Not Even God Has Work/Life Balance
Benjamin Kamine looks at how God spends the day and whether leisure is really possible for creators.
Unlike most people, I am not particularly bothered by my lack of work/life balance. I find myself frustrated by the idea. It suggests that there is this thing called work and this thing called life. They are separate and must be balanced out in some predetermined, proper way for me to be happy. But my work is my life. There is nothing to balance it with. As a theater-maker, I spend my days in many acts of creation. There is nothing that makes me feel more alive than that. And yet, there they are, the march of finger-wagging blog posts, admonishing me that even G-d rested on the seventh day. Sure. And I am not above rest, but what all this work-life stuff seems to suggest is that I need to find time for leisure with friends. G-d most definitely does not have leisure time with friends. Does He?
The Talmud actually has an answer to this. In Avodah Zarah 3b, the Talmud breaks G-d’s lonely workday (twelve hours) down into quarters. And the work of a deity is lonely. For his first three hours, G-d studies Torah. Humans study Torah in pairs, but G-d does it alone (who could actually function as G-d’s study buddy?). Then He judges the world. The Talmud tells us that He actually has to take a moment to decide to be merciful, because if He were not, He would destroy all of existence. The third quarter of the day is feeding time for the animals. It is a social activity to feed animals, but if you are trying to feed every animal in the world in only three hours, I doubt you get past saying hi. Only the final three hours contain dedicated one-on-one time. G-d spends three hours playing with the Leviathan, a mythical sea monster. Wow. It seems that even G-d makes time for frivolous fun.
I blanch at this. If playing with the Leviathan really is leisure time, then at three hours a day, G-d is taking more time off than I am. It might be time to reconsider my life choices.
A short digression here: The story of the Leviathan is a sad one. G-d created these two huge sea monsters. They were so large that if they reproduced, they would quickly destroy the world. So G-d killed the female, salted her flesh, and stored it for the righteous to consume when the Messiah comes. The male lives until the end of days, underneath the deep, and G-d plays with him for three hours each day. G-d and the Leviathan are the only two beings in existence who know what it is like to be the only one of your kind. They are kindred spirits.
I wonder if G-d gets lonely. In many biblical texts, the Jewish people are described as G-d’s bride, but that is not much of a partnership. Biblically, the Jews are constantly ignoring G-d’s needs, and we have not heard from G-d since the age of prophecy ended. We may still technically be married, but this has clearly gone beyond a trial separation. Like the Leviathan, G-d really does not have a mate, no one to share the burden of existence with.
For me, that is what we ought to mean by work-life balance: making sure that you make time for your community rather than dedicating ourselves to this somewhat hedonistic concept of leisure. If that comes through your work, then there’s no problem. And my community is part of my job. I get my socializing from other theater artists. I am fulfilled by my relationships with them. That is why my life feels balanced.
But is G-d’s? I am not sure I buy the idea that G-d’s time with the Leviathan is social. After all, G-d killed the Leviathan’s mate. It seems to me that playing with it, keeping it from loneliness, is a form of repentance. G-d knows what true isolation is. He is obligated to keep the Leviathan from experiencing that. If I had to spend three hours every day caring for people I had harmed, I wonder what kind of artist and person that would make me.
The Talmud seems to back me up here. G-d may play with the Leviathan, but He does not laugh while He does. We know this because G-d has not laughed since the destruction of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. His grief is so overwhelming and traumatic that laughter has become impossible. After all, who does G-d sit shiva with? All of the social rituals we have in place to help us overcome trauma require a community. So G-d is not having any fun. He plays with the Leviathan out of a sense of obligation. The Talmud then suggests that maybe G-d doesn’t play with the Leviathan at all anymore, but instead instructs school children in the final three hours of the day. The only solution to His grief is the hope of children, who he “commands with lovingkindness.”
I have come far afield from the original question of G-d’s leisure time, but so does the Talmud. Leisure time is for community building (the life part of work-life balance). The Talmud is really investigating how G-d builds community without peers. And the answer is clear. It is through service: feeding animals, playing with the lonely, teaching children. G-d has found His work-life balance in caring for the growth of his creations, just like any other artist.
The Talmud closes out the conversation by asking how G-d spends His nights. We are told He sits and listens to the song of his animals. There are lots of ways to take this, but my favorite interpretation comes from Elissa Strauss, co-Artistic Director of LABA. When she is finally done with her work for the night, there is nothing that relaxes her more than the sound of her sleeping child’s breathing. I like to think that is what is happening for the Almighty. He listens to us sleep. Our calm, sleeping breath is music to His ears.