My whole life people have thought of me as a “hard worker.” I’m generally the kind of person who shows up early, gets the work done ahead of time, and is on the next project. It sounds like a helpful trait to possess, and for the most part it is. However, it often means that I end up taking on quite a bit because I have the organizational skills to manage tasks and the drive to complete them in a timely fashion. This wasn’t an issue before I had children. Before Shiri was born, it meant I would work 15-hour days, come home, go to bed, and do it all over again the next day. A 70-hour workweek? No sweat! Unfortunately, what ended up happening was that eventually this breakneck pace left me tired, overworked, and resentful. It’s not easy learning how to set clear boundaries, and even though I have different limits these days, it’s still something I struggle with.
Parshat Mishpatim, which we read this week, entails laws of labor. We learn about the laws for having a Hebrew slave and maidservant and the laws of what to do with a murderer or one who injures others. The text continues with the various damages that other people might have claims against, the ways in which we work together to protect ourselves, and some laws about marriage. The text ends with the commandments regarding sacred times and spaces and the notion that we need to set aside time and space for sacred reflection.
At a time in our history when there’s a great deal of focus on minimum wage, unionization, who is eligible to work, and workers’ rights, it’s interesting to examine what the Torah’s laws have to say regarding the rights of workers.
At the beginning of the parshah we learn about the different ways one might acquire a worker. Specifically, we learn that the status in which one comes into his job (single, married, parent) is also the manner in which he should leave. In other words, someone who comes in single should be allowed to remain single. Interestingly, the word for single that the text uses is b’gapo, which literally means unmarried, but can be loosely interpreted as vigorous. If the slave was strong and able-bodied when he came to work, he was to be worked an appropriate amount so that he was still as vigorous when he left.
I think we can relate this idea well beyond the archaic practice of slave labor, meaning we’re not to work ourselves to the bone. The Torah reminds us that we must be aware of the breaking points of others and of ourselves. If you see a coworker struggling to keep up, you have an obligation to step up and offer help. If you find yourself overtired or overworked, take a step back to reexamine your own boundaries. It’s important to realize that when our abilities change, our goals and the ways we challenge ourselves can too.