Jewish Family Life and Corporate Business



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Opinion & Society

What's Wrong With Our Business World?

By Sarah Azulay

"I want to ask your opinion," a colleague of mine (let's call her Sharon) whispered as she slid into one of the visitor chairs in my office. "I had an interview yesterday with the general counsel of a very sophisticated high tech company. (Let's call it Big Corporation).

"In the interview he asked me about my family "situation" (a code word in this politically correct age for "children"). I told him that I would like some flexibility since my children are young - I told him that I could work until 6:00 or so in the evening, go home to my children, and after they are in bed, continue my work as necessary. He seemed a little disgruntled and said that it might be acceptable provided that my absence isn't felt and that I can get my work done. He added, however, that in the Israeli business culture, people like to see you in the office. Oh, and he (let's call him "Mr. General Counsel") said he doesn't have anyone at home. He isn't married and has no children." Sharon paused searching my face for reaction. "Do you think I should continue the interview process if I get a call back?"

I looked intently at Sharon, an attractive, well educated and extremely articulate corporate attorney, who is, not to mention, completely bilingual. I paused before I responded. Sharon had been looking for a new position in the very thin Israeli economy for more than half a year, but she was looking precisely because her current situation disdained the same flexibility she so genuinely needed. "I believe something better suited will come along," I reassured her.

I thought about Sharon most of the day, and about all of us – women and men – with spouses and children or anyone who just wants a life outside Big Corporation. What is wrong with the business world of today when raising a family (which, by the way, I still believe in most sane minds is the utmost of importance) somehow makes an otherwise exceptional candidate a pariah. Why has loyalty to Big Corporation replaced devotion to our families so much so that we are cornered into proving our unyielding dedication to an inanimate entity whose culture demands that we guiltily slink from the office doors many times well after dark but perhaps before Mr. General Counsel.

What has happened to the ever timeless Jewish concept of balance in the world of money? There is a famous statement of Torah wisdom that "Money makes the wise man blind." How much more so for those who are less than wise? It seems that, even in a culture that encompasses the essence of Jewish living – the State of Israel – the insidious seduction of greed has infiltrated our corporate culture. I often hear the late night war stories bantered about in our tiny kitchen office – who stayed the latest, who hasn't seen their children or spouse for over a week. One attorney even described how her child had videotaped herself to ask her mother a question and in the video instructed her mother not to wake her because she was just too tired. Somehow, these war wounds are worn as medals of pride, as if there is a deep, intrinsic nobility in denying that our children or our families matter.

Israeli culture, I have learned is exceedingly complex – at once open, giving, and concerned for the general welfare, and yet, since the Israeli economy has supposedly been "revolutionized" into a capitalistic vulture under the presumed ingenious auspices of the present government's wizardry, I have observed more disdain, or at least disinterest, in the general population for the ever-growing number of those desperately in need – even children, the elderly, and the infirm, and a deeper fixation on the material pot of gold that is supposed to sparkle at the end of a long, obtuse rainbow.

The most staggering evidence of this new callousness is the government's brazen response to the most recently surfaced poverty numbers which have reached critical mass – the government says that people need to go to work; both parents should work, and then there will be no poverty. This response reminds me of something the mad hatter might have said at Alice in Wonderland's tea party.

May I ask these ever-enlightened ministers what is to be done with the children? Yes, those small people who inhabit space in most of our homes. Who will care for them while both parents prove their loyalty to Big Corporation. And still, other than making a brief shuffle in the headlines, no effort has been made by the mad hatters to diminish the swelling poverty numbers.

The sacrificial climb up Big Corporation's never-ending ladder seems to me a spiritual descent for the Jewish family. I am, of course, not advocating a refusal to work; supporting yourself and your family is a mitzvah, and our greatest Torah sages engaged in various occupations for this purpose. It is the excessiveness which destroys us. Jewish families have historically been a model and the envy of those onlookers who understood the mechanics of its brilliantly woven operations.

The Torah itself notes Bilaam's attempt to curse the Jewish people and instead offered the daily blessing we utter – "How goodly are your tents, Oh Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel." Healthy Jewish homes serve as a mini Temple, a place of serenity, respect, love, and holiness – they are a home for G-d. There are many intricate laws regarding relationships among family members as proscribed by Torah, which would need to be elaborated by an expert in these matters, but the basic foundation requires, of course, the physical presence of both spouses with sufficient time to devote to raising a family.

The descent of Israeli business culture into this obsessive thirst for money is a sledgehammer against a three thousand year cement foundation centered on family, spiritual development, and broad-minded concern for the Jewish nation as a whole. Who has time for these ephemeral ideals when the bottom line has been waived in front of us like the ultimate carrot dangling on the stick?

It is true that we must care for ourselves – it is a mitzvah, but, as Hillel so wisely observed, if we only care for ourselves- if we are so consumed with our own status, our own survival, what will we, the Jewish people become? The answer is obvious, in the growing rate of divorces, violence in schools, critical health problems, crime, and other evidence of a society sickened at its heart. We are, in some respects, witnessing the unraveling of the tightly woven values of a great nation which has endured so much and accomplished exceedingly – in all facets of life and in all countries in which it has dwelled.

The antidote to these ills lies, of course, in the counsel of the Torah which advocates approaching life in the middle. As King Solomon so wisely wrote in Proverbs, "there is a time for everything under the sun." This, obviously, would include a time for work and a time for raising a family. It would be utmost beneficial for all of us to just be honest – as much as we may even love our work, most of us, I believe, love our families more. Of course, leadership needs to set the precedent and the tone of the business climate.

Rewarding someone for extra effort is admirable, but turning the family or someone's life outside the office into a sacrificial offering is clearly unacceptable. Many social studies over the years have concluded that employee performances flourish in work environments which are flexible, respectful, and encouraging of family and outside interests. If for no other reason than improving the bottom line many corporate cultures could enjoy greater profits if they adjusted their work policies to encompass these ideals which would undoubtedly motivate their employees, increase productivity, and reduce turnover - another costly aspect to unreasonable demands of illogical loyalty.

Aside from the leadership, we, the Jewish people, should remember our ultimate purpose – to be a light to the nations. Through Torah, we are destined to be a nation that glows with holiness. Our task as a people is accomplished through the observance of the Torah's mitzvoth and depending upon each of our circumstances we have been charged with our individual purposes and endowed with strengths and challenges to reach these goals.

If we remind ourselves continually of our mission, then we can, through each task we perform, infuse holiness into the activity – by making a blessing when we eat, by sleeping to have strength to perform more mitzvoth, or by engaging in an occupation to support our families and donate charity. Each activity which we encounter every day is provided to us for our own growth and for the betterment of the world. By subverting this purpose (or forgetting about it), we fill our lives with emptiness – the race for more material possessions, the pursuit of more power and glory – until the greed swallows us, and we can see no one but ourselves.

In such a sorrowful state, we glorify in the late night war stories instead of the comforting bedtime stories, and we confuse our ultimate Master with the taskmaster of Big Corporation. In such a state, we slumber while we blame the poor for their predicament, large families for wanting too many children, and we inquire whether our "family situations" will interfere with the bottom line.

We must wake up; we must begin to ask what has gone awry. How did so many of us forget the Torah's counsel not to turn away from a neighbor in distress, to care for the weak, or the true purpose for earning a living – we have always been the social conscience of the world; if we fail in this task, then society, generally, begins to unravel.

Statistics regarding the family unit are unfortunately proving this point. We are, however, endowed with a propensity for kindness as evidenced by the constant acts of chesed (kindness) performed by Jews worldwide. By recognizing our purpose and following the paths that lead us to its fulfillment – to bring light to our world, commencing with guiding the children who have been entrusted to us and strengthening our bonds with our spouses and communities - we reconfigure our values and the ultimate values of society.

Each small step toward this path – such as tucking our children into bed on a nightly basis - strengthens our conviction to continue on this journey and to disclose the rickety steps in Big Corporation's elusive corporate ladder. We live in a pressured society that continually seeks greater and more instant gratification. In placing our spiritual needs ahead of our material ones, we may not reap the instant and fleeting rewards brought about by the heady accomplishments of material success, but as we are so wisely cautioned by King David in Psalms, "those who sow with tears, shall reap with joy," and that joy, the Torah promises, is ultimate and eternal.

And so, for all the Sharon's who are desperately wondering how to balance a career and a family – you have the right answer – it's in the balance. You just need to educate the rest of the world on your greatest secret.

On the sixth Yahrzeit of my mother, Chana Leah bat Rivka, 22 Shevat.

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