Four components for meaningful work
2. Reward: Money or personal development?
The story is told of a person talking a walk in the forest who meets four stone-cutters along the river. He asks each of them one single question: What are you doing? The first answers, “I am cutting stone” (profession). The next one says “I am supporting my family” (reward); the third answers “I will use these stones to build a cathedral” (craft), while the fourth points to the horizon and answers, “I am bringing myself closer to God” (vision). Which stone cutter do you identify with? With the one who defines himself by the title of the job he was given, with the one who works for money, with the one who devotes his all to a certain project, or to the fourth who is fulfilling a long-range vision?
Jewish thought deals with precisely these four components regarding work. Which criterion should a profession satisfy? What is the ultimate reward for work in Judaism? What is the perception that we should change as we complete projects? And what vision is worth getting up for every morning?
Judaism distinguishes between two types of professions. The first is called avoda, labor and the other is melakha, creative work, or craft. The former has a connotation of being enslaved to society [the Hebrew word for ‘slave’ comes from the same root as avoda]. The latter denotes the accomplishment of tangible products. The difference between them is already emphasized in the Fourth Commandment given to the Jewish people:
"ששת ימים תעבוד ועשית כל מלאכתך".
Six days you shall labor [avoda] and do all your work [melakha].”
In other words, each of us has a duty to complete a melakha (to produce a tangible deliverable) every week. A modern craft can be compared to a programmer’s writing a piece of code, an architect drafting a sketch, a marketing manager creating a new campaign. For a consultant, establishing a report with actionable recommendations; for a lawyer, putting together a case; for a painter, creating a piece of art, and so on... If so, Jewish work is work that has a completion, weekly.
Unfortunately, many of us “just” spend time at work. Instead of realizing our ability to produce a real product weekly with added value, we are rewarded for the time we spend at work. According to the Exodus story, this situation precisely denotes what we call ‘slavery’. The term “slavery of Egypt” symbolizes frustrating work, as the Israelites experienced for 210 years in Egypt, in contrast to the “crafts” that were used in the construction of the Temple, a tangible product built of 3,000 years ago. It is interesting to see that the translators of the Bible also chose two different concepts in Latin to define avoda and melakha: avoda was translated as labor, which means slavery, while melakha is translated into opus, which means an artistic creation. What did you produce this week?
If the first stone-cutter defined himself through his job title in LinkedIn, the second one sees his work as a means of achieving something else (“I am not a stone- cutter, I am the breadwinner of my family”). The concept of reward has several configurations. For the businessman, it usually means money. For the politician, influence, while for the artist, recognition. The beginning entrepreneur is driven by impact. A performance coach thinks in terms of personal development, and so on. This is a relatively new phenomenon, where more and more people are choosing work according to the quality of life derived from it. In other words, the reward we work for is not necessarily only monetary but includes other aspects. This is the innovation offered by Judaism.
The concept of blessing – which is the ultimate reward – does not include either money or quality of life or personal development. It includes all three. We see this clearly in the blessing of the Kohanim, also known as the three-fold blessing, due to its three components. The first part, “May God bless you and grant you peace,” means money, since Rashi interprets “bless” to mean “your material goods will increase.” The second part, “May God shine His face upon you and be gracious to you” focuses on personal education / development, while the last part is “May God turn His face unto you and put upon you peace” (peace in wellbeing, peace of spirit, and peace with those around us.)
In other words, quality of life + personal development + money are the components of Jewish micro-economics. A fascinating fact in this context is that macroeconomics also ranks the countries “best” to live in according to the same three parameters. The OECD indeed classifies countries according to the Human Development Index, which is based on the level of education provided by the country (personal development), its GDP per capita (money), and life quality (wellbeing).
A few months ago, an impressive man who had accumulated an estimated fortune of hundreds of millions had dinner with us. He told us, “All my life I was taught that the main parameter is how much capital you have accumulated, and now I understand that the main parameter is how much you have realized your potential.” Jewish reward is measured by three components: quality of life, money, and personal development.
1. Profession: Work or Craft?
3. Build a project or pass the time?
Unlike the first two stone-cutters we met along the river, the third defines himself differently. Not by the job title (“I am a stonecutter”), not by the reward he gets from it (“I support my family”), but by the actual product he leaves behind (“I am building a cathedral”). The Torah also invites us to think. Is it our job to complete the construction of the stones? (on the way to realizing a life project, building a product, designing a service). Or perhaps we are devoting energy to everything that can advance the interests of the company we work for. In other words, are we measured by the value we create or by the amount of time we spend at work?
According to the Bible, our forefathers were slaves for many years in Egypt. They worked from morning until night for food, a place to live, and security. They sold time for money. Their output was measured by the amount of energy (kilowatts) devoted per hour (time) [a formula that is relevant to a large number of us today]. Until a revolution took place. The moment they were freed from their “labor” with the Egyptian employer, they became masters of their own time. “This month is for you the beginning of months” (Exodus 12). That is, from now on, this month (the unit of time) belongs to you, and no longer to your employer. To work on a project-centered basis and not against our time, is such a central component that it is mentioned on every holiday. “Who sanctifies Israel ... and time (Veha-Zmanim)”. This means Israel overcomes the time constraints, as alluded to by the explanation “Who sanctifies Israel…over time”
Jewish work is also manifested in the fact that the Jewish people are given the potential to control time, and not be a slave to time. For the employers amongst us – employers have the following obligation: Every task we place in the hands of others should be measurable. Prepare X slides (for a particular presentation), develop X functions (for a technological product), produce X words of content (for building marketing materials), etc. This is what we learn from the story of the employer who was found blameworthy for telling his slave to dig until he returned. The Gemara says “Terrible! He should have told him to dig a hole one meter deep.” A clear measure, depending on the product rather than how long it takes, is fairer, more encouraging, and also more effective.
4. The vision – mine or someone else’s?
If you do not define yourself through the role you play, the reward you seek to achieve, or the work you complete, you are probably from the same small group that seeks to realize a certain vision. The vision is the fourth component. Look at the LinkedIn profile of your ten good friends. How many of them clearly stated what professional vision they wish to achieve? Very few, if any. This is also because some of us are busy realizing someone else’s vision. There is a kind of “פרוכת”, a curtain” (i.e., a partition) that separates the vision of the individual from the vision of his employer. This phenomenon was known in Jewish thought for thousands of years. Indeed, the Egyptian employer employed our forefathers at labor that was called in Hebrew ‘פרך’, which means that there was “פרכות”, the quality of partition, between the employer’s aspirations and the aspirations of the workers. Is this true for some of us? If so, it is time to redefine our vision.
Jewish perception proposes to include at least three components in defining our vision: where, how, and what. Where we want to go, how we will get there, and what product we offer. “My vision is to help 1,000,000 people maximize their performance through life dashboards for individuals and scale projects for mid-size companies. The products I offer are Performance Dashboards (individuals or organizations), 100 days Scale programs, and leadership workshops.” Where, how, and what. The Torah also defines the vision and function of man – to complete creation (where) through smart exploitation of its resources (how) in order to build products or services that advance mankind (what). (Genesis 1:28 – Ramban). In other words, there is a supreme vision to improve the world, and the idea is that our personal vision must advance the supreme vision in a particular way. We can also take away a strong message for the employers among us. It is our duty to ensure that the organizational vision will also advance the personal vision of the members of our group. And to make sure that there is no “curtain” between our vision and theirs since an employee who fulfills his vision at work is a more satisfied, happier, and more productive employee.