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The Systems of the Jewish Year

Deathbed Questions

By Rabbi Yaacov Haber

“No man ever said on his deathbed, ‘I wish I had spent more time in the office.’”

I’ve heard this sentimental quotation so many times in my life. I’ve heard it from motivational speakers, at Outreach seminars and even in Yeshivah. It seems to ring true.

I don’t know where the expression originated. Google directed me to Massachusetts Senator Paul Tsongas, who decided not to run for reelection when he was diagnosed with cancer in 1984. He wished to do what is important and spend whatever time he had left with his family and freinds.

The more I think about it, the more I think it’s not really true. In fact, it seems quite possible to me that on my deathbed (at 120 years, please G-d) I will in fact regret not spending more time at the office.

The expression makes us wonder if we are workaholics, addicted to the wrong thing in life, irresponsibly taking time from our children, friends and even our own joy in life.  The deathbed cliche essentially says that at some point we will all reach a state where we realize that work is meaningless.

The thing is, if you think you have something to contribute to the world, why is it so impossible to imagine you’d look back on your professional life and think, “I could have done more”?

Not only that – there is a Jewish law.

“An employee must be careful to not steal from his employer by taking unnecessary breaks from his work … he must be extremely careful with his time. Our Rabbi’s taught that an employee must recite an abridged version of Birkat HaMazon! He is obligated to work with all his stregnth. (Our forefather), Yaakov the Tzadik said (to his wives Rachel and Leah) “with all my stregnth I labored for your father”. It was in this merit that Yaakov became wealthy in this world as it is witten “And the man’s wealth spread and spread.” (Rambam Sechirus 13;7)

The Ramban did not take Yaakov’s behavior as an act of piety. He understood Yaakov as fullfilling his Halachic obligation. (see Bad Kodesh pg.132, VaYetze). The Rambams ruling is cited in Shulchan Aruch and very real in our lives.

For instance, if a teacher moonlights in a way that will deminish his strenth the next day he or she is ‘stealing’ from his employer. If a worker studies Torah on the job, he is not a Tzadik but a thief. According to many Halachists even if one works during a vacation it is wrong. The rest time was granted to the employee so that he/she can perform better at the job.

The deathbed cliche swoops in to give us an excuse to step back from work, to be lax and to spend too much time at the water cooler.

We should pray that our work should be meaningful so that we can happily give it our all. But Yaakov, the ultimate student of Torah, takes it to the next step. I presume that his work for his father in law was not particularly meaningful. Yaakov Avinu makes us rethink our own work ethic and taught us by example that if we are hired to do hard work - working is a virtue above most others.

Moving on from the deathbed, the Talmud teaches that the very first question we will all be asked when we enter the Heavenly chambers is “Did you do your work with Emunah?’ Did you always act with honesty and with integrity?

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