The Workaholic


Two visions of life:

The Pampered Employee: “What I demand [of My creations], I demand not in accordance with My capacity, but in accordance with their capacity” (Midrash Rabbah, Bamidbar 3:13). “G-d gave us this Torah, it is a tree of life… and He promised us that if we observe it with joy and gladness of heart and pursue its wisdom constantly, He will remove from us all that may prevent us from keeping it, such as illness, war, hunger and the like, and He will bestow upon us all the blessings that support our efforts to uphold the Torah, such as abundance, peace, and wealth, so that we need not preoccupy ourselves with the needs of the body but are free to study the wisdom [of Torah] and observe the mitzvot” (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Repentance, 9:1).

The Driven Workaholic: “The day is short, the work is much, the workers are lazy, the reward is great, and the Master is pressing” (Ethics of the Fathers 2:15).

Which is it? Is life a comfortable job or an ever-elusive obsession? The first perspective derives from the Midrash and Halachah and describes the basic law of creation: G-d is indeed a benevolent boss who never demands from his employees more than their capacity, provides them with a supportive work environment, and generously supplies their needs. The second perspective is from Ethics of the Fathers, which is the section of the Talmud that addresses the “chassid”—the individual who endeavors to expand the limits of his potentials and serve G-d “beyond the line of the law.”[1]

For the chassid, the day is never long enough. The work is always much—his goals far surpass his natural capacity. No matter how hard he works, he is always “lazy” in his own eyes, for he can never rid himself of the feeling that he could and should have done more. To him, G-d is not a benevolent employer but a driving taskmaster he will never satisfy.

The chassid’s path through life is fraught with anxiety and frustration. His prevailing state of mind is one of self-doubt, inadequacy and unworthiness. But for one who chooses this path, the “reward is great.” For unlike his tranquil brother, he knows the exhilaration of pushing himself to the limit and beyond, of transcending his finite self to touch the infinity of the Divine.

Based on an address by the Rebbe, Sivan 16, 5750 (June 9, 1990)[2]


[1]. See introduction to Beyond the Letter of the Law (VHH, 1995).

[2]. Sefer HaSichot 5750, vol. II, pp. 512-513.


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