I invested a day last week advising the executive team of a Nashville-based business with branches in several southern states. My job was to help them resolve several challenges caused by their rapid growth. One question we explored concerned whether the company had grown enough and should henceforth do nothing but aim to maintain its current annual revenue level.
Several of the executives expressed satisfaction with what they had achieved over the past few years, both in the business as well as in their personal lives. They felt content and although they were fairly young men and women, they saw their hard-work-years as having ended. They now saw themselves as treading water rather than trying to win any races. “We don’t need any more money,” they told me.
During the same week, I received a letter from an individual whom I had been advising regarding his career. One paragraph read:
“I am fascinated by how you teach people to learn to love the work they should do. But how do I know what is the work that I should do? Is it the work that would pay me the most? If so, that doesn’t really work for me as I am definitely NOT money-motivated, (although my wife thinks I should be). I don’t need to make more money, I just want to do meaningful work. If all I was supposed to do in this world was make a lot of money (to have what to give away-not a bad thing), why did I waste so much of my adult life in education?”
It was another of those not uncommon instances of synchronicity. In one week I was asked the same question twice; once by an executive team and once by an unrelated individual. The question: Is it okay for someone to make much less than he could provided he is content with what he has?
At first glance, you might think that all the people involved are indeed exemplary. After all, money just isn’t that important to them. They exhibit a contentment with life and are willing to step off the financial treadmill. Surely they ought to be applauded?
A very difficult task now falls to your rabbi. I must try to explain to you why they are wrong, just as I had to explain it to them last week.
As the Shabbat ends each Saturday night, by the flickering light of the Havdalah candle Jews sing this verse signalling the start of a new week of work.
When you eat of the labor of your hands, you will be happy
and all will be well with you.
In this verse, King David reiterates the value of work, the same purpose for which God placed Adam in the Garden of Eden. (Genesis 2:15)
Nowhere in Scripture is found any implication that we ought to work only until we have enough. Neither is there any acknowledgement of the unhealthy practice of retirement which is really only another way of saying, “I’ll work only until have enough”.
I know this feels a bit awkward because we’ve been raised to believe the virtue of contentment. “He who is contented is rich,” is only one of hundreds of proverbs and idioms all praising the person who says, “I have enough”.
However, to have enough is not why we work. That would be an incredibly selfish approach to work. We work because God created us to serve other people and our work is how we do it. For this reason, the Lord’s language, Hebrew uses the same word—OVeD—for worship as well as for doing our daily labor.
We shall worship the Lord
′נעבד את ה…
Six days you shall work
ששת ימים תעבד
In the same way that there is no “enough” to our worship of God, there is also no “enough” to our daily work. We don’t work for money; we work to serve others; our customers, clients, or associates. The money follows almost automatically and confirms that we have really served. There is no point at which I have cared for God’s other children enough. It is a lifetime mission.
Although it flies in the face of popular thinking, there is no virtue is thinking one has enough money. One should certainly be happy with whatever one currently has, but never content. The difference is that happiness does not kill ambition; contentment does.
Obviously, God does not want us to sacrifice our lives, our faith, our families and our friendships to make more money. However, as long as we work with integrity, in the specific time allotted for our daily work and with the energy dedicated to that purpose, the more we can make usually shows the more effectively we are serving God’s other children. It would be wrong to try to limit that.
Hebrew possesses a word a word for satisfied (SoVaH – שבע) which is as close as the language comes to contentment. The important point is that SoVaH is never used in the context of money and mostly appears in connection with food.
And you shall eat and be satisfied (SoVaH) and bless the Lord your God..;
The good that one can do with money is proportional to how much is available. There is an old joke about the beggar accustomed to getting a dollar from one of his ‘regulars’ who passed by each day. On one occasion the passerby dropped a quarter into the beggar’s cap. “Hoy!” called the hobo. “Why only a quarter today?”
“I’m having a tough week in my business” answered the man.
The panhandler’s response:
“Just because you’re having a bad week, I have to have one too?”
Just because you decide that you have enough money, do all those who depend upon you and those who might benefit from you also have to say enough?
To the individual I was counseling, I added the observation that his marriage might well benefit from his increasing his revenue. To the company I added that not only was it the right thing to grow the company (within the limits of managerial capability) and find ways to serve even more customers but there was also a strategic reason to continue growth. In the real world, whether you’re looking at a beautiful flower or a profitable business, the same thing is true. It is either growing or dying. Staying the same is not an option.