In a few days, perhaps, a week or two, many of us will be sending our children back to school for whatever the year will bring. For those with young children at home, there is a palpable feeling of relief. For months we have endured infinite hostage negotiations regarding the remote control and playing personal assistant to always-hungry but don’t-know-what-I-want-to-eat children.
Serving as tech support to help with yet another zoom-class-login debacle was only the tip of the frustration iceberg. Cancelled summer plans were met with overwhelming uncertainly, and awkward social interactions. None of this has been simple.
But one thing has emerged from the wreckage: The manicured hedges that separated “work” and “life” could no longer be maintained. The switch out of family mode and into office mode is frankly impossible when you share office space with a toddler brandishing a sharpie.
But the truth, as anyone with children knows, is that we never had a work life balance to start with. It might be true that we had separate physical spaces. But no one I know has such neat emotional, mental and psychological divisions.
Little by little over the years, the bifurcation of our time has become impossible. Technology has ensured that work encroached on our home time, and in turn, our homes invaded our work time. School plays, graduations, doctors visits, sports games all demand parental attention, leading to awkward conversations of “I don’t think I’m going to be able to make that meeting today.” With the sheepish “because I have parent-teacher-conferences” added. We feel the need to groan to our bosses and colleagues about how dumb these school events are. Really, we want to be working non-stop, Right? We complain about our family obligations almost as much as we yell at our spouses about the importance of this deadline or that conference call.
But at the core, we’re not happy. Because this is not possible, and it’s not sustainable. But why are we in this mess? How did we get here? Why is it that we feel so overwhelmed and exhausted? And why has the total upheaval of our lives during this pandemic provided no cure to the stress - despite the shakeup of schedules, commutes, schooling and travel?
They tell a story that many years ago, a poor farmer had done a great favor for a powerful king.
In gratitude for what this poor farmer had done, the king decided to publicly reward him with a day of celebration in his honor.
The whole city was invited to the large royal estate where all manner of festivities were enjoyed. Great food, wine, music and entertainment. The king then regaled the crowd with the story of the great kindness of this poor farmer and proudly announced this poor farmer would be handsomely rewarded.
Turning the farmer, the king declared, "Tomorrow, you will earn your place amongst the nobles of this land." The astonished farmer turned quizzically to the king, who continued: "Tomorrow morning we will meet here once again, at day break. As the sun rises, you will begin to walk, and every parcel of land that you cover tomorrow, until the sun sets, will belong to you."
The poor farmer had no idea what to say, and stammered a "Thank you your majesty. Tomorrow at day break. Thank you, thank you."
It's not everyday that a person is given such an opportunity, and the whole town was so electrified by the excitement of what the next day would bring, barely anyone slept a wink.
The farmer, for his part had arranged teams of friends and family to relay food and water for him, as untrained, he prepared for a once in a lifetime marathon, that would change his life forever.
An hour before sunrise, he, along with everyone else was standing outside the royal estate. When the king appeared on the balcony in the dim morning light the people fell silent immediately, collectively holding their breath.
The king descended from his balcony and motioned to the farmer to approach. As the sun peeked from the horizon, the king's voice thundered through the throngs of people. "You may begin!"
What a rush! The farmer ran through the crowds to cheers of "Good luck! Pace yourself! Save some for us!"
As the heat of the day grew stronger, friends arrived in wagons, and on horse back to provided essential provision, as the farmer covered acres upon acres. But by mid afternoon, he was feeling the strain of the challenge. His legs were aching, his heart was thumping in his chest, the blisters on his feet had blisters of their own. What began as a run and then a jog, was now barely a brisk walk.
Friends joined him to encourage him "Don't give up! Just another two hours!" Others had practical advice "take a minute to stretch, have some more water!"
Thirty minutes later, as the day began to cool, the farmer's head was getting dizzy. His vision was blurring, and his legs felt like lead.
The walk slowed to a snails pace, with encouragement coming from all sides "You can do it! Look over that mountain - if you get over it, if you conquer it, the whole valley will be yours!"
But a mountain in such a condition was more than could be imagined. Yet, echoing in his ears were years of education: "You can anything if you put your mind to it... Mind over matter." And the farmer, mustering every ounce of will power began to crawl up the mountain, as the sun began to dip behind it.
Those standing nearby waited with bated breath. They watched, awestruck as their friend finally collapsed in broken exhaustion, as the sun was setting, as he crested that mountain. He finally stretched out his shaking hands, straining to cover those last inches. “This, too, is mine,” were his dying words.
In those hazy, early days of the pandemic shutdown, I hoped that we would become a little less like that farmer. You hoped for that as well. In the confusion that surrounded us during Pesach there was the undeniable optimism that somehow, in some way we would become better for it.
In some cases, these dreams materialized. But for everyone who learned how to play the guitar in the past five months, there are dozens of dusty guitars yet to be picked up. A far greater proportion of people gained weight than lost it. And many more books were left unread on the bedside table.
Looking back on the past five months, everything in our lives changed completely. And somehow, none of the changes in our schedules made way for the changes we wanted in our lives.
It turns out then, that we don’t so much suffer from an imbalance of work and life. In my humble opinion, we suffer from an imbalance of priorities.
Mori V’Rabbi Rav Blachman once made the observation that we struggle to differentiate between what is necessary and what is important.
At any given moment, we have choices to make between spending time on neccesary tasks or important ones. But before we can make those judgement calls, we need to define what is necessary and what is important. Because in the absence of our own definitions, we will, always, by default, gravitate to the definitions of other people.
The imbalance that we feel between work and life is nothing other than the guilt of having someone else’s priorities overwhelm our own poorly defined priorities. We resent that our bosses, spouses and children are telling us what is important for us right now - because we failed to do so ourselves. And that’s how the farmer dies at the top of the mountain; without a moment to consider whether this once in a lifetime opportunity is necessary or important. Without thinking if this is a means or an end. And who ever said that this farmer needs to have this land?
The Avnei Nezer explains that this question is the Avoda of Parshas Shoftim: שֹׁפְטִים וְשֹׁטְרִים תִּתֶּן לְךָ בְּכׇל שְׁעָרֶיךָ - Set up judges and police in each of your gates. At every juncture in life we need to make a judgement call, that’s Shoftim/Judges. But then we need to live by it, enforce it and make sure to communicate it clearly. That’s Shotrim/Police.
This Elul, Hashem is asking each of us: “What do you really want to do with your life? I’ve shaken up Planet Earth. Nothing is as it was. There is no balance to which you must subscribe. There is only the question: What is necessary and what is important for you?”
The gates to 5781/תשפ״א are beginning to open. Hashem should help us to get our judges in place.