The Workplace-Family Life Dilemma

Rabbi Yoel Domb writes about issues of business ethics related to the Torah portion of the week.

The Exodus was preceded by a period of 210 years of intense slavery and human suffering .The Egyptians original intent was to prevent the twelve tribes from becoming a large and unified nation which would threaten the stability of the indigenous population. Thus Rashi (1:10) explains their fear “if there should be a war ‘they will join our enemies and fight us and leave the country” as a euphemism; the Egyptians feared that they would be the ones banished from their land.

Accordingly, the first strategy which they employed was simply to establish harsh working conditions which would persuade the Jews to emigrate by themselves to a better place (Sforno 1:11), a precedent later adopted by the Nazis in their quest to rid Germany of its Jews. However, this failed miserably, and as the Torah itself emphasizes ” despite their affliction they grew and flourished” (1:12). The Egyptians therefore intensified their efforts to prevent Jewish population growth by creating a quota system. Each worker was promised a large salary on the basis of what he could produce in one day, and this served as his yardstick for future work. The overseers encouraged the workers to sleep at the workplace and maintain this quota in order to disrupt their family life. The ostensible reason given was the necessity to maintain the quota, but Pharoah hoped to halt the demographic leap (Midrash Rabba 1:12)

This policy also failed, due to the tremendous devotion and dedication of the Jewish wives, who used to meet their exhausted husbands at the end of their long workday, tend to their physical and emotional needs and encourage them to have more children (it is important to note that Pharaoh did not enslave the women- the Midrash comments that the lascivious Egyptians hoped to entice them away from their husbands).The Egyptians then attempted to attack the problem from a different angle-they saw that the women would immerse themselves in the Nile to purify themselves before connubial relations, and they therefore forbade the use of the river for ablution (Midrash Rabba 9:9). When this did not prevent the women from purifying themselves, Pharoah demanded that all males should be killed at birth(1: 16)and when the midwives outwitted him, he ordered that the males should simply be thrown into the river.

Interestingly enough, this final extreme measure was very nearly successful in curbing Jewish growth. The midrash describes how Amram, Moshe’s father, decided to divorce his wife because in his opinion there was no point in begetting children in such perilous circumstances. As the leader of the Sanhedrin, Amram was followed by the rest of the Jews. It was only the timely intervention of his daughter Miriam which saved the situation. She argued that while Pharoah had only decreed against Jewish males, Amram’s measure effectively dealt a deathblow to Jewish continuity. Amram remarried Yocheved, paving the way for Moshe’s birth and the subsequent redemption (Midrash Rabba ibid).

The situation in Egypt may appear far removed from our own times, but a fundamental and cogent lesson can be derived from it. The Egyptians had originally declared a subtle war on the institution of the Jewish family. The idea was to enthuse the Jews with the ideal of work until they were inexorably dragged away from their family obligations. This was accomplished by encouraging the workforce to maintain high levels of production, with the promise of increased remuneration. Obviously people who didn’t work were offered worse conditions, and since the workforce was so large and available the Egyptians could afford to exploit their workers with long hours of labour, leaving them with little energy for their families. The offer to let workers sleep at the workplace was intended to make the worker view it as his source of relaxation, even serving as an alternative to his family .

A recent newspaper article shows that in some ways our society follows the Egyptian model. “The average Israeli spends 11-12 hours at work every day.” (Globes, Oct.2,2000) If we add commuting time we find that many people spend very little time with their families, since evening engagements fill up much of the rest of the day. A more worrying phenomenon emerges from another article (Globes, Jan.10,2001) which describes how members of the high -tech companies tend to spend time together after work, at bars and other social arenas. The rationale for this is simple- since they have singular common interests ,they like to devise their relaxation together and not with their families. While most workers feel guilty about neglecting their families (“95% of U.S. workers worry that work is taking time away from their families”-John J. Heidrich Center for Workforce Development, Rutgers University), there is a growing sense of inevitability about the way modern society is constructed.

The Torah is trying to tell us here that subjugating oneself to work at the expense of family can be a form of self-styled slavery ,and the women in Egypt who valiantly fought this attack on the family were directly responsible for the redemption. “In the merit of righteous women of that generation, Israel were redeemed from Egypt.” (Midrash Rabba 1:12) These brave women intuitively understood that the family unit represents the core component of a nation’s identity, which must be upheld even in the most adverse circumstances. The menfolk, burdened by their oppressive work load, could not attend to their wives ,so the women attended to their husbands. The men could not serve as role models, so the women educated their children. Ultimately the nation survived because the women resisted the temptation to abandon their husbands and assimilate Egyptian moral values.

The message for us is loud and clear-The Torah eschews the workplace replacing the home, and warns that this can destroy the very fabric of society, which revolves around a stable family unit. It behooves modern companies to adopt this imperative and to create conditions which encourage family life to flourish, despite their need to meet pressing deadlines and hectic schedules. A practical suggestion might be to consider a wedding anniversary as an official day of paid leave, or to create conditions which enable workers to spend quality time with their children at company-sponsored events. Thus they will continue the tradition of our faithful mothers in Egypt.

Rabbi Yoel Domb is a graduate of JCT and a member of the faculty of the JCT Bet Midrash. He was awarded a fellowship from the Center for Business Ethics for the academic year 2000-2001. He is currently researching topics of business ethics in Jewish Law and is preparing a curriculum to facilitate the teaching of these topics in Rabbinical seminaries (Yeshivot).