by Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis
In my youth the Sabbath was a wet blanket, a puritanical litany of prohibited joys, a series of proscriptions and negations that inhibited productivity, creativity, and fun. The Sabbath was the day of “no” – no, you cannot play ball, listen to the radio, ride your bike. “You shall not do any manner of work.” Why, I wondered, is the Torah so insistent about forbidding labor? I could understand prohibitions against immoral behavior, but who needs a law against working?
Endless work is a curse. After Adam transgressed, God punished him: “In toil shalt thou eat of it all the days of your life. In the sweat of thy brow, in the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread till you return to the ground.
“Why, then, are so many of us willingly embracing the curse of all-consuming work? Why do we want to toil not six days but all seven? Because we are afraid not to work. We fear the Sabbath as slaves fear freedom. If I have free time, with what shall I fill it? With whom shall I spend it? How can I live without schedule, without deadlines, without orders? We complain, of course, of insufficient time for family and friends, but left with twenty-four hours of unstructured time, we become ill at ease. We are frightened of boredom, which the philosopher Soren Kierkegaard called “the root of all evil.” We know how children go crazy when they are bored; it goes double for adults.
Therapists are familiar with this odd phobia: the fear of vacations, of relaxation, of retirement, of leisure. Even the terms themselves are filled with negation. The root of vacation is “vacate,” to cause to be empty or unoccupied. Relaxation is defined as “an absence or reduction of muscle retention.” Retirement comes from the French “retirer,” which means to withdraw. The dread of having a single day away from the office produces in many people what psychologists Ferenzi and Karl Abraham call “Sunday neurosis.” Some of us grow depressed and even ill when the stock market prices stop marching across the screen.
The seduction of work has drained us of our poetry, romance, and intimacy. And, if one follows the psychological literature, it has brought tens of thousands of people to a state of anhedonia, an inability to achieve joy in intimacy.
Sigmund Freud called work and love “the parents of human civilization.” But at the dawn of the 21st century, work – not love – is our chief joy. In The Overworked American, economist Judith Schor informs us that, in the last two decades, the average worker has added on an extra 164 hours – an entire month – to the work year! Vacations have shortened by fourteen percent, and in white households parental time available to children has fallen ten hours per week. In his bestseller, The Time Bind, Arlie Russell Hochschild contends there is a profound reversal in our social psyche: both men and women favor the workplace over home.