By Rabbi Arthur Waskow
“Six days shall you labor and do all your work; but on the seventh day you shall rest.”
Why? Because this teaches you the deepest truth of the Cosmos, that a rhythm of Doing and Being is part of every molecule and every galaxy, every human and every tree and tiger. (Exod 20: 8-11)
Why? To make real your own freedom – and the freedom of the workers who are bound to you. For only slaves must work all the time. (Deut. 5: 12-15)
Six years shall you labor and make economic growth, but on the seventh you shall rest, yes rest: Restfulness to the exponential power of Restfulness. (Lev. 25: 1-24).
Why? Because the Earth has a covenant with God that requires its right and its duty to rest. If you – that is, WE—refuse to let the Earth rest, it will rest anyway –on our heads. Through drought, famine, flood, plague, exile. (Lev. 26, esp. 31-38 and 43; II Chron. 36: 20-21)
“Six days shall you labor …” But American society is now afflicted by mass unemployment – fourteen million people who want and need full-time jobs but have had their jobs abolished by banks and bosses who are refusing to invest the money that would hire them, and are refusing to let the US government invest that money.
This society is denying people their sacred calling to work — to shape the world in a creative way while receiving for that work a life-enhancing income. Not working on the back of Earth or on the backs of other human beings, but as part of Earth and part of the human community.
How do we know our religious traditions see work as a sacred right? Look at the biblical laws of gleaning and the story of Ruth. She, a penniless foreigner, was entitled to walk onto a rich man’s field and begin harvesting the barley crop.
And if we read these passages, we realize there is also a sacred right for human beings and the Earth to rest. To take time for reflection, song, dance, love.
But our society has perverted that sacred time as well. Millions unemployed, millions overworked. Indeed, millions denied both decent work and decent rest: the desperate single mother who takes three miserable jobs because not one of them pays enough to buy food, rent, and medical care for her and her children.
But even the wealthy are often denied time to rest: the corporate lawyer who must bill 70 hours a week to make partner.
Why is this happening? Because doing, making, profiting, producing, and consuming have been elevated into idols. While corporate profits have zoomed and the concentration of wealth has increased, real wages have remained stagnant for twenty years, and the pressure has intensified to work harder and longer, just to stay in the same place. Varied communities and cultures, eco-systems and habitats, regional economies and grass-roots citizenry have all suffered from the voracity of our idolatry.
At the root of our religious and spiritual traditions is a critique of these idolatries. We know that human beings need time for self-reflective spiritual growth, for loving family, and for communal sharing. And the Earth itself needs to be nurtured by human communities that allow for it to rest, to renew itself from meeting human needs. Yet the workings of American society work increasingly to squeeze dry the time for spirit, family, and community.
What Americans need is Free Time to renew what it means to be a Free People:
- Free Time for hands-on child-rearing and for loving rather than violent or disconnected family relationships;
- Free Time for neighborliness in neighborhoods;
- Free Time for personal spiritual growth;
- Free Time for active citizen participation;
In short, a self-renewing rhythm of time to help individuals and society heal from overstress and burnout.
“Free time” means not only the nourishment of freer individuals, but the nurturing of a free people— a society — that can take joy in family and community, govern itself democratically, achieve social justice, heal the environment, and seek its spiritual growth.
And Free Time has an effect upon work-time as well. To feel a sense of dignity at work and to feel that our work is worthy and sacred requires that we see ourselves as free human beings. Only people who have some time free from work to shape loving families, caring communities, and self-reflective spiritual growth can see their work as itself a worthy partnership with the Creator in co-creation of the world. Without that sense of dignity, rooted in economic as well as spiritual realities, work becomes ill-paid, ill-respected, dishonored, and degrading, rather than dependable, financially sustaining, meaningful, honorable.
Moreover, a society driven by work is likely —as ours does — to treat the earth, the air, the oceans as mere objects and tools of work and exploitation, rather than sacred aspects of Creation. Free Time is essential to the healing of the earth, as well as the healing of society.
Much of the public dialogue in America worries more about unemployment or “disemployment” than about overwork. But the two are intimately connected:
- Many of us, because many jobs are badly paid or are chopped up into “temporary” or “part-time” jobs by employers seeking to avoid paying benefits, feel forced to take two or three part-time jobs, each of them inadequate and ill-paid, in order to make barely enough money to meet our basic needs. In this way, “underwork” drives people into overwork. Where employers feel unaccountable to the public or the labor movement, some ignore or evade existing laws that restrict “overtime,” and force workers into working longer hours for less pay than laws on the books provide.
- And many of us, when employers increase profits by “downsizing,” find ourselves working far harder and longer to replace one or two workers who have been dismissed.
If jobs with adequate income and dignity were available to all, no one would be forced into overwork. If our culture affirmed dignity more than greed, few would be seduced into overwork.
Is there any way to heal ourselves from these twin distortions of what it means to be human?
On the one hand, society could guarantee everyone who wants one a job utilizing their skills, by investing in creating what we need.
- High-speed, frequent, and comfortable railroad trains that reduce the poisoning of Earth while providing jobs.
- Teachers who know what they are teaching and are open to their students, seeing the school as an arena not for factory tests but for growth into fully functioning citizens, who have the skills and the wisdom for work and the skills and wisdom for repose.
- Artists at the grass-roots of our society, who could revivify the human impulse toward creativity and joy.
And at the same time, a re-framing of our attitudes and laws about work-time.
In biblical society, technology was such that working about five-sevenths of the time (one-seventh of the days resting for Shabbat, plus one-seventh of the years resting for Shabbat Shabbaton) could produce enough to live on.
By the 1880s, when American workers began the struggle for the 40-hour week, with five days of eight hours each, technology was still making at least five-sevenths work-time of every year enough to live on. (In effect, rest on both Saturday and Sunday substituted for demanding a Shabbat Shabbaton, a sabbatical year).
By the 1930s, political struggle and union solidarity had turned the 40-hour week into law and had added several years of Shabbat Shabbaton toward the end of everyone’s life – called Social Security.
But technological advance has now made it possible for enough to be produced in at most a 32-hour work week for the American people to live comfortably.
Indeed, the continuation of mass disemployment in a time of enormous corporate profits and higher stock prices on Wall Street are the result of computerized technology that makes it possible for corporations to produce more and more with fewer and fewer workers. Robbing these workers of their jobs increases corporate profits, while leaving the workers poorer and poorer.
What is missing? The political struggle, in the streets, on the job, and in the voting booth, that over a fifty-year period won American workers the forty-hour week.
The worsening concentration of wealth at the top makes political struggle harder – but not impossible.
The goals should be:
- A four-day work week of seven hours a day, with no decrease in the wages/salary/benefits workers are already getting.
- A Shabbat Shabbaton year of paid education (GI Bill for all) in any year a worker chooses between 35 and 55 years of age.
- Provision for urgently needed exceptions for longer work weeks in arenas like agriculture where crops might rot without fuller work-time, compensated by high overtime pay.
- In other arenas, prohibition on all required overtime and prohibition on more than eight hours a week of overtime even when agreed to by the worker.
- Automatic investment by the US government in worthwhile job-creating projects (from a constantly updated public list) whenever the true disemployment rate rises above 2% (counting as disemployed those who are prisoners, the despairing who have given up on searching for jobs, and part-time workers who desire but have been unable to find full-time jobs).
- Federal subsidies for yearly neighborhood folk festivals of food, art, conversation, etc., wherever 10% of the neighborhood signs petitions to close streets and puts up 50% of the necessary money.
The biblical model teaches personal dignity and spiritual growth, a pulsating economy rather than continuous economic “growth,” a rhythm of restfulness for the Earth, and a constant loving awareness of the Interbreath of life that weaves us all into a sacred Unity.
Can American and world society make these deeply-rooted teachings central to our culture and our politics?
Rabbi Arthur Waskow, Ph.D. founded (1983) and is the director of The Shalom Center. Rabbi Waskow has written or edited about twenty books on US public policy and Jewish thought and practice, the newest of which include a new and revised edition of Seasons of Our Joy (Jewish Publ Soc, 2012) and Freedom Journeys: The Tale of Exodus & Wilderness Across Millennia, co-authored with Rabbi Phyllis Berman (Jewish Lights Publ., 2011). He has also taken a vigorous part in public advocacy and nonviolent protest (including about twenty arrests) on behalf of peace, civil rights, full equality for women and gay people, freedom for Soviet Jewry, and healing for the wounded earth. For a full life-history, see here.
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