Lesson 2: Matot – “Our children, our wives, our flocks” – Striving for Work-Family Balance

Course: Numbers – Part 3
Lesson #2 of 2

Series: The Bible at Work: Career Coaching in the Torah

Teacher: Dr. Benny Benjamin

4Views | Published: July 11, 2023 | Revised: July 14, 2023

“No one on his deathbed ever said, ‘I wish I had spent more time at the office.’” commonly attributed to politician Paul Tsongas or Rabbi Harold Kushner


“Then they stepped up to him and said: ‘Let us build sheep pens here for our livestock and towns for our children. But we will arm ourselves and go ahead of the Israelites until we have seen them safely to their place. Meanwhile, our children will remain in the fortified town, protected from the inhabitants of the land.’” Numbers 32:16–17

“Build towns for your children and pens for your flocks, but do what you have promised. The people of Gad and Reuven replied to Moshe, ‘Your servants will do just as my lord charges us. Our children, wives, livestock, and all our animals will remain here in the towns of Gilad.” Numbers 32: 24-26.

As the Israelites approached the Promised Land full of anticipation, the two tribes of Reuben and Gad noticed the bountiful grazing lands of the region east of the Jordan River that any livestock owner would prize. This land of Bashan had been captured earlier that year. The two tribes’ representatives approached Moses with a proposition: They would settle on the eastern bank of the Jordan River to take advantage of the vast swaths of pasture land, a veritable Garden of Eden for their livestock. However, they would offer to be at the forefront as the Israelites encounter the local Canaanite population militarily. Moses was wary of how this move would affect the morale of those entering the Land, likely triggering painful memories of the game-changing Sin of the Spies. Yet, along with these concerns, Moses was sensitive to the nuance of the two tribes’ presentation. Their words revealed their questionable priorities. Here is how Rashi, the classic medieval commentator, saw it:

The [two tribes] paid more regard to their property than their sons and daughters because they mentioned their cattle before their children. [Thus,] Moses said to them, “Not so! Make the chief thing the chief thing, and what is subordinate. First, build cities for your little ones, and afterward, folds for your flocks.”

In the two passages above, note how Moses carefully reworded their request, highlighting the family first. It was clear to Moses that they were dazzled by the commercial opportunities beckoning on the Jordan River’s east bank, resulting in distorted priorities.

Some biblical commentators believed that what energized the two tribes’ request to separate themselves geographically from their brethren was their bitterness at not being granted what was due them, as both were firstborn to their mothers. In any event, Moses acceded to their proposal, but not before reordering their priorities––first, be concerned with your family, then your livelihood.

As Western societies moved away from expecting employees to wholly subsume themselves to their employers’ demands, family constraints notwithstanding, work-family conflict has attracted considerable research and practical attention. Work-family conflict is experienced as a psychological imbalance between work and home life[1] and is a critical component of juggling multiple life roles. It became evident that work pressures that spilled over to family life exacted a cost to family relations, as did family pressures that spilled over to the workplace, thus reducing productivity. Work-family conflict has been shown to affect employee turnover, psychological distress, and life satisfaction.[2]

These concerns have evolved into a broader construct and a declared goal––work-life balance––that recognizes the centrality of multiple roles that require our attention beyond working hours. Organizations have long acknowledged that happy family life contributes to happy workers, prompting “family fun days” and paternity leave.

Life-work dynamics have been challenged by hybrid and remote work, presenting many logistic challenges, especially for families with young children. Negotiating these challenges has necessitated acquiring or sharpening high-grade time management skills, or as these skills have recently been called, boundary management skills. The demand for remote and hybrid work has compelled workers to be cognizant of how they can maximize their on-site experience along with their at-home experience. People who worked remotely, usually from home, found their work and home boundaries blurred, with many literally taking their work to bed with them,[3] thus upending any semblance of work-home balance.

A recent McKinsey international survey[4] reported that the highest priority among 51% of workers regarding their hopes for the future was a “better work-life balance.” Indeed, just under half of the surveyed workers reported experiencing a diminished work-family balance, whether working remotely or on-site. The post-pandemic era’s “Great Resignation” and “Quiet Quitting” has been viewed as a sign that many workers have taken the time to reassess their values. Consequently, many identified an imbalance at their current workplace and moved to rectify the discrepancies.

Career tips:

  • Some job search sites have incorporated employees’ ratings of their employer’s work-life balance policies. These ratings can help you choose an employer whose values overlap with yours. Reviewing your former work experience, you should consider what specifically troubled you and what you appreciated. Were you bothered by excessive overtime hours? Weekend work? Lack of predictable working hours? Was there sufficient flexibility to accommodate family events and medical crises? While all these needs can be raised in negotiating future employment, it’s best to prioritize the particular aspect that would enhance your well-being.
  • Your life assessment concerns need to be current. Family and life needs change over time. When you began your current job, you may have been stressed by the need to negotiate picking up the kids from preschool, but now that the kids are older, other life roles may have replaced these. For instance, do you need the flexibility to care for your aging parents or to clear your schedule to allow one evening a week for your racquetball league?
  • Try this: One might think that today’s hybrid work settings are a boon to quality family life. As boundaries blur, however, more time at home does not guarantee more quality family time. One antidote is to anchor into your routine a regular family fun activity, daily or weekly, that becomes an integral component of your schedule and is anticipated by all. Endless opportunities are out there: joint meals at home or away, gym or backyard workouts, neighborhood hikes, board games, and the like.

[1] Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2003). Good business: Leadership. Flow and the making of meaning. Viking.

[2] Greenhaus, J. H., & Beutell, N. J. (1985). Sources of conflict between work and family roles. Academy of Management Review. 10, 76–88.

[3] Grady, C. (2021). The uneasy intimacy of work in a pandemic year. How capitalism and the pandemic destroyed our work-life balance. Vox.com.

[4] Alexander, A., De Smet, A., Langstaff, M., & Ravid, D. (2021). What employees are saying about the future of remote work McKinsey & Company. https://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/organization/our-insights/what-employees-are-saying-about-the-future-of-remote-work?cid=eml-web

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