods each with its own set of values.  But what is that set of unchanging values?

I discovered as I studied further, that The Ten Commandments don’t hold any special place in Judaism.  They are but 10 of 613 commandments in the Torah. (The Torah is the Hebrew word for the five books of Moses in the first half of the Old Testament, which is the foundation of Jewish law and tradition.)  This was going in the wrong direction – as much as I like the idea of a set of universal values, it would be impractical and career-limiting to walk around with a Torah Scroll under my arm.  I needed a way to summarize the entire Torah in three bullets.  Moreover, if the values are truly universal, they should exist in other religions and philosophies from around the world.

The answer for me came once again from the Talmud, a collection of stories and Rabbinic commentary that was compiled ~ 200 C.E.

It happened that a heathen came before [Rabbi] Shammai and said to him “Take me as a proselyte, but on the condition that you teach me the entire Torah, all of it, while I stand on one foot.” Shammai instantly drove him away with a builder’s measuring rod he happened to have in his hand.  When the heathen came before [Rabbi] Hillel, Hillel said to him “What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow man.  This is the entire Torah, all of it; the rest is commentary.  Go and study it.”[i] 

“What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow man” is the Jewish version of The Golden Rule.  The heathen in the story is by definition an idol worshiper (the only monotheistic religion at the time was Judaism.) So therefore the only thing needed to escape idolatry was the Golden Rule.  And as we shall see in the next post, the Golden Rule is found in more than a dozen religions and philosophies worldwide.

Note: This post is an excerpt from Busting Your Corporate Idol: Self Help for the Chronically Overworked, a 5 Star Amazon Best Seller in the Work Life Balance Category. Learn more.


[i]  Book of Legends, Sefer Ha-Aggadah Legends from the Talmud and Midrash. Edited by Hayim Bialik and Yehoshua Ravinitzky.  Translated by William Braude.  Schoken books 1992. p 207

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