14 Elul 5779
Our challenge nowadays: How can we balance all the things that we want to do and all the things that we want to be at the same time? If a person only works, and only thinks about work night and day, and if one has no time for one’s spouse or their children, and if one has no time for making a contribution to the society in which one lives, we say that that person is not living properly. We even have a nasty word for such a person. We call the person who lives this way a ‘workaholic’.
If a person chooses to devote all their time to their family, and never goes out into the community, and makes no contribution of any kind to the society in which one lives, we do not approve of that either. We call such a woman a ‘housewife’, or a man, ‘househusband,’ and while that term was once a compliment, today it is not. If a person says: “I am just a housewife/husband” today, some may say it with embarrassment. In our society one who does nothing outside the house, or a person who has gone to college and learned a skill but who does nothing but clean and cook and take care of the house is considered kind of old fashioned.
And if a person spends all their time raising their children and caring for them, if one checks constantly on how well they are doing in school or in sports or in whatever they may be doing, we have a name for this kind of a person too, and it is not a nice name. We call such a person a ‘helicopter parent’, because all of their energy, day and night, is devoted only to their children.And if a person only works or only takes care of their family, and never goes to a meeting, and never makes a contribution to any of the causes that make our community a better place in which to live, we do not admire this person either. We consider such a person selfish or self centered.
So what should a person do? If you work too much, they call you a workaholic. If you stay home from work and focus only on your children, they call you just a housewife/househusband or they call you a helicopter parent. And if you are involved in the community, if you are a leader of the Temple or many other organizations and worthy causes, some look at you and they wonder: “Why isn’t she/he home paying attention to their family instead?” or “Why isn’t he/she using their skills to help their family financially by working at some job instead of being a volunteer? And some say when you are not around: “work that pays nothing is probably not worth anything.” So what should you do?
These are the questions that every modern man and woman has to contend with nowadays. Lisa Belkin, who writes a column on these kinds of questions for the New York Times puts it very simply. She says that you can only succeed in work if you give it a hundred percent. And you can only succeed at home if you give it a hundred percent. And you can only succeed in service to the community if you give it a hundred percent. And then she says: “But nobody has three hundred percent to give!” So what should you do? And how should you balance the competing and the conflicting demands on your time, which make the work of a trapeze artist seem easy by comparison?
This week’s Torah portion, Ki Teitzei (Deuteronomy 21:10 – 25:19) suggests an answer to this difficult question that we all struggle with. The text instructs us when one should be deferred from the army. The Torah says that anyone who is engaged but who has not yet married his bride is deferred from the army for one year. During that year, the Torah says: “let him go home and bring joy to his wife”. If you take that law seriously, it means that family life is even more important than the safety of the country. It says that if a man has a conflict between fighting for the survival of his country and the obligation to have a family and to bring joy to his wife, his obligation to his wife and family come first.
That is what this passage seems to say. The rabbis later in the Mishnah says, “if a soldier is engaged but not married, he is deferred from fighting, but not permanently. It is only during this year that he is not sent to the front lines, for it would be a tragedy if he fell in battle and left his new bride a widow. But what does he do during that year instead” The rabbis teach us that while he is at home with his wife, he must also serve in the quartermaster corps, or whatever they called it in those days. He is assigned to a unit that is located near his home that packs food and water and other supplies that are to be sent to the soldiers who are on the front lines. And, if there are too many bridegrooms—more than are needed for this task—then he is assigned to repair the roads—for the army and for the community. So it is not really a complete deferment. He is protected from going to the front lines, but he is still required to do some service—for the army and for the community.
And so I would suggest that we understand the responsibilities that we have today in the same way that the Mishnah did back then. Family is important, and therefore each parent, ignoring traditional norms—should receive parenting leave from their jobs when a child is born so that they can carry out their tasks as parents, but that does not mean that they are permanently excused from working. Home is important and so parents should be absolved from community service for a time, but then they should be expected to go back to doing their share for the welfare of the community. Work is important, but parents should be absolved from their responsibilities to their jobs while they bond with their infants and then they should go back to their jobs. What the Mishna is saying is that every responsibility is important, but only in its proper time.
Each of the conflicting and competing tasks that call upon us is important and even sacred. And we should strive to fulfill them all. But we cannot do them all at the same time. And sometimes we have to give each one of our tasks a third of our time and energy or postpone them while we do another task that has priority at the moment.