Career or Calling

A Dvar Torah for Parshat Matot 

Nechama Leibowitz titles a chapter of her commentary on Parshat Matot “Career or Calling?”

A great question.

On what basis should you decide to take on significant commitments? Skills, finances, relationships, spiritual yearning?

A question you might be asking yourself if you’re an older teen finishing high school, a young adult taking a leap of faith into the world of work and study, an older adult contemplating mid-career change or retirement, a senior deciding how best to use your increasingly limited energy, or a big-hearted person called to give of yourself as a volunteer.

A question relevant to everyone in our family, so we talk about it a lot.

A question raised during a conflict between Moshe and the leaders of the tribes Reuven and Gad. By the beginning of Parshat Matot, the Israelites have developed a strong army capable of winning territory, and they plan to put the army to work west of the Jordan River. Moshe has just taken a census and explained how he will distribute land the army acquires: using a lottery, tribe by tribe. But Reuven and Gad are not happy with the system Moshe describes.

Why not? Because they are all about cattle. And they’ve found the perfect grazing land right here on the east side of the river. So they formally ask Moshe if they can stay here, without crossing the river and engaging in any more battles.

Moshe freaks out.

Your brothers will fight and you’ll just stay here? Why are you trying to undermine everyone’s courage? This is the same thing your ancestors did when I sent them to scout the land. This is why God swore everyone would die before seeing the land. Now that we’ve finally moved ahead, you’re trying to recreate this group of sinners, make God furious with us all again, and leave us in the wilderness! Way to destroy the entire nation!!!

The spokespersons for Reuven and Gad quickly reconsider their request, and make a new proposal.

We’ll build sheepfolds for our cattle and cities for our children. Then we’ll go to war with everyone. We won’t return here until everyone has his portion of land.

Moshe accepts, but restates in his own words what he is agreeing to. Moshe’s version adds the words “in the presence of God” five times. Moshe’s version also says, first you will build cities for your children, and only then will you build sheepfolds for your cattle.

Moshe, says Leibowitz, twice criticizes the values held by the leaders of Reuven and Gad. Sure, they understand that they have an obligation to their fellow Israelites. They make a contract outlining their responsibilities and rewards. But this is not enough for Moshe. He wants the tribes to believe they are acting for a higher purpose. Sure, they understand that they have a commitment to the safety of their children. But Moshe wants to make sure they put their children before their business.

Leibowitz seems to suggest that Moshe holds the better view. But I am not so sure. Moshe’s view seems absolute and inflexible. Real life is more nuanced.

What if you don’t feel a higher calling – is it not okay to act out of a sense of obligation to others?

What should your sense of obligation to others look like? Should it be completely untainted by economics, so that you could always care for people first and money second? Couldn’t assuring your livelihood be a way of caring for your family or community?

Imagine a contemporary scenario. An environmental activist and a professional investor happen to be members of the same family. The investor says, “I have found an up and coming investment opportunity. The dividends will benefit all of us. I’m investing in oil sands.” And the activist says, “Are you trying to undermine everything I stand for?  Way to destroy the entire planet!!!”

The investor is like Reuven and Gad: his short-term economic obligation to his family is decisive. The activist is like Moshe: his commitment to higher purposes and intangible entities like “the unity of all life” are part of every decision.

What questions should we take into account as we choose directions for our life’s work, whether paid or volunteer?

How should we balance pragmatism and idealism?

How much of our efforts should we devote to “career” and how much to “calling”?

What is a calling, anyway?

The dictionary on my mac computer defines vocation as “a strong feeling of suitability for a particular career or occupation.”

This seems backwards to me. A career is the ongoing practice, in different contexts, of something you are good at. A calling involves a belief that your project is part of a larger mission, like “progress,” “sustainability,” “education,” or “justice.”

Of course, no activity is purely “career” or purely “calling.” How do we discern the right formula?

Leibowitz cites an unspecified midrash saying something like this:

Wisdom, strength, and wealth: any one of these three qualities is sufficient to bring a person all precious things – as long as they regard their quality as a gift of heaven.

Or in other words, do what you are good at, but in way that answers a higher calling.

Not that it’s always easy to negotiate real life situations:

What if you are very good at your work, and it makes a positive difference, but you can’t connect emotionally to the meaning? I could not, when I was an academic.

What if you find your project meaningful, but administrative demands make you feel constantly defeated? …as my husband did, when he worked in the health care system.

What if you are well-suited to something you find deeply meaningful, but can’t find paid work? …like our daughter, an artist, fears will happen to her.

What if you listen to your older family members discuss this, and you are carefully trying to construct the perfect plan, hoping you can control it all? …like our son hopes, as he heads towards high school graduation.

It’s an ongoing quest, isn’t it, to fit your round self into the square holes life offers?

Perhaps you can’t “have it all,” as my last post suggested. But perhaps you can gain at least one of heaven’s gifts: wisdom, strength, or wealth.

If the gifts are as powerful as the midrash suggests, Moshe’s unequivocal values are not the only possible guide. Any one of the gifts, used in good faith, can bring worthwhile results.

May it be so.

Image: Lance Wessel, grade 8, prizewinning poster.


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