Finding Spiritual Equilibrium in the Office and Out


Editor’s Note: Each year, WITS/MAALOT, a seminary offering a full Judaic curriculum along with a complete secular education leading to a Bachelor’s degree, presents a seminar called “Women in the Workplace: Opportunities and Challenges.” The seminar is part of the school’s ongoing mission of preparing young women for a life of Torah, even as they leave the sheltered halls of learning to participate in today’s world of work. How can they bridge the contrasts between the two worlds and maintain their standards while interacting with a diverse population? The following article is excerpted from the remarks of Dr. Janet Sunness at the seventh annual seminar.

* * *

About 25 years ago, when I was on the faculty of the Johns Hopkins Wilmer Eye Institute, I saw an important rav for his macular degeneration. The rav later commented to one of my friends what a kiddush Hashem (sanctification of Hashem’s name) it was to have a religious woman in my position. I appreciated his comment, but my response to it reflected the very nature of today’s topic. I thought, “But in a million years, he wouldn’t want his daughter in this position,” and I think this was true. So a role in the workplace is an opportunity to make a great kiddush Hashem. At the same time there are challenges that must be faced.

There is a famous response that Rav Hutner gave related to working in a secular environment. A young man, preparing to leave the yeshiva and go out into the working world, asked Rav Hutner how he should deal with the fact that he is now leading a double life. Rav Hutner’s reply was that it is not a double life; it is a broad life. It is analogous to two rooms in the same house. One has to take his spiritual life with him when he enters the workplace.

So, the problem is obviously not unique to women. Many years ago, Lady Amalie Jakobovits (the wife of the late Chief Rabbi of England, Lord Imanuel Jakobovits, and mother of Dr. Yoel Jakobovits, a prominent doctor in Baltimore) was interviewed for Where What When. In my subsequent discussion with her, she mentioned that when her granddaughter was going to medical school, and also when her son Yoel was going to medical school, she davened for them every day. The opportunities and challenges apply to us all.

Infusing your Life with Kedusha

There are a number of ways to bring more kedusha (sanctity) to your day. One of the most important is davening every day. After I had my fourth child, I felt I just could not fit davening into my hectic home and work schedule. Around that time, Rabbi Kaganoff, who was then rav of Congregation Darchei Tzedek in Baltimore, wrote an article about which parts of the tefila (prayers) a woman has to say. This was a great help to me, and motivated me to get back to davening daily.

A woman should concentrate on the brachos she says during the day, whether before and after eating or when leaving the restroom. This is a concrete way of proclaiming to yourself that your spiritual self is with you in the office. If the arrangement of your workplace calls for it, having a mezuza in your space is also a constant reminder that Hashem is watching and protecting you, and that your office space can also be endowed with kedusha.

Saying Modeh Ani each morning so you mean it is also a great help. Rav Shimshon Pincus, zt”l, in Nefesh Shimshon, says that when you are on a road to Yerushalayim, for example, and get lost because you made a wrong turn, it is excusable. But if you end up in the wrong place because you didn’t know where you were trying to go in the first place, that is inexcusable. Modeh Ani serves to orient us to the day and what we should be doing.

Saying birchos haTorah (the blessings on learning Torah) is also very relevant. We thank Hashem for commanding us “la’asok bedivrei Torah,” to busy ourselves with words of Torah. The terms la’asok is from the same root as askan, someone who busies himself with important communal obligations. The bracha on the Torah tells us to busy ourselves throughout the day with words and concepts of Torah, not to leave them at home when we go to the workplace.

It is also helpful to learn something at some time during the day; nowadays this is very easy. One could read a page of the Chofetz Chaim, listen to a shiur on while driving to work or cooking, in addition to more standard text-based learning. The learning fills our heads with divrei Torah which we can carry with us.

In my role as an ophthalmologist and low vision specialist, I often care for people with very poor vision, for whom there is currently no treatment. I try to give them optimism and often will mention Hashem (thank G-d that…). There also are circumstances when I do specialized testing to determine if someone has a severe progressive retinal degeneration. I often daven for the person before I do the test, when the outcome is not yet known. And I also thank Hashem (silently) when a patient who is very elderly and has difficulty walking gets in and out of my exam chair without mishap.

Challenges but also Protectors

Certain mitzvos may feel like a challenge to observe in the workplace, but they are also protecting us. They indicate who we are and set us apart in the sense of socializing with others. For example, tzni’us, the laws of modesty in dress and behavior, distinguish us. Yichud, the prohibition of a man and woman being alone in a locked office, protect us from what could turn into a difficult situation. Covering our hair if we are married is a reminder of who we are and that we have a special relationship to nurture in our home.

Don’t speak or listen to lashon hara. You often can’t stop it or redirect the conversation, so just walk away if necessary. This is great protection for yourself as well. Anything you say will be repeated, and not indulging yourself in gossip will protect you somewhat from being the target of more gossip.

A business lunch or dinner you at which will be eating will require bringing in a kosher meal for you. Sometimes, one gets a large paper shopping bag with several double-or triple-wrapped courses. It can feel embarrassing to undo your meal, creating mounds of aluminum foil and plastic wrap while everyone else is enjoying a straightforward meal. Here, too, it is obvious that you are someone special, part of the group but distinct from it at the same time.

Fortunately, nowadays, there is almost never an issue about taking off work on Shabbos and Yom Tov. You may have to pay back time, but you are not coerced into work when you are prohibited from doing so. Requesting this time off may be difficult at times, but it reflects the fact that you operate on a divinely-inspired calendar that overrides your work obligations.

Kedoshim Tiheyu

The Torah tells us that we should be kadosh, holy. Rashi brings down that this means “perushim tiheyu,” that you should separate yourselves from unholy things. This is further interpreted as “kadeish atzmecha bemutar lach,” sanctify yourself within the parameters of what is permitted to you. And the Ramban explains that one should not be “naval bereshus haTorah,” act in a despicable way even though following the letter of the law. This need to be kadosh is critical in the workplace.

Here are a few examples:

  • One should not engage in petty stealing. Do not take paper or pens from work to use at home or for your own purposes. Do not spend time on private phone calls when you should be working. Rabbi Frand mentioned in a shiur that one should not take time out from work to daven Mincha unless one is clearly allowed to do so or makes up the time, etc.
  • Play fair when you get time off for Yom Tov, etc. When I was doing a shomer Shabbos internship, we were working as hard as the interns on the regular schedule, but their schedule was constrained to accommodate us. For example, they would have to work every Friday and Shabbos, every Yom Tov, etc. Most interns in the shomer Shabbos program expressed their gratitude to their regular-schedule peers, and everything went smoothly. But there was one intern who took advantage of the system, and this generated a great deal of ill will.
  • The nature of our lives today is instant communication, whether by email, text, or other means. An email or text is “out there” forever. We can write things that are not intended, and send them off before there is a chance to soften the message, not hurt another’s feeling, etc. We must be very careful with this.
  • I try to be part of the group to the extent that I can. Recently, in an effort to boost camaraderie, a book club was started. The first book we were going to read was by a friend of one of the administrators, and they were getting free copies for all the participants. I signed up. When the book came, I saw that there was not a single page that I would feel comfortable reading. I returned the book and said that I could not read it. The next day, the chairman’s secretary came to me and told me that they understood and respected my decision not to read it. I wanted to be part of the group, but not under these conditions.

Lessons from Pirkei Avos

All of the wisdom of Pirkei Avos (Ethics of the Fathers) applies not only to the realm of Torah study but to all aspects of our daily lives. There are great lessons for living a spiritually-grounded life in the workplace and out. I would like to highlight two mishnayos from Pirkei Avos here:

One of the most famous mishnayos is Rabbi Yehoshua ben Prachyah’s saying, ‘Hevei dan es kol ha’adam lechaf zechus’ (1:6), judge everyone favorably. Much attention has been paid to this in recent times. Rebbetzin Samet’s book, The Other Side of the Story, gives many examples of how one may misinterpret what another person has done, and how important it is to give the benefit of the doubt. The mishna says, “kol ha’adam,” generally translated as every man. But kol ha’adam may also mean “the whole man.” If we knew the whole story, we might see an event in a different light.

The ability to judge people favorably is critical in the workplace. Each person is under his or her own special obligations and stress, and you are only seeing one aspect in your dealings with that person. It is easy to become angry and impatient, because you also have obligations and deadlines, but it is worth stepping back and viewing your coworker in a good light. For example, as a physician it is very important for me to get the referring doctor’s notes before I see a patient. There are times when the notes are not in place. It would be easy for me to “blow up” and yell at my secretary. I try not to do this. When I look into it, the secretary has already called the referring doctor’s office several times to get the note and is an anxious as I am to have it in place.

The Rambam points out that the mishna does not say do not judge anyone. Rather, it says hevei dan, to actively judge. One has to judge the situation and individual. If a person is evil, one should appreciate that fact and realize that that person does not deserve the benefit of the doubt. In the workplace, this means that if someone is treating you in a harassing or abusive way, you do not excuse it and pass it off. A person should not feel exploited in any way in the workplace, and should not passively accept such a situation.

A second mishna that has relevance to the world of work is Rabbi Tarfon’s adage at the end of the second chapter of Pirkei Avos: “Lo alecha hamelacha ligmor,” (The work is not yours to complete). I gave birth to my second child during my ophthalmology residency. It was a very stressful time. I was trying to nurse my son while maintaining my on-call schedule at a hospital that was 45 minutes from home. I was speaking to someone about all the stress I felt, and he said, “Lo alecha hamelacha ligmor.” I understood that he meant not to feel I have to do everything, but there are a number of other important lessons from this mishna.

There are, in fact, two mishnayos from Rabbi Tarfon. The first, very well known, is “The day is short and the work is abundant…” meaning that one should live with the sense of the tremendous sea of Torah for us to acquire. This should motivate us to work hard, but one could argue that a person will never be able to accomplish everything, so why even try.

The next mishna therefore continues with the necessary accompaniment: “He [Rabbi Tarfon] used to say: It is not up to you to complete the task, (Lo alecha hamelacha ligmor) but you are not free to desist from it.” The first mishna is supposed to stir us to action but can lead to a sense of frustration and futility. The work is greater than a man could do even if he lived for a thousand years! In this mishna, Rabbi Tarfon responds to this difficulty and expresses profound ideas that have a great implication for our own lives today.

That is, you are not obligated to complete the work; you are merely obligated to engage. Not only are you not obligated to complete the work, but the completion of the work is not even in our hands but in Hashem’s. “The Chofetz Chaim had a saying: ‘Our task is to act, to do. The resultsto carry out and achieveare the business of the Creator.’ When something has to be done, there is not a need to strive insistently to carry it out splendidly. The main thing is to get the matter done.” (The Hafetz Hayyim on Pirkei Avoth).” This mishna has many applications to how we live our lives. Some of them are:

  • In general, we can’t do everything, but we cannot use this as an excuse to do nothing.
  • We can’t guarantee accomplishment or balance everything perfectly. There may be obstacles preventing our accomplishment. We may prepare and then find that some slip prevents us from achieving what we wanted. We or our children may study hard for a test and then get stumped by the questions or make careless mistakes. We have to do what we can, what depends on us. Then, at some point, we have to say that we did what we could, and the rest is in Hashem’s hands.
  • We are not required to be an expert, just to work consistently. We don’t need to have a finished task; we just need to do what we can.
  • We don’t have to do all the work ourselves (from lo alecha, not upon you in the mishna). We can recruit collaborators, babysitters, cleaning ladies, students, family members, etc. to help. The goal is to get the work done, not necessarily to do it singlehandedly.
  • Even in performing mitzvos, we must keep doing. We must daven even if we can’t achieve great kavana. Our chachamim gave us mitzvos to do and keep doing, even if we can’t  do them lishma. It is our job not to withhold from performing these mitzvos even when we can’t achieve a perfect job.
  • So many of the things we do in life have no end, yet we must keep repeating them. We must prepare meals day in and day out with no end to it. We can’t exercise for several months and then stop, because the benefit is in a continuous pattern of exercise. Similarly, it does not suffice to eat right for some short period of time. We must continue day after day, month after month, year after year. The task is never done, but we cannot desist from it.
  • Even at times when we are not functioning optimally due to external stresses, lack of sleep, depression, etc., we must keep acting. As is noted above, the Chofetz Chaim said that Hashem is not concerned about splendid performance of a task as much as the performance of the task.

Final Thoughts

In one of the Maggid books, Rabbi Krohn tells of a bachur, new to the yeshiva, who was the chazan and raced through the davening. When he finished, the rosh yeshiva took him over to the side and said, “You know, ‘Venas’tem ve’ain rodeif eschem’ (And you will flee with no one pursuing you) is a klala (curse).” The rebuke (tochacha) in the Torah includes this pasuk as a curse. In everyday life, too, we must try to not overpressure ourselves, not push ourselves harder than is good or healthy for us. Emotional equilibrium requires a sense of tranquility, at least to the level where this can be attained. I have found in my working life that if I felt satisfied and not overly stressed, things fell into place at work and at home. But if I got too stressed or too frustrated at work, this carried over to the home environment and things more easily fell apart. It has to be a priority in your life to keep yourself healthy and reduce the stress on yourself to the extent that you can.

The best strategy in your working life is to have tremendous hakaras hatov, the recognition of everything good that Hashem has given you at home and at work, and a recognition of how your fellow employees and family help you.

You must keep in mind that your goals in life may be different from those of your coworkers. I applied for my residency in ophthalmology in 1977, a different era. This was right after I had my first child. I had done very well in medical school and in my medical school elective rotation in ophthalmology, and I had every expectation that I would be accepted into my school’s residency program. I wasn’t. Two other members of my class were accepted, and their credentials were not as good as mine. I called the chairman of the ophthalmology department and asked him why I was not accepted. He said, “We want everyone we accept to be a dedicated ophthalmologist, and in your case, we weren’t sure that family considerations wouldn’t intervene.” Nowadays, of course, no one can say anything like this. But we have to view our lives not as an either/or situation but as including work, family, and spiritual life. We may have to stagger things, reduce our work load in some phases of our life, and then assume more as we are able to. Our aim is to be a dedicated person in this world, and this is certainly possible.


The WITS/MAALOT seminar, “Women in the Workplace: Opportunities and Challenges,” was generously funded by The Charles Crane Family Foundation.


comments powered by Disqus