Jewish wisdom on attaining work-life balance


So many of us lead very busy lives. Between work, volunteering, self-care, care of family members, nurturing friendships, and all the other things that pull us in a million directions, it can be hard to feel like we actually have time to breathe, let alone successfully juggle these various demands on our time. How, then, can we even begin to live centered and balanced lives?

A few months ago, members of the Jewish group (401)j asked me to lead a “D’var in the Bar” program about Jewish perspectives on work-life balance. When they asked me, and I agreed, I had no idea what I was going to say. But, always a firm believer that the Jewish tradition contains wisdom on just about everything, I began delving into Jewish perspectives on this important subject.

Of course, a few weeks later, I had enough material to teach a year-long class on this topic, but there were a few gems that I felt were especially important. And they all happen to be connected to the Torah readings for the next two weeks.

The first important piece of wisdom Jewish tradition has to offer is that “work-life balance” is not a helpful term. It implies that there are only two parts to our lives: “work” (which is usually portrayed as bad), and everything else (usually portrayed as good), and that these parts act in opposition to each other. Ideally, they balance each other out, but often one weighs down the other, and they certainly never mutually enhance each other.

In contrast to this, Jewish tradition urges us to consider work as only one aspect of a well-balanced life, alongside our intellectual and spiritual growth, family relationships and relationship to the broader world.

More importantly, we are encouraged to view work not as something that detracts from everything else, but rather as something holy that supports everything else we do.

This week’s parashah, Emor, contains a verse similar to many others throughout the Torah: “For six days you shall perform your work, and the seventh day shall be a Shabbat of complete rest, a sacred occasion” (Leviticus 23:3). Often, we assume the focus of this verse (and others like it) is the seventh day. However, the day of rest is always dependent on there being six days of work before it. Those days of work are just as important and just as holy as the day of rest.

Perhaps, then, one key to attaining work-life balance is to stop thinking of work as something that needs to be balanced out by everything else, but rather to think of work as one of the many holy things we do that can add a sense of fulfillment to our lives.

Second, Judaism recognizes the importance of designating certain times for certain things. Parashat Emor includes a list of the biblical holidays, prefaced by the statement: “These are the set times of the Lord, the sacred occasions that you shall designate at their set times” (Leviticus 23:4). The wording of this verse seems to underscore the importance of having set times that are dedicated to specific activities. Designated times can enable us to be more intentional with our time, and encourage living in the moment, rather than always thinking about what should be done next.

Just as it can be helpful to distinguish holidays – when we focus on God, family, tradition and gratitude –  from other days of the year, so too can it be helpful for us to designate time for work, time for being with family, time for taking care of our health and wellness, and so on.  This designation can be crucial to feeling that every aspect of our lives is getting the attention it deserves.

The third piece of wisdom Judaism offers us when it comes to work-life balance is the importance of looking for balance at different intervals. Parashat B’har-B’khukotai, which we read next week, discusses the sh’mitah year, the year of agricultural and economic rest that took place once every seven years. These seven-year cycles were closely connected to the seven-day cycles of the week, and were also organized into seven seven-year cycles that would conclude with a communal celebration every 50 years.

Why do we need all these different periods of rest? Maybe it is because we are supposed to strive for balance between work and rest in different amounts at different times. To end each and every day feeling as if you gave the perfect amount of time and attention to each area of your life seems almost impossible. But what if our goal was to have a certain amount of balance every day, a certain amount every week, and a certain amount every year, or decade, or lifetime? That goal seems much more attainable – and much more helpful in our search for a healthy balance.

Unfortunately, none of these is a magic cure that will suddenly make all worries about work-life balance disappear. However, these three lessons provide valuable insights into some of the ways that work-life balance can be achieved.

May we all be able to view our work as holy, to designate time for specific activities and use that time with intentionality, and to remember that though balance may not be achieved in a given day or week, it may yet be possible to achieve over a year or a decade. And may these lessons help us all to lead lives of balance, in which we feel that each aspect of our lives receives the attention it deserves.

RACHEL ZERIN is a rabbi at Temple Emanu-El, in Providence.

D'var Torah, Zerin