Toward a Meaningful Life with Simon Jacobson
Radio Show Transcript – July 30, 2000
Rabbi Simon Jacobson: Welcome to Toward a Meaningful Life. This week we’re going to deal with a popular topic: “Work—Making a Living, Making a Life.”
Now it may sound like a non-controversial and non-provocative topic, but I’ll try to infuse it with some type of challenge—in a way, some of the most challenging things in our lives are ones that are beneath the surface or invisible, not the “in-your-face” type of challenges, but things that are just part of our lives and seep into our rituals and habits.
Work is part of that; we all need to work and we all need to make a living. Some call it a career, others call it a profession, still others call it a hassle. Everyone has a different name for it, but to most, it’s a necessity. Some see it as a necessary evil; some see it as the most fruitful activity that we do.
There’s an expression, “You are what you eat.” The question is the same with work: Are you what you do? Are you what you work at? Or not? These are important questions because, especially in America, work takes up so much of our time. If you compare it to European countries and other cultures, work has never been as dominant a presence there as it is in our own country, both with the number of work hours as well as the focus on developing a career and becoming prosperous (if G-d so wishes).
So work has become a very prominent part of our lives, to the point where we have a challenge and battle between work and home, work and vacations, and the general oppression (as someone called it) of economy or capitalism.
I know people who cannot distinguish between the work they do and who they are as human beings; between their souls and their bodies; between their souls and their activities. Often we hear the expression: my soul has died, or my soul has been compromised, in the workplace—whether because of the need to conform to marketplace standards or just simple resignation (as Thoreau put it, a life of quiet desperation). Regardless, we simply go to work day after day and it becomes a monotony or ritual.
Work can kill something inside each of us. The meraglim, the scouts in the Bible, put it best. When Moses sent them to scout out the Promised Land before the Jewish nation entered the land, they came back with a report in which they summed up the challenge of the workplace in three words. They said, “Eretz oycheles yoishveoh,” “It is a land that consumes its inhabitants.”
Now who of us cannot say that we have experienced at least a taste of being consumed by work, by our employers, by the general oppression, by clients, by the pressures or the need to rely and depend on others?
How far will we go to make a sale? How much will we compromise ourselves? Some even question whether work is fundamentally ethical, because, for example, when you negotiate, you cannot be up front about everything, you can’t expose all your cards. And a big part of work is negotiation—negotiation with your boss, negotiation with other clients, negotiation between companies.
There’s a statement in the Talmud about work, even the healthiest form of work, and even the healthiest worker, has an element of idolatry in it. Not idolatry in the overt sense, but refers to not being up front about everything or being completely sincere about all your intentions.
That doesn’t mean you have to be insincere or a crook, or unethical, but the fact is, work is an environment that is conducive to a form of psychological manipulation where you convince someone of something. And we all are subjective in that environment. What damage does that do to our souls? What damage does that do to our standards? To our personal lives?
Now, given the above, is it reversible, is it inevitable, is there a way to avoid it?
I said before that work is an inevitability in the world we live in. As a kid I always used to wonder what would happen if they just abolished money—if there were no such thing as money and everybody could just buy whatever they wished. I asked my economics teacher what would happen if they just printed as much money as everyone would need. What would be missing?
That was my naïve attitude as a kid, and the answer I got was that no one would be motivated to do anything. No one would be motivated to keep their store open, for example. If you could buy anything you want, why open the store at 8:00 in the morning? You might as well sleep late and open at 11:00 and close at noon. There would be no motivation.
Growing up and hearing that, that on a very basic level money motivates people, I still grapple and struggle with the issue. Does that mean that if we were motivated some other way, we wouldn’t need to work? Or is making money only part of the motivation?
The truth is, in Jewish philosophy, there’s an expression, Adam l’amol yevaled, “Man was created to toil.” So it’s not just that there’s no other way to motivate people and the only way to make money is to work. There’s also a certain area of work that is part of our fundamental and inherent need as human beings to produce, to bear fruit. Gratification comes from bearing fruit, and work allows us not just to take but to give.
A young child, a newborn, is provided for by its parents, so you can’t call a young child a worker. As we grow older and begin to produce, whether first through work at school or at a part-time or summer job, and then finally going out into the workplace, we are essentially producing, bearing fruit. We begin to give. And that giving element of work is an extremely great blessing; as a matter of fact, it’s how we become G-dlike: that we’re not just on the receiving end, but we’re G-dlike in the sense that we create. We create as G-d creates. We have the ability to initiate, to pioneer, to tread new ground.
That’s work in its optimal sense. Yet, there’s also the other element where we work because we need to make money. It is in that context that work can become very much a necessary type of evil, as I said, one that just consumes us.
There’s a story that always comes to mind about this topic about a fellow in old Russia who was a great scholar and diligent student who went into business after he married. He went into the galoshes manufacturing business and made a killing, because in those days, the streets weren’t paved, and so the unpaved streets were very muddy. Galoshes saved many shoes and it was a very opportune and lucrative business.
The more he developed his business, the more—as King Solomon says, “Marbeh nechasim, marbeh daageh,” the more possessions, the more anxiety—the more consumed he became to the point that his whole life was consumed by this galoshes business.
Years later he came to visit his Rebbe, his great teacher, of whom he was such a special and dedicated student. His Rebbe took one look at him and realized that he was not the same person. He said to him, “You know, I have seen feet in galoshes, but I’ve never seen a head in galoshes.”
The Rebbe saw that his head, his mind, and his whole spirit were consumed by the galoshes. So it’s one thing to walk with your feet in galoshes, but it’s another thing to have your head in them to the point where there’s nothing else besides those galoshes.
That captures, in essence, the balance between the two. Perhaps the reason that some of us are so overwhelmed and so consumed by work is that we don’t have another side. Once we become identified with our work and our job, it becomes increasingly difficult to pull back and say, what else do I have in my life? And the way we balance it is usually through vacation and other things.
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Jacobson: Okay, we’re back. Some people use the expression “Get a life,” which often means, get a job. Are our lives our jobs or are our jobs our lives?
In talking about the galoshes story and distinguishing between where you put your mind and your feet, it requires self-appraisal to determine what exactly are your priorities. If someone were to ask you, “What exactly are you here for?” work is often what provides us with the strongest reason to be. With your work and your pay, whether in a white-collar or blue-collar job, if you feel you’re making a contribution and you feel valued there, that usually becomes the dominant factor in your life. We tend to gravitate to where we’re valued.
That’s where our souls can get lost. In general, we’re drawn by the forces around us and often climbing the career ladder of success becomes the compelling voice that defines who we are. After the passage of years, you suddenly stop and reflect and say, “Is this all there is to my life? Is this how I define myself?”
There is one type of situation where someone is blessed to have a job which is spiritually gratifying and ideologically invigorating, which of course is the rare instance.
Even there, one can question whether that satisfaction is generated by the work or generated from within. In other words, is it initiated by the fact that you yourself found a job that satisfies that inner drive, or is it just circumstances that just led you that way.
But it’s a very special gift to be blessed to have a job that in some way allows your soul and spirit to express itself.
But I think I’m correct in saying that most of us don’t have that type of position. The work we do is usually somewhat dichotomized or even divorced of who we really are and sometimes who you really are is lost and swallowed up and is submerged in what we do. It’s when work becomes our identity that we lose our identity.
On the other hand, not to have a job and just to focus on your inner spirit is often self-destructive as well. The fact of the matter is, we do live in a material world and we do need to have galoshes on our feet, and so being, that becomes the battle and the conflict between the need to find inner purpose and the need to survive.
I’m a working man myself, but I must say, I’ve been pretty pleased that I’m able to do a radio show like this and be the host. It’s very gratifying because though it’s work, it’s work that is secondary to the spirit of the work. In other words, to just sit here and gossip, for me, is not the objective. The objective is to be able to share words, to use these airwaves to be able to share something spiritual, something meaningful, something that can bring some solace, purpose, meaning, comfort to you out there and to myself. That’s ultimately the most gratifying thing that a teacher or educator can do, and I feel humbled and honored to be in that type of position.
Okay, let’s go to Philip on the line.
Caller: Hello Rabbi. You and I have spoken about this so many times, but what about people who have to work 50 weeks out of the year just so they can have a life for two weeks?
What about people who have jobs to support their families? It may be the most important thing for them, it’s what they do to get some gratification maybe, but most of the time they just can’t wait until they get home, though they put in their time at work, and then they wait for those two weeks to get their vacation. How are they to get meaning out of their lives? They can’t just quit. Not everybody is as lucky as maybe you are, to be able to do what you like, or like some songwriters or people you know.
What about the majority of people? How are they going to bring meaning to their lives while they have to do these jobs that they have to do?
Jacobson: Well, you know, I honestly wanted to hear that dilemma described in different types of terms, from different people calling here, because to address it properly requires looking at it case by case. But the point I was beginning to address was, how do you battle the challenge of—to use the language “it’s a land that consumes its inhabitants,” and your higher values?
The problem I find is that if you ask them, many people cannot really articulate, “Who are you?” Most people would define who they are by the activities or work that they’re involved in, and we haven’t really been trained or educated in our society to be able to speak about ourselves independent of what we do or work at.
Try it out with this exercise. The next time you go out with or speak to a friend, talk about life and say, “Let’s not mention at all the work or the job that we do.” You’ll find that there won’t be that much to discuss, because the fact is, work is a major factor in our lives.
Ultimately, my answer has to be, going back to the “Meaningful Life” theme, is that you have a soul, and your soul has to be nourished and nurtured as much as the body. Work can become completely a body effort, but the key is understanding that there’s a soul inside of you and more important, there’s a soul inside of your work. Every one of us, by somehow identifying the work that we do with some type of spiritual energy or spiritual benefit that comes out of it, whether a physician or attorney, whether a plumber or a computer programmer, every one of us can in some way spiritualized the work that we do. If you don’t do that, the tension between these two poles will always tug at you and create the dilemma that you’re describing.
Caller: But would you also say that since most of us start working very young and we don’t find out who we are until later, it’s even worse? Wouldn’t it be better if we could have gone to work knowing who we are?
I know for myself I’m still trying to find out who I am, but I know more and more as time goes by so I can look for certain types of things. So people find out later in life. They get set up in a career, and they think that that’s what’s meaningful to them, and then along the way they have certain experiences where they find out who they are and then they’re in conflict because they understand more than they understood earlier.
Jacobson: I appreciate your call and I’ll discuss that in a moment. Let’s go to Daniel on the line.
Caller: I should give you my experience. I’m a scribe…
Jacobson: In other words, you write religious articles.
Caller: Tefillin and sefer Torahs and mezuzahs. I find my place in my job somehow.
Jacobson: Does your job ever conflict with your home life? Do worries of making a living and getting the bills paid interfere?
Caller: Well, so far so good, as they say! I’m quite independent and I try to do besides my job some kiruv work, I try to do outreach to people, and Boruch Hashem.
Jacobson: Where do you live, Daniel?
Caller: Brooklyn. Ocean Parkway.
Jacobson: So let me explain this to the listeners. Daniel is a scribe, someone who actually writes sacred scrolls, whether Torah scrolls, mezuzos that we hang on the wall, or tefillin, phylacteries. When you actually sit and work as a scribe, a scribe has to sanctify himself as he sits and writes, he can’t just be distracted… you can’t have the television or the radio on.
Caller: G-d forbid!
Jacobson: Even if you’re listening to my show, you can’t do that and write those sacred scrolls. Do you do the actual writing?
Caller: Not now this minute.
Jacobson: But did you ever do the writing?
Caller: Yes, I do writing. Just not when you’re on the radio!
Jacobson: I understand. I’m not a sofer myself, but when you’re sitting there and working diligently writing those letters, you’re actually doing the physical work using ink and parchment, there’s a certain sanctity that you feel, like you’re transforming the world in a small way. You’re taking a physical parchment and in some way making it sacred, turning it into something that can be used, whether to read a Torah on Shabbat, or in some other holy activity. Do you feel that?
Caller: You’re asking me if I feel like I’m a tool in the hand of Hashem?
Jacobson: Yes. In other words, what does it do for your personally, and how does it feel to be active in that way?
Caller: I’ve been doing this for 15 years. I become completely nullified.
Jacobson: So you have no ego, Daniel?
Caller: No, I’m lying! No, I mean, I try to be a vehicle. It’s very hard to explain but I feel like a tool.
Jacobson: Well, I thank you for your call Daniel. I think that part of working, and that’s what I alluded to earlier, is not just about the necessary thing as a means to another end, which is making money, but it’s also a way to create, to produce.
However, the production can overwhelm us if we don’t recognize what the means are and what the ends are. The scouts made an error when they said, “It’s a land that consumes its inhabitants,” because they thought that the physical, material world was an end in itself and they just couldn’t handle that.
We need to be able to see our work as a way of bringing G-dliness into this world, in whatever it is that you do in the world. Let’s take a physician. You can say that being a physician is, on the one hand, a very well-paying job but it deals with illness and with death (G-d forbid). On the other hand, a physician is someone who heals the body. If you were to add to that dimension that he doesn’t just heal the body but that the body is a sacred object (because each of our bodies is created in the Divine image), then a doctor is not just healing a body, in a way he’s repairing the world in a microcosm. He’s putting things into place where there may have been (G-d forbid) an accident or a natural illness, or something that puts your body out of whack. If someone has his arteries blocked and a doctor comes and does a procedure that clears them out, even though that blockage may have come through eating the wrong foods or behaving in the wrong fashion, the doctor is in a sense cleansing the passages, making the body work the way G-d intended it to work.
Did you ever see how a newborn healthy child breathes in a perfect pattern? It’s just a pleasure to see. And then as we go through life, whether through the toxins in the environment or eating habits, or smoking, or whatever we do, our bodies become out of sync with the way they were intended to be.
So in a way, a doctor is doing sacred work. He’s trying to help the body return to the way G-d intended it to be. It’s the same thing with a scientist. It’s the same thing with each of us when we take the many different elements in our lives and we create organization. Any profession, then, can be viewed as an opportunity to align ourselves with the Divine picture of how G-d created the world. In that way, each of us then becomes a vehicle: we’re not just working, the work becomes a sacred act.
So it’s interesting that it’s not just about going to a house of worship and praying and studying and doing a mitzvah or a good deed that makes us Divine, it’s also our work—the place where we spend most of our time becomes a vehicle for who we are, if we allow ourselves to see it that way. Obviously, that requires the ability to view it in that light.
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Jacobson: We have Cathy on the air.
Caller: Hi Rabbi. Well, I just want to say that I’m in real estate and mortgage banking and it’s a profession, unfortunately, based on money, how much you’re going to make. Sometimes people take advantage of a lot of people in this profession, but I really try to look at it as helping someone and helping people afford the American dream. It really is rewarding to me to help someone who may not have a lot of money to buy a house. I just wanted to say that I think I’ve found meaning in what I do and it is very important not to get caught up in, like you said, the ends, which is money. There’s more than that.
Jacobson: I appreciate it and commend you Cathy. How would you distinguish why you are different from the people in the company that you work for, I mean, do you think the people that one might consider unethical at their work are ethical in their own personal lives? Or do you think it spills over?
Caller: I don’t think that they’re happy with themselves. I don’t think they find the deeper meaning in what they do, either.
Jacobson: If we had more people like Cathy…
Caller: Well, I’m not saying I’m this wonderful person, but, you know, I like understanding people. I look at it as helping the person, finding out their goals and what they want to achieve instead of saying, “Okay, I’m going to make this much money from this one, and this much commission from this house.”
Jacobson: Do you follow any religion or do you have any spiritual part to your life?
Caller: Well I am Catholic but I don’t really practice.
Jacobson: So this attitude of yours is something that you feel you’ve picked up from home—your parents are this way—or is it just who you are? I mean, you are the rare breed so I’m just wondering, is it something connected to your childhood or do you just feel that way?
Caller: Well, I do believe in G-d and I do feel that G-d will never give you more than what you can handle on one day. I kind of feel like it’s our duty, since we all live on this planet together, to pretty much help each other out, not by making it harder but by making it easier for each other, and I implement that in my work.
Jacobson: And you’ve never had the personal dilemma of maybe not being unethical, but maybe being on the borderline when it came down to your benefit as opposed to someone else’s benefit?
Caller: Sure. I have that struggle a lot.
Jacobson: Because you are in a business where sometimes there’s that thin line.
Caller: Right. I’m a firm believer in what goes around comes around.
Jacobson: I appreciate your call, Cathy. Keep it up and make sure you influence others as well in that same way.
Well, real estate and mortgage banking is definitely an industry that requires a pretty good imagination to figure out how to spiritualize it. But I must say, in an interesting way, besides the fact that we spiritualize the work that we do through being ethical and charitable, and not just thinking about ourselves, we can also find innovative ways of introducing spirituality and deeper meaning into our work and workplace.
I know a guy who has a charity box on his office desk. He is a high-powered executive, and even though he’s a strong negotiator and he does tough business dealings, the presence of the charity box, he tells me, sublimates and in some way has taken off the edge. In some way it’s a reminder that there’s more to life than your success and your gain.
Cathy touched upon something that I want to address, that people are basically insecure, so their money and their amassing of possessions and winning is the only thing that really matters and they forget about the other part of them. But I wanted to say that in addition to being charitable and ethical—which is a way to spiritualize the work that we do—we can also see our work as a metaphor for the Divine, for the sacred.
Let’s take real estate as an example since we’re talking about it. When we work in construction or real estate, in buildings, in homes, it’s interesting that the Midrash states that G-d created the universe because He wanted a home for Himself in this world, a comfortable home, in other words, that spirituality should be at home in this difficult, material world.
So when we look at our homes, they are not just comfort zones—oases and places to escape to and find shelter—a home is actually a microcosm and a model of what G-d wants the entire world to look like.
G-d wants us to take an untamed, material universe, tame the elements, and create a civilized environment. We do that in our own individual homes, hopefully, where the home becomes a reflection of warmth and comfort, and the people who come into your home feel welcomed. There’s a certain vibrancy and warmth in a home.
At the same time, we have to see that the home should become reflective of what we want to accomplish in this entire world. So when a person who’s working in real estate or mortgages thinks in that way, even though it may not be something that comes to mind every moment you’re at work, it gives your work a sense of purpose.
Work is actually a metaphor for the Divine, and this is true if you’re an engineer on a radio station or you’re selling ice cream, or whatever work you’re doing. However, it requires that we change our thinking and focus on how our work contributes to the Divine element.
I once spoke at a medical conference, and I spoke about the Jewish belief that there will be a day when there will be no illness and no death. With all the new developments in technology in medicine and biology, that may be coming perhaps even on a natural level. At the end of the talk, a doctor asked me the question, “Tell me, if that’s the case, that there will be no illness or death, what will we do? What will be our job?”
So after the requisite joke that perhaps that’s why doctors charge so much, in order to save for a long retirement, I said, “Well, you know, doctors then will do something really beautiful. It’s called preventive medicine. The fact that they have an intimate understanding of human anatomy and biology, they will be able to teach us the mysteries and the secrets of the Divine as reflected in the body—‘From my flesh I behold G-d.’” Our bodies are considered to be the most mystical of creations. The mysteries, the intricacies of the human body all reflect on higher and deeper cosmic secrets, because everything is created as a microcosm of the macrocosm.
And the same is true with scientists and technology. The understanding of the inner workings of the universe teach us about ourselves, and the ultimate frontier is when we can find balance between our understanding of the world, nature, the work that we do, and our own souls. That’s the ultimate integration, the marriage between who you are and what you do. As long as you do not connect the two, they are at battle: the battle between body and soul, between matter and spirit.
Basically to sum up (taken from Jewish mysticism as well as the practical side of things), whether we like it or not, our lives consist of two parts: our bodies and our souls; our work and our spirit; what you are and what you do. Initially, they are somewhat dichotomous, and it’s our job to unite and integrate the two.
We need to take the time to focus and create a type of spiritual space which allows us to recognize that we are not just what we do. But at the same time, and I think this is the ultimate challenge, we have to enter and immerse ourselves in our workplace—our feet need to be in the galoshes—and learn to integrate and elevate the work that we do with the making of something spiritual.
This of course includes using the talents, the connections, and the money you’ve made to advance different causes. But I’m going a step beyond that. Even your work itself, the talents that you have developed, the experience that you’ve earned, can itself be reflective of something more Divine.
I know there may be skeptics out there who say, “We live in a rat race. Tomorrow the stock market opens up. People are more worried about where Nasdaq is going and I don’t have time for this integration stuff.”
But that’s just the response of someone who can’t see the forest through the trees, someone who is consumed with the here and now. And don’t get me wrong, all of us have that challenge. I sometimes also feel that way. Sometimes you’re involved in the moment, that’s why we have weekends, that’s why we have Sunday evenings like this and we have other moments where we can sit back and reflect and really prepare ourselves to whether that’s what we want to have, is that what we want to gain with our lives, and really create that type of balanced look at things.
Not that it’s easy at all. A lot of what drives our lives is the insecurity of life itself. The fact that we live in a material world, the fact that our psyches, our subconscious, for that matter our conscious minds know that materialism is impermanent, temporary, creates deep insecurity in our lives. And when we’re insecure, we hold on to the eggs in the basket, the possessions, and the pursuit of money becomes a very strong driving force because it creates the illusion of security.
The more we are immersed in that illusion of security, the more difficult it gets to allow anything else in.
I find many people who are really kind people, who may be ethical in their personal lives, who become sharks at work to the point of being unethical and immoral. Their need to win has a lot to do with security and insecurity and what they think is important in life.
Let’s go to Paul.
Caller: Hello Rabbi. The church has a teaching of Boccachio (?) many years ago in history, teaching people that work was good, but not with the same uplifting spirit: it was partly manipulative. But I do share your value system, and then you mentioned Jewish mysticism and I was wondering if you could say what that means. I don’t understand that term.
Jacobson: Okay, thank you, Paul. About Jewish mysticism, some call it the Kabbalah, and many of the teachings that I share with on this show are essentially universal teachings of spirituality. My own roots take me to Jewish mysticism, and its focus is the understanding of the inner workings of what makes us who we are and what makes this world the way it is.
In a way it’s a form of science except it’s not science in the conventional sense. It deals more with the mystical, psychological and spiritual forces. So to address tonight’s topic, the importance of work and its place in our lives, I gleaned some of what I’m saying here about the battle between the marketplace and our spirit, the battle between matter and spirit, between body and soul, on the mystical concept that there’s a constant struggle or tension between matter and spirit. Some call it the struggle between form and function, between the outer and the inner, between the need to survive and the need to perpetuate our value systems.
So we have a narcissistic or greedy side, and a transcendental and selfless side, and in the battle between the two, many of us succumb to one or the other. Many people have chosen a life of escapism or asceticism, where they separate themselves to just live in a spiritual environment and not have to deal with these challenges.
Most of us can’t really manage that and don’t even find it necessarily optimal, and we more or less resign ourselves to assimilate and we fall into the trap of our work. Mysticism deals with this struggle and battle because it this struggle is essentially the heart of life itself.
We liken this to the analogy of the flame and the wick, where the flame reaches upward and the wick contains it and keeps it down. So there’s a battle between these two, and Jewish mysticism teaches that the ultimate is to integrate the two. We don’t need to compromise them, but to do so, to relieve the tension between matter and spirit, we have to learn how to spiritualize the material.
So it’s one thing to dedicate some time to spirit, which we do whether through prayer, study, or repentance (teshuvah) which is often done during the holiday season. And I say this for all religions, that everyone has his time of introspection.
But that still does not necessarily deal with what to do when we have to go back to work. How do you bring it back to the workplace with you? In Jewish mysticism, one of the ways to do that is to look at everything we do in the world, even the most material of activities, as being somewhat of a metaphor, a channel, a vehicle, for G-dliness. Every person’s work has its different way. I spoke about medicine, and real estate, and its the same in every given area.
If you are in a particular type of job and you’d like to know the spiritual metaphor for this, the meaningful dimension in whatever you do, please email us at email@example.com or call us, and we’ll try to provide that insight.
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Jacobson: A friend of mine who works in the stock market, in investments, called me a few weeks ago and he said things are a little rough, times are down. He said, “I guess we got really spoiled because things were really up in the market last year or earlier this year,” and so he’s riding it through.
So I gave him a suggestion. “Why don’t you make G-d your partner in your business by making charitable gifts? Make G-d your partner, because then G-d is invested in your business of being successful because you have invited Him in. And as a good partner, G-d will do G-d’s part in making sure your business is successful.
And guess what—of course I wouldn’t tell you the story if it didn’t work—it worked! He told me a few days later that it worked.
Now, there are no guarantees in life, but you see from that that it’s not a question of the miraculous, it’s a question of focus. The fact is, you need to have optimism and a sense of confidence in what you’re doing.
Now work can be oppressive, and much has been written about the oppression of work and what it does to us. For it not to be oppressive, you need to be able to keep your head above water, to keep your head in the clouds even when your feet are firmly planted on the ground and in your galoshes.
There was a chassid, a great devout man, who had a business. At the end of the year he was doing his accounting and figuring his income and expenses. He wrote on each line, in January we did this much in income/expenses, in February, etc., and finally when it came to the total for the fiscal year, he wrote: Total= “There’s nothing besides G-d.” (In Hebrew, “Ein od milvado.”)
The question is asked, if he was such a spiritual and devout man that the total was not about money but G-d, then why didn’t he write that on each of the lines: January = G-d, February=G-d?
The answer is, because if he wrote “G-d” on each of the lines, he wouldn’t belong in business. He would belong in a synagogue, in a yeshiva, in an academy. To be a businessman, maaseh u’mattan b’emunah, he has to know his numbers. He has to know how to run his business.
But for him, these were only the means to the end. The sum total, where all this led up to, January, February, March, equaled a higher purpose. To keep that higher purpose as a focus is not an easy thing to do.
Try this exercise. Take out a piece of paper and try to draw a circle and tell me how perfect that circle is. No matter how talented you are, even if you’re an artist, you’re not going to draw a perfect circle.
Now, to get a perfect circle you need a compass. A compass has a needle and you stick it in the paper, hold it firmly, and then you draw a circle with a pencil around that center. What’s the difference between that circle and the one you drew without a compass? The difference is that one has a center and one does not.
No circle can be complete if you do not have a center. Even with a center, you have to have it firmly established so it doesn’t become jagged and incomplete. If your compass is continually shifting, you will not be able to create that perfect circle.
The center of our lives is not our work. Our work is the circle. The center is your spirit, your purpose, and your vision. The work that you do should extend from your center, not the other way around.
If you don’t have a spiritual center and the center you create around your work shifts—you lose your job or you get older, or you get bored with your work—then your circle can never really be complete because it is being driven by the means rather than by the ends.
This has been Toward a Meaningful Life with Simon Jacobson. I want to wish you all that you are able to integrate your matter and your spirit, your work and your life, that they become one integrated spiritual whole, where we make a home for G-d in the work and the activities that we’re involved with.
See you next week.