The Millennial Mitzvah

At the heart of Jewish life is the strange concept of “mitzvah.” It’s a category that compiles what many might view as good deeds, like giving charity (Deuteronomy 15:11), alongside behavioural traits such as acting with love (Leviticus 19:18),and civic norms including a prohibition on withholding wages (Leviticus 19:13). Mitzvahs range from sensible guidance, like building a guard rail around flat roofs (Deuteronomy 22:8), to more esoteric and spiritual activities such as putting a mezuzah on door posts (Deuteronomy 6:9). They range from easy admonitions, like not eating the worms crawling out of your fruit (Leviticus 11:42) to more difficult aspirations, such as keeping your word (Numbers 30:3).

The practice of Judaism manifests by engaging with a system of mitzvahs. But what is it? Traditionalists tend to rely on an outdated literal translation of the word leading them to define a mitzvah as a “commandment.” Though as my beloved mentor Reb Zalman pointed out  half a century ago, the word “commandment” has no power in democratic societies. Command and control is an outdated style of management. We don’t do our best work when being commanded as the drive to action must come from within.

In my new book, Connected Capitalism: How Jewish Wisdom Can Transform Work, I define mitzvah as a moment of doing which creates a space for being while binding us to act as responsible members of a wider cooperative community. A mitzvah is an action we take in order to open up a space where we can create a meaningful moment with other people. My friend Rabbi Tzvi Freeman notes that the word mitzvah is related to the Aramaic word tzavta, meaning to attach or join. Tzavta can mean companionship or personal attachment. In this sense, a mitzvah creates a relationship and essential bond.

Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, founder of Reconstructionist Judaism, explained that a mitzvah obligates us to participate as part of a community. It creates a space for the sacred by binding us to other people, which in turn creates feelings of connection, accountability, and responsibility. A mitzvah helps us access our agency and sense of possibility for the future. Moses Pava, professor of business ethics at Yeshiva University, argues that Jewish business ethics differs from secular approaches in that it acknowledges the centrality of the community and holds out the promise that anyone can transform themselves. That is the spiritual work of a mitzvah.

The reason why I am taking the reader on a journey through mitzvah’s history is to share the sense of wonder I feel in the face of the amazing mitzvahs being performed by millennials who are transforming the future of working life in a historically unprecedented manner. Millennial workers are demanding, and receiving a more human-centric future, with space for trust and vulnerability. 

The feeling of being managed is antithetical to productive work. There is a generational shift causing the old style of management to be phased out fairly quickly. “The Deloitte Global Millennial Survey 2019” uncovered that millennials are unhappy with traditional social institutions, mass media, slow social progress, their work, government, business leaders, and social media. Millennials are also reluctant to trust current leaders, particularly those who run companies that are not aligned with their values or political views. They do not view corporations as institutions pulling the levers of power with a careful consideration of the consequences for societal welfare. In fact, only slightly more than half of millennials (55 per cent) reported believing in even the possibility of business having a positive impact in our contemporary capitalist society. And this number is six percentage points lower than ­findings from a year earlier, indicating the possibility of a continuing downward trend of cynicism and disconnect.

At the core of spiritual work in the Jewish tradition is an argument that demands a rethinking of exploitive business practices at the expense of meaningful social and personal development. Corporations coming out of the pandemic are being called on to commit to a broader social purpose or face disconnected and unmotivated workers unlikely to stay in their jobs. Despite the fact that many of us ­have carried an internalized sense of how deeply essential our spiritual faculties are to worldly sense-making, few of us had or have the courage to demand the opportunity for developing these faculties in the context of our work lives. This is changing.

Millennials are the largest generational segment currently in the workforce. They are expected to make up a full 75 per cent of workers before the end of the decade. Their entry into working life coincided with the recession and years of slow growth that followed, as a consequence, millennials experienced less economic growth in their first decade of work than any other generation of North American post-industrial workers. They have lower incomes and fewer assets than previous generations at comparable ages, as well as higher levels of debt. And the pandemic exacerbated the financial hurt.

But amidst all of these negatives, my research has found that as a generational cohort, millennials have no interest in being managed, even benevolently. They want to be partners in co-creation, and feel empowered to bring their whole selves to work. In making these demands, they are performing a mitzvah of the highest order. Some executives view this attitude negatively, as rooted in an unjustifiable sense of entitlement. But to me, these asks are reminiscent of the chutzpah exhibited by our biblical forbearers who argued with God demanding a better world. It’s the chutzpah of the prophets, described by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel as iconoclasts unwilling to tolerate those expecting anything less than the very best of our being.  

Millennials see how the corporate world is broken. Those who embrace the mitzvah mindset commit themselves to try and make the world function a little bit better. The work is often repetitive and uncertain, but it is also a source of meaning, connection, and wonder. We are in this together, and for the long haul. So I stand in gratitude for those stepping up to this millennial mitzvah, working to reform a broken system from within. Let us older folks know how we can help as you lead the way to a co-creative work future.

Header image design by Orly Zebak. 

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