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Shavua Tov: The Virtue of Uselessness

The most common device people use to get to know each other is to ask the ubiquitous question: “What do you do?” As in, for a living. Not “what do you do for fun,” or “what do you do to stave off feelings of despair,” but what you do for a paycheck. Those who are between jobs, or who have decided to stay home to raise children and run a household, often hem and haw in embarrassment. They perceive they are about to be judged for not being sufficiently productive.

When one does in fact work in some kind of job or career, they usually respond with a sentence beginning with “I am.” As if the sum total of one’s identity is comprised of what one does for money. They usually follow with a job title and then the company or type of industry in which they work. Those who do not have a socially acceptable answer are left to feel they are unproductive and therefore useless. Conversely, workaholics who take their work home and answer their cell phones while lounging at the beach are lauded as “go-getters” and “Charlie Hustle.” Productivity is king.

The younger generation among us is pushing back in a movement known as “quiet quitting.” Rather than run themselves ragged for no extra pay, they are resolving to do what is asked of them in their jobs and nothing more – eschewing overtime and refusing to take their work home with them. While I do not necessarily endorse this movement, I do have another alternative: Make an appointment with uselessness.

“Six days shall you work at your occupations, but the seventh day is a ‘shabbat’ unto the Creator. You shall do no manner of work,” Exodus tells us. That is, one day per week, be like God was after the sixth day of creation: be useless. Don’t trim the hedges, don’t wash the dishes, and don’t take any work-related calls. Don’t make anything. Don’t destroy anything. Don’t do. Just be. For the Sabbath is holy, and it is holy to be useless.

The Chanukah candles convey the same message. After we light them, it is a custom to say the following:

“These lights we kindle recall the wondrous triumphs and miraculous victories wrought through Your holy Kohanim for our ancestors from ancient days until our time. These lights are Kodesh (sacred), through all the eight days of Chanukah. We may not make use of their light, but are only to look upon them and thus be reminded to thank and praise You for the wondrous miracle of our deliverance.” adapted from Siddur Sim Shalom for Shabbat and Festivals (Rabbinical Assembly/USCJ)

The Shabbat candles do have a use, which is why we light them before we say the blessing. They are needed to light up the room, and we may read by their light. However, the only purpose of the Chanukah candles is Pirsuma Nisa, or publicizing the miracle. For practical purposes, they are useless. In this context as well, it is holy to be useless.

Uselessness can be quite useful. The Taoist thinker Zhuangzi noted that a certain tree was too twisted to be cut down and was therefore quite useless, but its uselessness proved quite useful to the tree itself. With us carbon-based life forms as well, we could see ourselves as the giving tree, making ourselves happy lopping off branch after branch until we languish as a mere stump. Or we could see ourselves as a budding sequoia, growing tall and wide until we can see for miles beyond the horizon, providing inspiration, shade and oxygen for far more than we could have by being used for somebody’s rocking chair. Shabbat might be useless from a utilitarian standpoint, but it’s quite useful to those who observe it. So, too, the Chanukah candles are of no practical use to us, for they serve an entirely spiritual purpose – to rediscover that miracles happen every day, as they have since time immemorial. Just as children grow while sleeping, we grow spiritually through our occasional appointments with uselessness.

Over a century ago, Ralph Barton Perry extolled this very virtue as follows:

I want therefore to make out as strong a case as I can for what may in a sense be called the useless virtues, for those qualities of mind and will which cannot be measured by the standard of efficiency, but whose very value is inseparable from the fact that they do not immediately contribute to practical success. –The Atlantic, September 1914

Chag Urim Sameach and Shavua Tov.


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