Q. I notice that many people are single-mindedly devoted to advancing in their careers. Does Judaism teach us anything about this?
A. People enter a line of work for a number of reasons: because it will enable them to earn a good living; because it suits their talents and inclinations; because it makes a contribution to humanity; because it will enable a person to obtain recognition; because the workplace is a pleasant place to be. In many cases, all of these legitimate goals are advanced when a person remains committed to a single line of work and often to a single employer; this is when a job becomes a career.
When does a career, which is generally a positive thing, become careerism, which is fraught with problems? When career goals are disproportionately important. While all the above considerations are certainly legitimate and some are even worthy, Jewish tradition would assign them less importance than other goals in life, including raising a family and commitment to Torah study.
The mishna teaches us not to give exaggerated importance to wealth, even while acknowledging the benefit of a decent living: "Teach you son a clean and easy profession, and pray to Whom all wealth and possessions belong. For there is no profession in which there is not both poverty and wealth, for poverty is not from the profession and wealth is not from the profession, rather all is according to merit." (1)
Honor and recognition also need to be kept in perspective. The mishna tractate Avot repeatedly acknowledges the importance of proper honor, admonishing us to give proper honor to our friends, our students and our teachers, and stating that honor is fitting for the righteous. But this same tractate warns, "Envy and desire and honor drive a person from the world" (2), and "Don't covet honor beyond your learning" (3).
Even saving the world, important as it may be, needs to be placed in perspective. God created the world, and commanded man to occupy himself with improving it. Even in the Garden of Eden, Adam was bidden to "cultivate and watch" the garden. (Genesis 2:15.) But God also commanded man to "be fruitful and multiply" (Genesis 1:28), and commanded the Jewish people to study and obey the Torah. Working for the public benefit is praiseworthy, but we need to recognize that ultimately God is in charge of the world, and improving it requires adhering to His ground rules.
Just as in secular law no one is so indispensable as to be above the law if he commits a crime, in Jewish law no one is so indispensable that he is exempt from his social and religious obligations. The Torah indicates this by stating that a king must write a Torah scroll, "And it shall be with him all the days of his life." (Deuteronomy 17:19.) The mishnah likewise tells us that when a person is committed to a city of refuge due to manslaughter, he is not released "even if the people of Israel need him, even the chief general of Israel such as Yoav ben Tzruiah". (4)
The value of work and career are legitimated in Jewish tradition. Earning a decent living, finding an outlet for our talents, attaining a measure of recognition – all these have their place. Certainly having an active role in the material progress of the world is of religious value. But all these things have to be kept in perspective. They are various facets of a total life which includes family life and religious devotion. A career is fine, but we should not let it cross the line into careerism.
SOURCES: (1) Mishna Kiddushin 4:14. (2) Mishna Avot 4:21 (3) Mishna Avot 6:4. (4) Mishna Makkot 2:7.
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The Jewish Ethicist presents some general principles of Jewish law. For specific questions and direct application, please consult a qualified Rabbi.